Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Ambivalent Discourse - a Train Catches Fire 火車被毀

The Chinese word for train, huoche 火車 (lit. "fire cart"), reflects a misunderstanding regarding the process by which steam engines generated motive force. Initially, observers thought the motive power for steam engines came directly from the fires burned aboard, rather than the production of steam under pressure that drove the pistons. The billowing smoke and flames commingle, erases the difference between the desired smoke and steam of the locomotive, and the catastrophic smoke of the cargo on fire. One locus for expressing fears about the adoption of rail technology focused on this somewhat misleading name, and popular media often reported on train fires. The following image of a fire on the Tianjin railway circa 1886(?) appeared in the pages of Dianshizhai huabao.

The text reads:

For travel on water, there is the fire-wheel boat (huolun zhou), and for travel on land there is the fire-wheel cart (huolun che). They all move with the speed of lightning and wind, covering a thousand li in the blink of an eye; their utility is great indeed. Recently, a number of steamers have been lost to fire. Many base their fear of travelling aboard them on this, and only see the train as useful. While there are accidents, there has not yet been a great disaster, and owing to this, those who ride the train are many.

On the 16th day of the second month, a train left for Tanggu, near Tianjin. It had not gotten far when one of the freight cars suddenly caught fire. Upon inspection, it was found that the fire had started when sparks from the smokestack fell upon a bundle of cotton the train was carrying. On that day, it was sunny and the wind was strong, and the flames grew fierce. Although they had hoses, there was nowhere to draw water from. The spirit of the flames came and went as he pleased, the train was destroyed, but people were unharmed. This was the first such incident, thus we have recorded it for posterity.

Chinese Text:

水行有火輪舟 , 陸行有火輪 車 , 皆電疾風 馳 , 瞬息千里 , 其利便可謂 甚矣 。 自近年 輪船屢歿失火 , 人幾視為畏途所恃 , 攸往咸宜者 , 惟火 輪車耳 。 雖間有失事 , 尚未開禍 兆焚 ,如是 以乘之者尤 眾 。 乃 二月十六 日 ,天津有一火車 , 自塘沽開行展輪未 久 , 貨車上忽然火起 , 查知起火之 由 , 系因煙筒迸出火 星落在車上所載之棉花包 內 、 致有此禍 。 而是 日風力又 大 , 遂致轟轟烈烈 ,焰燭重霄 。 雖有水龍 ,無從取水. 一 任回祿君乘興而來 , 盡興而返 , 車輛均被燒毀 , 人物亦 互有損傷 ,此為火車開行以來僅見之事也 。 故志之 。

While it was preceded by a demonstration railway in Beijing, and the Wusong railroad which was soon demolished and sent to Taiwan, Tianjin's Tangxu line was the first Chinese-built railway in the country. It originally connected Tangshan to the Kaiping Coal Mine. This and other depictions of the train follow a familiar pattern - the text that accompanies the image counsels are rational approach, underplaying or contradicting the image, which punches up the horror of the fire.


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