Essays

Father of the Chinese Railway8 min read

Remembering Zhan Tianyou, China’s pioneer railway engineer – Thomas Bird

This February, the state-owned China Railway Corporation inaugurated the Year of the Pig by announcing railway spending in the region of 800 billion yuan in 2019. While the UK and USA watch their antiquated railway lines crumble, the Communist Party of China views railway development as a core project both at home – sewing the vast territory of the People’s Republic together – and abroad, providing transport infrastructure in places as diverse as Laos and Kenya as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Critics see China’s plans as semi-colonial, with tracks in Tibet and Xinjiang part of a broader placation program, while one-sided contracts in the BRI endebt poorer countries to China. China’s grand railway schemes also trouble economists, who see railways being built simply to stimulate economic growth while China Railway Corporation has, itself, a multi-billion yuan debt.

Whichever platform you stand on, it’s hard not to be impressed by China’s ambitions for the Iron Rooster. If the automobile defined the gas-guzzling American century, a Beijing-backed railway renaissance is looking to define the Asian century.

One of the few steam engines still in use in China today, at Wuzhou Colliery in northeast China (Thomas Bird)

But look back down the tracks a century or so ago, and the Chinese railroad dragon was neither huffing nor puffing. As Hong Kong-based railway historian Peter Crush writes in Imperial Railways of North China, “In 1880, China still had no railways and was some 40 years behind Europe, America and many other small countries, which collectively had thousands of kilometres of railway lines.”

For over a century the Qing court resisted the lure of Western technology, a sentiment best expressed by the Emperor Qianlong’s 1793 letter to King George: “As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

This hubris led to costly military defeats, notably at the hands of the British during the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), which impelled the opening up of several coastal treaty ports, including Hong Kong. In 1876 a group of British businessmen laid a narrow-gauge railway from the American concession in Shanghai to Wusong (modern-day Baoshan district in Shanghai’s northern suburbs).

This was arguably China’s first rail line, but Qing officials tore it up because it was built without permission, and due to local resistance – one common belief was that trains would agitate the ancestral graves that littered the countryside. In her biography of the Empress Dowager Cixi, Jung Chang captures the prevailing zeitgeist:

The most conspicuous project that Cixi did not launch in 1875, or in subsequent years, was the railway… The numerous ancestral tombs dotted across the country, all lovingly built by their families in accordance with feng-shui, could not be moved. Nor could they be left where they were, if they were near a rail line: people believed that the dead souls would be disturbed by the roaring trains.

As domestic woes and external pressures sent the Qing Dynasty into a downward spiral, reformers began to emerge in various guises to battle conservative forces contriving to keep China locked up in antiquity. One such would-be-reformer was Yung Wing (容閎, also known Rong Hong), a Cantonese man who’d been taken to the US by missionaries as a boy, where in 1854 he graduated from Yale College, the first Chinese national to ever graduate from an American university.

One common belief was that trains would agitate the ancestral graves that littered the countryside”

On his return to China later that year, turmoil had permeated All Under Heaven. The Taiping Rebellion had divided the nation in bloody civil conflict. Aided by growing concerns among the Confucian elite for the need to “self-strengthen” (ziqiang), Yung Wing was permitted to recruit 120 young boys to be educated in New England – 70% of them from Canton, now called Guangzhou, and another third from Xiangshan, a village that is now part of the greater Guangzhou metropolis.

In America, these boys would be exposed to every kind of modern marvel, from steam ships to streetcars. But as Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller put it in their book Fortunate Sons, “While the boys’ chaperones hoped to show them the city, all the boys wanted to do was look at the trains, which they called ‘fire-car roads.’”

Among their number was a 12-year-old boy called Jeme Tien-Yow (Zhan Tianyou 詹天佑). The development of China’s railroad would have a lasting effect on Zhan, who was perhaps the most brilliant student on the mission. Zhan was accepted into Yale aged 17 after only five years of schooling in Connecticut. He would go onto win awards in mathematics and command awe from his peers, who called him “Jimmy.”

Yet rising anti-Chinese sentiment in the US gradually soured Sino-American relations. Back in Beijing, the pendulum was swinging towards conservative factions, and in 1881 the Guangxu Emperor ordered the boys home early. Only two of them had graduated, including Zhan. Initially distrusted upon his return as “un-Chinese” – due to his Western dress, English fluency and Occidental manners – Zhan was stationed in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, to work for China’s new navy. Only in 1888 did he finally get to realize his dream of becoming a railway engineer.

