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

The Wusong Railway in Western Media

What was newsworthy in China was newsworthy in the Anglophone world as well, and these news items shared a number of similarities in their visual repertoire. They drew upon globally circulating, mass produced images of railroads, and upon an unconscious aesthetics of the colonial gaze. Reports on the construction of the Wusong Railway also appeared in Western media, like the Illustrated London News:

Note the similarities between this image and images of the Wusong and Tianjin Railways or a man crushed to death by the Tianjin Railway in their early stages. The western artist has chosen a similar representational mode: Chinese and foreign individuals are visually distinct in both their spatial positioning and in their attire. As opposed to the images in Dianshizhai huabao, the Illustrated London News piece also establishes a class difference by depicting those in the foremost passenger car as westerners as well. The crowd gathered to see the train helps guide the eye to the focal point of the image: the locomotive and its conductors, while establishing the event itself as a public spectacle. The westerners in the scene appear disinterested in the train, especially the man standing immediately to the right of the locomotive, who appears to have his gaze trained on the point that would be occupied by the artist. They are generally above the headline of the Chinese onlookers, some of whom are seated, both giving a clear view of their western counterparts and associating their lower plane with a closeness to the earth.

The drawing is likewise strikingly similar to this photograph, which is laid out in almost exactly the same way, other than the fact that the train occupies a more dominant position in the drawing. From left to right, we see in both images a train shed, train and western passengers and workers, Chinese onlookers, a shallow ditch, and a Chinese-style building. Whereas the plume of smoke coming from the locomotive in the drawing produces a sense of ambling motion, some individuals and elements of the photograph are blurred as a result of having moved during the exposure. Whereas the Chinese onlookers are fixated on the train in the drawing, the majority of those present in the photograph are facing the camera in observance of the commemorative moment.

The accompanying text notes that the construction and opening of the railway would be “the commencement of a new era in the history of Chinese civilization.”

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