Looking back down the tracks at French Indochina’s legacy in southeast Yunnan – Thomas Bird
The Map of the Current Situation dating back to 1898 hangs in the halls of Yunnan Railway Museum. It depicts the Qing Empire encroached upon by a bulldog with a lion’s body, an eagle swooping across from The Philippines, a grizzly bear stopping through Manchuria and a frog sliming its way up from Southeast Asia. These invasive species represent Britain, the USA, Russia and France respectively, while Japan looks on from the side lines, a jealous rising sun holding a leash around Taiwan’s neck.
With a population numbed by opium and ruled by aloof Manchu royals hauled up in their Beijing citadel, turn-of-the-century China made easy-pickings for hungry colonial powers who began to slice old Cathay up like a birthday cake.
Most of the competing powers constructed railways, which served to open up the economy in a realm with few good roads. But beyond its practical functions, the railway also acted as a territorial marker, an agent of empire, provoking historians to coin the term “railway imperialism”. Russian tracks laid a cross through Manchuria, expressing the Tsar’s clandestine plans to dominate in the Northeast. Germany built a large section of the north-to-south Jinpu Railway through its sphere of interest in Shandong with Great Britain building the rest. In fact, Britain was perhaps busiest of all, constructing the KCR line in cooperation with Chinese engineers through the Pearl River Delta as well as the Imperial Chinese Railway from Beijing to Mukden (Shenyang).