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  • Railroads and the Transformation of China by Elisabeth Köll
  • Rudi Volti (bio)
Elisabeth Köll. Railroads and the Transformation of China. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2019. xi, 396 pp. Hardcover $39.95, ISBN 978-0-674-36817-0.

Today's railroads are mature, effective technological assemblages. Their fans can be fervent, but their numbers are small. More recent manifestations of technological advance like smart phones and electronic games engender more interest and passion. Such was not the case, however, in earlier times when railroads were the embodiment of all that was modern and progressive. Nowhere has this been more evident than in China from the late nineteenth century to the present.

In Railroads and the Transformation of China, Elisabeth Köll ably narrates and analyzes the economic, political, administrative, and cultural history of China's railroads. The chapters follow the chronological development of railroads in China, beginning with the early years, which were hardly dynamic. While railroad construction surged in many parts of the world during the nineteenth century, China was a laggard, having only 195 miles of trackage prior to 1895 (p. 19). In accordance with China's status as a "semi colony," most of the capital and technology came from other parts of the world, primarily England, Germany, France, and Belgium. Much later, in the 1930s this pattern was repeated in the construction of the South Manchurian railroad, a Japanese project that the author intentionally bypasses.

Belying the stereotype of late imperial China's hostility to modern technology, the Qing government eagerly sought railroad development but was hamstrung by severe deficiencies in the number and capabilities of technically trained personnel, a problem that was not rectified until engineering institutes were established toward the end of the second decade of the twentieth century. Nor was indigenous capital sufficient. Most of the financing came from the sale of bonds to foreigners, a pattern that continued for much of China's pre-1949 history. Government funding for railroad construction were chronically inadequate, and rather than subsidizing railroad development, the state in fact was financially supported by the railroads (p. 186).

Beset by a variety of foreign and domestic challenges, the Qing dynasty was in deep trouble by the beginning of the twentieth century, and not much was needed to topple it. As things turned out, the precipitating event that led to the collapse of the dynasty was the violent suppression of protests that assailed attempts to secure foreign loans through the nationalization of the country's railway lines. These events, along the larger topic of what the author describes as the "slow and complicated process" of railway nationalization, receive limited coverage here.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century China's railroads could not accurately be described as constituting a system. The number and length of [End Page 310] railroad lines increased during the first three decades of the twentieth century, but a lack of inter-line connections prevented individual railroads from being joined together into a system. Making matters worse were inter-provincial tolls, transport taxes, and a variety of local currencies. Consequently, each railroad primarily served a market confined to its own line. Beyond economics, this insularity prevented China's railways from serving as a force for national integration.

There was, however, one cultural shift stimulated by railroad travel: a more acute sense of time. Railroad stations often had clocks as architectural features, and passengers were well-advised to take notice of timetable schedules. This at least was the aspiration; the reality more likely was timetables that failed to give a realistic picture of train schedules. In some cases they were abandoned altogether.

The failure to operate according to schedules does not mean that the railroads had no influence on thought and behavior. To the contrary, China's railroads, in addition to their practical utility, presented an image of modernity characterized by order, expertise, and professionalism. In the concluding words of Chapter Four: "In sum, the power of the railroads as an aspirational symbol of modernization and efficiency was out of proportion to their actual territorial expansion and their significance for rural passengers traveling short distances in Republican China" (p. 161).

In 1937 the...


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