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A Short History of China's Railways

5 July 2017

China has an abundance of history, dating back centuries. From age-old inventions, including fireworks, sophisticated methods of navigation at sea, and sublime ancient architecture that has come to be revered throughout the modern world, Chinese innovation is as old as its extremely long past, so a short history here is often hard to come by. However, with rail travel being a relatively modern phenomenon (especially in the broad scope of some 5,000 years of Chinese history), our favourite method of travel is one area which can be described briefly - and here we have our take, in 4 snapshots.

The Qing Dynasty

The earliest railways in China date back only to the Qing Dynasty - the last imperial family to rule China. Although rail had proliferated throughout Asia in the mid-nineteenth century, resistance from the Chinese nobility delayed the adoption of rail in China until decades later, by which point extensive rail networks already existed in Europe, America, India and Japan. The conservative government thought steam engines to be 'clever but useless' contraptions, and harboured concerns that introducing a railroad system would destroy farmland, disrupt the local economy, and even upset the feng shui of the nation. Although the first railway was built in China in 1864 as a demonstration of the technology to the emperor, it was quickly dismantled; the court found the concept disturbing and strange. The second railway in China, built in 1876, suffered the same fate: built by British tradesmen without permission from the Qing court, it was dismantled a little over a year after its inception.

The first railway that was 'built to last', as it were, wasn't constructed until 1881, after extensive persuasion and considerable political manoeuvring. Rumour even has it that in 1888, a courtier attempting to secure the support of the Empress Dowager had a 2km railway built within the grounds of the imperial city, but that, due to her concerns that the noise would be disruptive to the feng shui of the palace, the trains were not steam-operated, but instead pulled by eunuch servants.

The Xinhai Revolution

Railway building went through a boom period in China, particularly in light of the Chinese defeat at the first Sino-Japanese War, though most of the networks were built, owned and operated by foreign corporations and interests looking for a foothold in China from which to exploit local trade. As rail became more common, this engendered a sense of resentment towards foreign intrusion, and a call for domestic ownership of public transport systems. In the early 20th century, local governments began selling shares of the rail system to citizens, but when some provincial networks fell into bankruptcy, the Qing dynasty attempted to nationalise the network, with the intention of selling concessions back to foreign investors. Fury arose among the population, leading to widespread opposition and contributing to the Xinhai Revolution - the overthrowing of the Qing Dynasty.

The Great Leap Forward

The rule of the early Chinese Communist Party, whilst brutal, led to the establishment of the modern-day China we recognise today. As with so many aspects of the Great Leap Forward, the party's plan was to radically and rapidly modernise China's capabilities, with an extensive building project designed to launch the nation forward technologically. Although the railway was quickly extended throughout the country, ever-increasing targets led to lower standards of testing and quality control, ultimately undoing the development efforts: as freight loads increased, engines were damaged and the lines themselves buckled under untested weights. Railway development ironically slowed during the Great Leap Forward, only to be rectified with an overhaul of plans in 1961.

Contemporary Development

Chinese rail continued its development, pushing the boundaries of technology in the search for faster, more efficient ways to transport supplies and passengers across such an immense country. The use of steam engines was gradually rolled back and discontinued by the end of the 90s, and today, it is hard to imagine that rail was ever a controversial subject. China has some of the fastest high-speed networks in the world, with modern trains rivalling Japan's famous shinkansen (more commonly known as bullet trains) for speed and efficiency. Rail development continues in China to this day, with even greater feats of engineering allowing for journeys through mountains and across permafrost en-route to Tibet, and reducing travel time between disparate parts of the country. Travellers today can enjoy a smooth yet speedy journey almost anywhere, and over time, bullet trains are being added to many routes - including the Chengdu-Xi'an line, which is due to feature high-speed options in autumn 2017, reducing travel time between the two destinations from over 10 hours to around 2.

Thus concludes our brief, abridged history of Chinese railway development, from its reluctant inception to the present year.bbinception to the present year.