China was keen to establish technological independence by laying its own railway tracks”

The Jingzhang line in its heyday (above) and today (Wang Wei)

Li Hongzhang, governor general of Zhili, now called Hebei Province, had hired a British engineer, Claude W. Kinder, to build a railway from Tianjin to the coal mines of Tangshan – China’s first officially sanctioned railway. Through connections with his old schoolmates, Zhan managed to get a job working for Kinder as an intern engineer. He was a quick study and was promoted, eventually spending 12 years on various sections of what would become the Peking-Mukden Line, linking Beijing (then called Peking) with the old Manchu capital of Mukden (now called Shenyang) in present-day Liaoning Province.

At the turn of the 20th century, various foreign powers were busy building railways in their respective spheres of interest. The French were constructing the Yunnan-Haiphong Line; the British were building the Kowloon-Canton Line; and the Russians and the Japanese laid railways across Manchuria as they vied for supremacy in Northeast Asia.

China was keen to establish technological independence by laying its own tracks. In 1904 a railway connecting Beijing with the popular Manchu hunting grounds in Kalgan (present-day Zhangjiakou) was commissioned. Zhan Tianyou was named chief engineer on the project. Despite difficult topography, Zhan constructed the railway from 1905 to 1909 using innovative engineering techniques such as the “switchback,” by which a railway is reversed to zigzag up steep gradients. These tracks, called the Jingzhang Line (京張鐵路), were still in use until 2018, a testament to the quality of Zhan’s work. Today, the line will soon be replaced with a high-speed railway that will connect Beijing with Zhangjiakou in 50 minutes, ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.

Zhan would continue to work on various railway projects during the early years of the Republic of China, after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, until his death in Wuhan on April 24, 1919, two days before his 58th birthday. Though Zhan lived and died long before the Communist victory of 1949, he has joined the ranks of Lu Xun, Sun Yat-sen and others who have been posthumously inducted into the Communist pantheon of “patriotic heroes.”

Not everyone agrees with the politicizing of Zhan’s legacy”

This April, several commemorative events were held nationwide marking 100 years since Zhan’s passing, from Guangzhou (where his ancestral home has been turned into a museum) to Qinglongqiao, a beautifully preserved Qing-era station near the Badaling section of the Great Wall (where Zhan is now buried). At the Qinglongqiao event, representatives of several organizations – including the China Railway Museum, Beijing Jiaotong University and various government departments – placed flowers before a bronze statue of Zhan overlooking the station. (The original statue had been near the Xizhimen subway station in Beijing, but was damaged by Red Guards.)

Chen Jiandong, vice chairman and secretary general of the Zhan Tianyou Science and Technology Development Foundation, said, “To commemorate Zhan Tianyou, we must learn the great spirit of his love of the motherland, his hard work and innovation.” Also speaking of Zhan as if he were a Lei Feng-esque people’s hero, Yu Zexi, general manager of Beijing-Zhangcheng Intercity Railway Co., Ltd., added, “We must not only remember the pioneers of the railway, but also inherit Zhan Tianyou’s spirit and courage, his patriotism and dedication.”

Not everyone agrees with the politicizing of Zhan’s legacy. Wang Wei, 28, is the author of three illustrated railway heritage books, his Chinese-language trilogy My Jingzhang Railway. He told me:

I think Zhan loved his country and wanted to protect the integrity of the railways, but after 1949 the logic is that the nation and the Party are one, if you loved one you’d duly love the other. His legacy has been hijacked without mention of his statue being smashed during the Cultural Revolution or the mess they’ve made of various sections of the Jingzhang Railway, which should be conserved as a heritage line. For me, Zhan was an individual, somebody who could think scientifically and overcome immense hurdles. He was, therefore, an outsider. ∎

Header: The Jingzhang railway line, then (right) and now (left). Images courtesy of the author and Wang Wei.

Thomas Bird

Thomas Bird is a Beijing-based British writer concerned with travel, culture and ecology in the Asia Pacific region. He holds a Master’s Degree in Chinese Studies from the University of London. Thomas has contributed to several guidebooks including The Rough Guide to China, and his writing has been published in SCMP, Geographical Magazine and the Guardian among others. He likes train travel, craft beer and the teachings of Zhuangzi.