Railroads and the Transformation of China: A Q&A with Historian Elisabeth Köll

Foreign visitors to China today often remark with fascination and no small amount of wonder on the country’s extensive high-speed rail network. Constructed only in the last decade or so, the lines form a spider’s web across the map of China, stretching from the industrial northeast to Hong Kong in the south and westward to Ürümqi. Taking a ride on one of the sleek white trains whooshing along the tracks is faster, cheaper, and more futuristic than anything offered by the creaky Amtrak system in the United States.

China, however, wasn’t always such a leader on the rails. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revolutionary figures such as Sun Yat-sen dreamed of building an expansive train network that would facilitate national unification and economic modernization. Sun and others found these dreams foiled by financial constraints, a shortage of Chinese engineers, and political fragmentation. The railroads that China did have were built under the oversight of semicolonial foreign powers that mostly controlled territory along the country’s eastern seaboard and in the northeast, limiting the growth of lines. When Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, they inherited a railroad system that had never been robust to begin with, and was even less so after the ravages wrought by more than a decade of war. The railroads were soon restored and expanded under CCP rule, though upheavals during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution strained the system’s capacity.

University of Notre Dame historian Elisabeth Köll traces these stops and starts in her new Harvard University Press book, Railroads and the Transformation of China. Though her chief interest is in the development of railroads as business and administrative institutions, Köll sprinkles the book’s lively prose with many enjoyable anecdotes and interviews with former railroad employees that demonstrate how trains increasingly became an integral part of life in China during the twentieth century.

Chinese railroads faced a multitude of challenges over the years, yet Köll disputes the tendency of previous historians to treat China as “a historical case study of failure in railroad development” during the late Qing and Republican eras. She argues instead that Chinese railroad growth followed a unique trajectory, one shaped by both the institutional practices of the various foreign powers that played a role in early railroad construction and the political considerations of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in later years. Köll’s work also offers the first significant study of railroads post-1949, as she examines the ways in which Mao and the CCP built on existing institutional structures but imbued railways with new symbolic importance.

Railroads and the Transformation of China is an important read for anyone interested in the political, economic, and social history of railroad development. Please see my interview with Köll below to learn more about her work.

Cunningham: Let’s start with the book’s origins. How did you come up with the idea of writing a history of Chinese railroad development, and how did the project evolve over the years?

Köll: I think there were two major reasons that made me want to write this book. First, as a historian of modern China, I am interested in the development of economy and society from the late Qing dynasty to the present. Exploring history as a transformative process, I am eager to find out which concepts and structures change, stay the same, or get adapted over time. As you know, many important studies of railroad development in the U.S., Europe, India, or Japan analyze its impact on the rise of the modern nation-state, industrialization, and capitalism. I always regretted that we didn’t have a comprehensive study for China, which does not have a very long history of railroad construction compared to other countries, but whose railroad history is nevertheless significant. I wanted to fill this gap and trace China’s railroad development from the beginning of serious construction efforts around 1900 through the Republican period, its survival during the Japanese occupation and civil war, its integration into the PRC after 1949, and the changes in the wake of the post-Mao reforms.

My second motivation was probably influenced by my personal experience as a rail traveler in China. When I studied there as an undergraduate in the late 1980s, railroads were the most important tool of passenger transportation. I traveled a lot across the country, getting to meet people from all walks of life on and off the train. I was always impressed by the fact that this huge network was able to cover large parts of the country, employ so many people, and provide a system that moved millions of passengers in a pretty efficient manner. Today China is the leader in high-speed rail development, and I thought it might be interesting to explore to what extent China’s historical experience in the construction, management, and operation of railroads provides the background to the more recent trends.

Cunningham: Other historians have written about negative public reactions to late-Qing railroad construction, often depicting Chinese farmers as superstitious technophobes. What did you find in your research that led you to counter that image and assert that many Chinese were in fact quite pragmatic about the arrival of railroads?

Köll: Archival evidence related to the Tianjin-Pukou line and local history material made me realize that Chinese public reactions, financial incentives, and negotiating power challenge the traditional narrative. When the early railroad syndicates began to buy up land, feng shui concerns among the local Chinese population often concealed the purely economic interests connected with securing high land prices. For example, farmers along the Shandong section of the Tianjin-Pukou railroad classified their fields as sites of multiple graves and thus were able to sell their land at above-average prices. Also, railroad syndicates wanted to avoid any negative publicity and protest before the construction process (which needed local labor) had even begun. In the case of other rail lines, landowners were compensated per grave “for the disturbance of each dead ancestor,” which generated new business opportunities for local entrepreneurial land speculators who offered their services as brokers to the original landowners and the railroad company for a hefty fee. Not surprisingly, many Chinese government officials with knowledge about the future course of the tracks benefited financially by buying up land in advance, especially in urban areas, and reselling it to the syndicates with exorbitant profit margins.         

