This module examines how artists represented trains in print media, primarily in the pages of Dianshizhai huabao—a late Qing Dynasty pictorial printed in Shanghai between 1884 and 1898—and how those representations can help us understand popular approaches to science, technology and development in late Qing China. Occupied by a number of European powers, Shanghai in the late 19th century was a nexus of global exchange of commodities, capital and culture.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, images of trains appearing in the pictorial depicted this new marvel of transportation as a new way of moving, a symbol of the potential dangers of western science and empire, and a stark contrast to a landscape previously unmarred by steam technology. Depictions of trains in the pictorial also situate them within the knowledge industry: a new mode of seeing and understanding the world, as well as being a new medium through which the world was put on display and rendered understandable.
The images of trains appearing in Dianshizhai huabao speak more to a changing social landscape than they do to a landscape physically changed by railroads. Envisioned through GIS mapping tools, the railway lines in this module would appear as little more than points on a map from any scale that renders their geographic context recognizable. Were they to be spatially represented with the fourth dimension of time factored in, one of the railway lines would actually disappear before its representation in print. Naturally, images and news of trains circulated globally and crossed cultures much more readily than actual trains. What these trains do represent is a shift in the imagination of the Sinosphere. China's imagined role as presider over a pax Sinica in which surrounding polities recognized the superiority of a Confucian world order through offerings of tribute and the adoption of the sinitic script as their language of statecraft. The deterioration of the Sinosphere is presented in part as a domestic shift characterized by the emergence of hybrid spatial hierarchies. The rectilinear form of the train and its billowing plumes of smoke stand in stark contrast to the “traditionally” rendered landscape that comprises their setting.
This module can be navigated by clicking on the links at the bottom of each page, or by following the links in the “contents” section at the end of an examination of a given image. Because of the difficulty of finding a full version of Qing-era reprints that include legible text (and were available in 2020), I have had to make use of multiple reprint editions. Metadata for all images from Dianshizhai include the universal reference number appearing in Ye Hanming et. al. 2014. These are cited in metadata as “Tongjian# xxxx.”
For more, see this analysis of Dianshizhai at the MIT Visualizing Cultures website from Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Rebecca Nedostup.
Click here for a list of references for this module, which is also available from the module's Conclusion page.