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Discussion of How News From Foreign Sources Circulated in Late Qing
The New Era
Chinese science fiction critic and author Jia Liyuan (Feidao) has demonstrated how turn of the twentieth century Chinese science fiction novels like The New Era (Xin jiyuan 新纪元, 1908) drew on a process of circulation of real news for the arsenal of fantastic armaments that serve China in an imagined war with European powers. Real news on the discovery of elements like radium was translated into Chinese and repeated (often verbatim) in various popular science venues, before being adopted as fabao (法寶) or “magical weapons.” Author Bihe Guanzhuren's liberal recycling of Chinese-language science news regarding topics such as electricity and radium was married to the semantics and syntax of martial arts fiction in order to narrate a reversal of early twentieth century European military domination of Asia. Depictions of the Mersey Tunnel seem to follow this same pattern.
The pages of Dianshizhai huabao evince a similar process, by which news from foreign sources was translated into Chinese, repeated in various news outlets, and then imagined vividly and quite creatively in lithographic form. This process complicates the notion that cities like Shanghai were geographically and temporally distant from the center of scientific discourse. Fantastic news of trains and world expositions produced in Shanghai, like the image of the Trottoir Roulant, is strikingly similar to contemporaneous reportage on the same events in the European “metropole,” both of which were engaged in imaginations of future events.
Likewise, as we have seen in the case of the Wusong railroad, news appearing in Dianshizhai could be the result of “borrowing” from European sources, but it could also be a case of an event being seen as equally newsworthy in both contexts. Take another look at this depiction of the Tianjin and Wusong railroads:
Compare it to the image below, which was reprinted in Huatu xinbao in 1881.
How many similarities can you spot between the Dianshizhai image, and this image printed in China (from an unknown western source)? The image appears to be a reprint of an engraving by Alonzo Hartwell (1805-1873), a prolific Bostonian engraver and author of children's parables active in the 1830s and 1840s. (My thanks to Paul Fyfe for helping me to identify the engraver.)
Globally circulated, repurposed, rebranded, recycled, re-imagined in their localization to new cultural contexts, and drawing from a well of human archetypes, images can rarely be traced to a single locus classicus. Nevertheless, Wu Youru's rendering of a locomotive to accompany the description of the Wusong and Tianjin Railways above clearly has more in common with Alonzo Hartwell's image of an American railroad than it does with locally re-printed images of the Pioneer and Celestial Empire, locomotives produced by Ransomes and Rapier in coordination with the Jardine Matheson firm's efforts to establish railways in China.
In 1876, London-based journal Engineering featured and article on the locomotive (this volume also featured pieces on other railroads throughout the world). The second image of the locomotive appeared in a short feature on the Wusong Railway that used a reprinted image of the locomotive in the pages of John Fryer's Gezhi huibian in 1877. The feature states that “in Shanghai, there are no Chinese people who haven't seen this train, but because railroads haven't reached other places, we have reprinted it here for those far away. The firm will provide a booklet with annotated images, costs that is quite detailed. Those interested in establishing a railroad can write a letter to the firm and be sent the booklet completely free of charge.”
Images circulate globally, but they do not trace a linear path in space, in time, or in their relationship to an ontological truth. To wit, images of railroads circulated more readily than actual railroads, but did not correlate to a linear process of image/technology transfer.