Apart from taking advantage of their negotiating power and financial opportunities in the land transaction process, many Chinese also demonstrated their pragmatic approach toward the new technology and infrastructure as unsentimental and eager passengers. As soon as the completed section of a line opened, passengers used the railroads for personal mobility and goods transport, even in the absence of proper freight cars and train service. As I show in the book, short-distance travel in third or fourth class became the main passenger revenue stream for many lines and reflected a high demand from the Chinese public who wanted to reach local and regional markets, transportation hubs, and educational institutions.

Cunningham: In places like the United States and England, railroads were the catalyst for industrialization and urbanization. Why do you argue that, in contrast, Chinese railroads had their greatest impact on the agricultural sector?

Köll: Railroads in China had a significant role in the development of urban space and its socio-economic dynamics during the Republican period. In terms of industrialization, railroads did not create large industrial centers unless they were directly related to the operational facilities of a line, like the industrial workshops and transfer hub at Pukou. Instead, their most significant economic contribution was to the growth in commercial agriculture. This is not a new argument, as Ernest Liang, Thomas Rawski, and Kenneth Pomeranz have addressed the connection between improved transportation/communication and the stimulation of commercialized agriculture in their earlier work. My book contributes to that interpretation by adding the institutional perspective of Chinese railroad companies. I show how individual lines developed and managed their business operations, such as freight services or storage facilities, and responded to strategic demands from the market, i.e. producers, logistics companies, brokers, etc.

For example, in the 1910s and 1920s China’s emerging rail network stimulated the commercial cultivation of peanuts, tobacco, and other cash crops along the rail corridors in Huabei. Now fast shipment of precious cargo was possible with transshipment to international markets via Shanghai and Qingdao. Companies such as BAT (British American Tobacco) invested in storage and processing facilities in Shandong and Jiangsu provinces along the Tianjin-Pukou line and ran advertising rail cars to educate farmers in agricultural methods for growing tobacco. As a result, stations like Bengbu developed into commercial trade centers, serviced by new logistics companies that underwrote freight insurance and facilitated the use of commercial paper. These new hubs also attracted branches of modern Chinese banks and brokerages. I argue that Chinese railroads encouraged and supported economic activities within regionally defined boundaries, which were often driven by local incentives. However, it is important to note that despite the link of the agricultural sector to international markets, railroads did not create a unified national market during the Republican period.

Cunningham: From an institutional perspective, one of the pivot points seems to have been the 1928 creation of the first Ministry of Railways, under Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in Nanjing. How did the establishment of a centralized railroad bureaucracy change things, both at the time and in the decades that followed?

Köll: Although the founding of the Republic of China in 1911 brought the de facto nationalization of all railroads, it did not lead to a centralized system right away due to the unstable political situation of fragmented government power. The Nanjing Decade from 1927 to 1937 brought about a brief period of consolidation when the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek established the Ministry of Railways with a strong, centralized bureaucracy.

The centralization of the bureaucracy happened in the context of the railroads’ successful contribution to education and the proliferation of science and engineering in the first half of the 20th century. From the beginning, railroad companies and their nationalized successors had trained their staff and skilled labor in schools and workshop facilities on the rail compounds, and railroads also operated schools for the children of their employees. The Nationalist government supported the expansion of scientific and engineering education, especially the University of Communication and Transportation, Jiaotong daxue, which still exists today and whose graduates joined the academic and professional elite of the Republic, many of them in positions at the Ministry of Railways.

We need to remember that the introduction of engineering into the curriculum of the universities and training colleges began to take off only in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Railroads as business institutions and bureaucracies created a demand for professionals and skilled workers, which led to the rise of engineers with a very distinct professional identity of working for the railroad in government service. This trend continued even after 1949, when working for the railroad was still considered one of the most prestigious jobs because it offered good remuneration, welfare and health services on the rail compounds, access to a number of free train tickets every year, and a more secure food supply in times of scarcity. Until recently, China’s railroad system also operated with its own legal system, the so-called railway transportation courts, which were integrated into the national court system only in 2012. The Ministry of Railways thus had been able to function almost as “a state within a state” with a relatively high level of autonomy and administrative power compared to other ministries.

