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  • The Chinese Railroad View:Transportation Themes in Popular Print, 1873-1915
  • James A. Flath (bio)

Historians have long been intrigued by the effects that imperialism and industrial technology had on traditional societies such as China. The classical approach to this question, however, has been to judge the "Third World" as technologically incompetent, and dependent on a Eurocentric path of international capitalism.1 Under the influence of postcolonialism, historians have widely addressed these distortions through methodologies such as the "China-centered" approach.2 This latter development has immeasurably improved the writing of Chinese social and cultural history, but it has also produced a tendency to neglect international influences upon China and especially the role of introduced technology in China's historical development. In proposing a renewed emphasis on this problem, however, the critical question emerges—can historically colonial and semicolonial states such as China be viewed as being under the in-fluence of imperialism and international capitalism without reinvoking Eurocentrism?

To suggest that they cannot is to insist that the only way to think about imperialism and international capitalism is through the ideals of rational-humanism that initially produced them. Although it is true that the former could never have existed without the latter, it may also be said that the comprehension of this particular ideological configuration was not a prerequisite for perceiving and participating in the manifestations of imperialism and capitalism. In fact, international capitalism extended its physical productions well beyond the reach of the specific cognitive orders that accompanied their invention and exposed its machinery to the differing cognitive orders on which it intruded. At the same time, the local media carried the [End Page 168] knowledge of industrial technology such as the railway beyond its physical limits, so that the concept of a steam engine could circulate even where the machine did not. The consequence was neither a wholesale embrace nor a rejection of the introduced technology, but rather a new discourse over its meaning that may best be called colonial-modernism. Although there is no doubt that international capitalism was driven by politics and economics, it was (and is) also a thoroughly cultural phenomenon, and it is through cultural interpretation that the products of capitalism may be evaluated as something other than the insidious agents of Western imperialism.

The media form that I will use to illustrate this problem is the Chinese woodblock print form known as nianhua (New Year pictures). This genre had, throughout the nineteenth century, employed the simple but effective technique of polychrome xylography to supply the Chinese market with a wide range of festive, decorative, and votive pictures. Despite the increasing availability of mechanized printing technology, this "low tech" production continued unabated into the twentieth century, when artists began to reproduce the imagery of industrial technology, even while making no appreciable changes to the state of their own technology. These images, emerging in response to a parochial experience of technology but still independent of universal standards of technical realism, demonstrate how conspicuous representations of international capitalism could be locally appropriated, reproduced, and redefined as popular texts. Although rural printing centers did not become a driving force behind social and cultural change in the early twentieth century, their production shows that rural China was not a blank slate to be inscribed by more highly organized cultural agents. To the contrary, rural China used its own cultural resources to produce an interpretation of modernity that hinged on the tensions presented by imperialism and industrial technology.

Print Production in Rural China

The prints that I consider in this essay can be attributed to two North China printing centers. The first, Yangliuqing, controlled the largest share of the North China market in popular print and consistently [End Page 169] produced the finest representations. At the turn of the century Yangliuqing was a town of seven thousand households located in the vicinity of Tianjin, North China's leading treaty port and commercial center. Yangliuqing itself was also the center of a more extensive printing operation that supported a cottage printing industry spread out over local villages such as Chaomidian, where there were thirty printing workshops in 1900 and double that number by 1904 (A 1954, 27).3 Because...


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