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

Trains as Threat

The pages Dianshizhai huabao regularly featured reproductions of spectacular space. Readers were invited to gaze vicariously upon all number of spectacles not only by being presented with key figures, environments, and vehicles, that constituted the events, but also through the construction of the event as spectacle. This new, highly public means of seeing the world regularly focused on spectacles, and their public nature. Trains are constructed as spectacle in Dianshizhai in the same way that other events are—through the depiction of a crowd who have gathered to witness the spectacular event, whose gaze is trained on the focal point of the image. Just outside of the focal frame of the wondrous, and often fantastic events depicted in the pictorial, were the crowds of people gathered to take in the sight.

These images bear a striking resemblance to the images of railway accidents appearing in the pages of Harper's Weekly in the mid-19th century. Paul Fyfe categorizes these images as examples of the industrial and catastrophic picturesque, arguing that “the industrial picturesque used aesthetic harmony to redress the social and political disruptions of its depicted subjects” (Fyfe 65). While railroad companies used idealized images of the train and railway to create a sense of order and harmony, and to ameliorate anxieties surrounding political and technological change, Fyfe argues that accidents constituted another important aspect of the composition of the picturesque; one that focused on the aesthetics of destruction and decay and the contrast of the haphazard nature of the accident with the interrupted order of the built environment. Drawing on William Gilpin's aesthetics of demolition in the depiction of classical architecture, Fyfe argues that “the picturesque evokes a satisfying historical awe about degradation over time” (66).

Images of accidents like that in “Train on Fire,” and “Crushed to Death Under a Train,” and the delirious juxtaposition of a train going off its rails to dive into a roiling sea with the textual description of a safe and pleasant taxonomic journey in “Train Plunges Into the Sea” are at once orderly and disorderly. The rectilinear railroads and telegraph lines bring order to the landscape by creating a perspectival point of reference, rendering three dimensional space visible in the landscape. Penetrating from foreground to background, railroad, telegraph and train produce a sense of spatial distance that they then transcend. The freight and passenger cars present a uniform order of parallel lines and mechanically-produced uniformity.

This all stands in stark contrast to the potential chaos that the railway accidents invoke. Notice how all three of the above images are split in half by the railroad. In the case of “Crushed to Death Under a Train,” the image on one side of the tracks is comprised of a fairly traditional landscape-style image of a hill, while the other side features telegraph lines and a western-style brick building. Passengers aboard the train and bystanders on the ground gesticulate broadly at the unfortunate latecomer who is crushed beneath the wheels of the train as it leaves the station. The fire consuming the cargo and the plumes of smoke rising above it in the image of a train on fire contrasts with the order of the freight train while a group of onlookers both western and Chinese shy away from the flames. Arms raised to ward off the heat as they lunge back from the flames, they appear frozen in a Peking opera liangxiang pose.

Reflecting late Qing attitudes toward the Western world in general was a tension between admiration and opprobrium. In images like that of a train catching fire, or the man crushed to death under a train, warnings about the dangers of a new technology are practical, not spiritual or superstitious. In Railroads and the Transformation of China, Elisabeth Koll describes concerns about Feng Shui as the result of stereotypes, arguing that Chinese objections to the presence of railroads were 1) very pragmatic, and 2) no more superstitious or pseudo-scientific than contemporaneous concerns about trains in European culture. Opposition to railroads and broader concern about foreign imperialism became more pronounced after the Sino-Japanese war of 1895, near the end of Dianshizhai huabao's print run. Nevertheless, in the images above, and in images that that of the train “plunging into the sea,” there is often an ironic tension between a visual description of a disaster, and a more measured textual description (or vice-versa). This tension would emerge in the contrast between the visual tone of the lithographs, and the accompanying text, or between the body of the text and the final statements offering moral judgement of events.

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