Cunningham: One of your main points is that despite this centralized Ministry of Railways, regional railroad bureaus enjoyed a surprising degree of autonomy and did so regardless of which government ruled China. How did those bureaus attain and maintain that degree of power?

Köll: The beginning of railroad construction in China was extremely fragmented and messy, because the lines were built by different Sino-foreign syndicates consisting of a foreign consortium partnering with the Chinese government. It took a while for these syndicates with British, German, Japanese, French, Belgian, etc. investment to get off the ground, and all these nations had, of course, their own economic and political interests in China. As I show in my book, this means that building a unified railroad network evolved out of different technological, managerial, and operational standards. For example, it took until the mid-1910s for English to emerge as the “lingua franca” for railroad terminology across China.

After the 1911 revolution the railroad bureau (tieluju) system began to evolve as an administrative system that centralized these diverse railroad lines. Under direct jurisdiction of the Ministry of Communications and Transportation, the system divided responsibility for the Chinese national railroads according to the geographical scope covered by the major lines. Each railroad bureau became the managerial and operational headquarters of a specific trunk line, usually headquartered in the city of the departure terminal. Because railroad bureaus had to deal with inherited, line-specific financial arrangements and cope with physical damage from warlord battles at a time of political fragmentation and severely limited network connectivity, they managed their own lines without any operational synergies at the national level. Supported by a weak ministry run by political appointees without railroad expertise in the early Republic, this regionally divided system empowered the railroad bureaus to put their operational and financial priorities first, from the head of the bureau down to the stationmaster.

A China Railways DF2 locomotive. Photo via Wikimedia user 桂段, used under a Creative Commons license.

Cunningham: What administrative challenges did the CCP face in the railway sector when it came into power, and how did the railroad industry change under the Communists?

Köll: After 1949, the PRC’s rail network expansion became possible due to the role of the state setting new economic and political priorities and transferring railroad construction to the PLA’s newly founded railroad army corps (tiedaobing). At the same time, I argue that the relatively quick recovery of the war-damaged rail network and its integration into the socialist state were possible due to the bureau system, which already possessed many characteristics of the work unit (danwei) system. In short, while the PRC’s rail expansion would not have been possible without the central role of the state and its allocation of resources in terms of capital and labor, the bureau system afforded a relatively smooth transformation of its administrative system into the new political framework and easy integration of new lines into the network. The fact that the railroad bureau system continues to this day demonstrates surprising institutional resilience—it even survived the Ministry of Railways, which was abolished in 2013.

After 1949 we can also observe the adaptation and integration of railroad culture into the CCP’s ideology. During the 1920s and 1930s the image of the railroad had signaled modernity through economic and social mobility, both for individual, mainly urban affluent residents, and the nation. Apart from speed, convenience, and safety of travel, railroads meant social mobility (for example, students, especially female students, being able to take the train to study in education hubs like Shanghai) and represented time discipline and a new behavioral order of what it meant to be a passenger on the train. As I show, these progressive “railroad values” were easily incorporated and adapted by the Communist Party after 1949 and transformed into socialist values: time discipline, technological progress, professional dedication, and hard work were still important, but were now interpreted as revolutionary values necessary to create the new China under socialism. With the already existing structure of railroad compounds and rail yards, the system of railroad bureaus was easy to integrate into the new system of work units after 1949. Of course, the political agenda during the Great Leap Forward and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution caused great damage to the rail system, especially because expert knowledge and professionalism were considered anti-revolutionary and ignored, with severe consequences for passenger safety and operational efficiency.

Cunningham: Finally, what are you spending your time on now that Railroads and the Transformation of China has been published?

Köll: Well, I have a new project of a very different nature, both in terms of topic and approach. I am going to write a short book for my undergraduate students and a more general audience on the life and work of an American sales manager for British American Tobacco, who spent time moving around northern China during the 1920s. My narrative is based on his diaries, letters, and photographs, which are great fun to work with. My goal is to show what doing business in rural China during the early Republic looked like from a Western and a Chinese perspective, i.e. the foreign salesmen, the managers at the headquarters, the Chinese colleagues, distributors, competitors, and consumers. Writing in a very different style and format for a new audience will be a welcome change for a while. And I hope that writing this story will not take as long as the railroad book. In any case, I will continue to ride the rails wherever my next field trips and travels will lead me!

AAS Secretariat staff are working remotely due to CDC guidelines regarding COVID-19. Please contact staff by email rather than phone. Staff directory