Dispatches

Serve the People, Discipline the Party

Jonathan Chatwin visits a new museum dedicated to Party Discipline in Wuhan

“Do you know where Mao’s old house is?” the hotel receptionist asked his colleague. The screen of my phone was zoomed in on a small grey square, labelled ‘Comrade Mao Zedong’s Former Residence’. Neither of them had heard of it, so they called their manager over, and the four of us stood in the echoey, white-tiled reception of my cheap Wuhan hotel, reorienting my phone to try and figure out where I was going. Eventually, one of them spotted a nearby subway station they knew and told me the quickest way across town. “He came here in 1966,” the manager told me. “Did you know he swam in the Yangtze?”

A few hundred yards down the embankment from my hotel, I had already seen the enormous metal numerals which commemorate the date of the swim the hotel manager was referring to: 66.7.16. The hot morning of July 16 1966 was one of eighteen occasions when the Great Helmsman swam in China’s great river at Wuhan, and indisputably the most well-known. A showy demonstration of physical vigour, it prefigured his return to Beijing, where the next month he threw himself into promoting the Cultural Revolution.

 

Dispatches

Taiwanese Theatre During Coronavirus

A theatre troupe rebuilds after a fire and the pandemic – James Chater

In August last year, when Liu Ruo-yu, the artistic director of U-Theatre (優人神鼓), saw the charred remains of the group’s rehearsal space and spiritual home on Taipei’s Laoquanshan, her first thought was not to what might have been incinerated, but a question: “Heaven, what is it you want to tell me?”


The devastating fire destroyed much of the group’s compound, and with it numerous drums, props and other musical instruments essential to their performances. It was the beginning of what, on the surface, should have been the most challenging year in the group’s history; just six months after the blaze, the worsening pandemic forced Liu into canceling all of their upcoming shows.

However, even as Liu posed the question to the heavens on the day of the fire, indistinctly, she already knew the answer: “We had to stop…we had to come home.”

Dispatches

Tracing the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway

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).

Dispatches

A Steam Train to 1950s China

Ben Kletzer rides China’s last steam train, built during the Great Leap Forward

Far away from the dense urban centers of coastal China, daily life in Bajiaogou, a rural township in Sichuan province, was marked by the four-times daily arrival of one of the last surviving steam trains in the world. The little railway was the lifeline of this picturesque mountain village; transporting everything for the villagers, passengers and mail, livestock and building materials.

I first visited Bajiaogou in 2011 to see this steam train, known as the Bashi Railway for its two terminals, Bajiaogou and Shixi. Many foreign train enthusiasts have ridden or photographed the Bashi steam train. Their online reports describe an isolated, scenic railway. I set off from Chengdu, taking an aging bus south to the city of Qianwei, where I took a short ferry across the Minjiang river to Shixi, the other terminus of the railway. After purchasing a ticket for 1.5 yuan, I boarded the ramshackle coaches, squeezing onto a crowded wooden bench seat.

Dispatches

How the Chinese Diaspora is Changing Laos

Juliet Lu and Wanjing Chen explore the impacts of the Belt and Road in Laos

There is something about China – perhaps it’s size, perhaps it’s foreignness to Western audiences, or perhaps the simple fact that it is a new global economic power – that lends to vast oversimplifications and doomsday portrayals of the country’s global integration. China’s increasing presence overseas is one of the topics on which this oversimplification gets the most play. Summary statistics and breathless reports give the sense that Chinese firms parachute into countries, checks in hand, and unilaterally determine what to build, grow, and extract. But in order to understand how China’s global integration is unfolding on the ground, we need to ask a few questions. How does this emerging wave of investment actually take root on the ground? Through what channels does Chinese money flow, and through whose hands?