This page was created by Nathaniel Isaacson.  The last update was by Kate McDonald.

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

Trains in the Popular Science Press

The image above appeared in 1877 in an article entitled, “Huoche yu tielu lüelun” (A brief analysis of trains and railroads) in Gezhi huibian 格致彙編 (The Chinese scientific magazine, later titled The Chinese Scientific and Industrial Magazine in English), a periodical produced under the direction of missionary translator and proponent of modernization, John Fryer. The article was written with an educated but non-specialist audience in mind, detailing some of the technical complexities of railroads, locomotives, and train cars. In her summation of late Qing technical knowledge of railroads, Elizabeth Koll writes, “Despite the amount of railroad information in print, railroad knowledge in late Qing China was alarmingly superficial…In raw numbers, for many years the arsenal's influence on creating a substantial class of science and engineering graduates was minimal. Although by the 1890s twenty-nine engineering students had graduated from the shipyard's comprehensive training program, with five graduates working in railroad construction, the number was insufficient to satisfy the future demands of the emerging railroad sector” (Koll, 25-27).

W.A.P. Martin's (1827-1916) Gewu rumen 格物入門 (Introduction to investigatory knowledge, 1868) likewise introduced general science topics at a popular level, though it contained fewer illustrations than Fryer's Gezhi huibian. Both publications, produced under the supervision of Anglophone missionaries, were written in accessible classical Chinese. They engaged in the “translingual practice” of introducing western scientific concepts and vocabulary and often explicated them in pictorial form, serving as an early bridge for this field of knowledge.

Whereas Fryer and Martin's work were important nodes in the circulation of terms that allowed for the translation of the western scientific lexicon into Chinese, textual commentary appearing in work produced by Dianshizhai studios often featured more dense and allusive prose, availing itself of classical texts like the Yijing 易經 (Book of changes) to describe and comment upon the new technologies depicted. Like many other texts of Confucian antiquity, the Yijing is more properly a collection of works whose contemporary unity as a single “book” is the product of Han Dynasty compilation and exegesis. Similar to Daoist cosmology, the texts imagines the “cosmos is an organismic process without beginning or end.” The 64 hexagrams and their accompanying commentary purportedly explicate the correlative relationship between the cosmos and nature, and how they are to be interpreted. Framing scientific and technological breakthroughs in the language of the Yijing and the Daoist classics suggest that scientific knowledge is at best one field of human perception in an ineffable and constantly changing universe. This rhetorical move subsumes western science to a broader Chinese epistemology.

Gezhi huibian was arguably far less influential than Dianshizhai huabao, and this can be seen in part in its comparative lack of commercial success. In the first two years of publication (1876-77), Gezhui huibian featured 12 monthly issues per year, but it then ceased publication for the next two years. Again in 1880 and 1881, Fryer and company managed to produce two full 12 issue runs of the journal, but it then ceased publication for another eight years. In the final three years of publication, from 1890 to 1892, the journal was on a quarterly publication schedule, only releasing four issues. Dianshizhai huabao, on the other hand, while published continuously, was also available in reprinted, collected form almost immediately and images from the pictorial were picked up by other periodicals well into the 1930s.

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