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Railway Giants: The Story of the Chinese Tiger - Zhan Tianyou's Monumental Impact on Railways

Railway Giants: The Story of the Chinese Tiger - Zhan Tianyou's Monumental Impact on Railways
foto: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain/Yongding rieka (1952)
25 / 03 / 2024

The whole world admires modern Asian transport, whose foundations were laid by the engineering genius Zhan Tianyou. Read the story of the boy who changed China's infrastructure once and for all!

The new episode of the Railway Giants series takes us to far-off China to look at the story of a man who goes by the name of Zhan Tianyou. A boy who took advantage of a government program to study in the US, a man who would become the true father of the Chinese railway, and an old man who would be revered by professional circles in many places around the world.

The Birth of the Chinese Tiger

It is April 1861, and we are in faraway China, specifically in the city of Guangzhou (Canton). Located on the southeastern edge of China in the Namhoi region (today's Guangdong), not far from the border with Vietnam, it is here that the boy who will be named Zhan Tianyou will be born. At this time, China has been under Qing Dynasty rule for almost 250 years. Its reign will be characterized by the expansion of Chinese territory to borders that will closely resemble its modern form.

Philg88 / Wikimedia commons / CC BY 4.0

This expansion will be 'nipped in the bud' by another expansion, namely the colonial one. The Qing dynasty could not militarily counter the technological superiority of the European powers, and although the whole of China would never become a colonized country, the dominance of the colonialists on the mainland, together with the discontent of the native population, would lead to the Xinhai Revolution, which would result in the abdication of the throne by the last emperor, Puyi, in 1912 and the proclamation of the Republic of China.

In the field of railways and industry in general, by 1860 China, like the vast majority of Asia, is well behind prosperous Europe and America. It is no exaggeration to say that China's industrial revolution was virtually out of steam. The first recorded railway line in China would be 600 meters long. It would be built in 1865 by a British merchant outside the gates of Xuanwumen to demonstrate the potential of railway technology. However, the Qing government, like everything British, is not interested and has it dismantled.

The first railway to be put into commercial operation is the 9.25-mile (14.89 km) long Woosung Railway from Shanghai to Woosung, opening in 1876. This line will also be built by the British without the approval of the Qing Dynasty government, which will not change its position on the railway and will again have it dismantled. Until China's defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, the government remained hostile to railway construction. After the war, however, the situation reversed, and from 1895 the government began to grant railway concessions to foreigners. This is also the perfect time for us to go back to the main character of our story.

To Study in the U.S.

The year 1872 will be extremely important for Zhan's entire career when, as the 11-year-old promising son of a businessman, he is selected to study in the USA as part of the government's Chinese educational mission programme. There, he will receive all his education from primary school in New Haven to university, where he will study civil engineering and railway construction at the famous Yale University. The latter is, as we have mentioned before, a very controversial subject in China, but one which is already looking forward to a better future.

China Today / Public domain

According to the plan, Zhan will return to his native China after the end of his studies. But here, he will face a harsh collision with reality. Chinese officials, like the majority of the population, view "American students" as "non-Chinese" because they have adopted many American customs during their studies that are something its inhabitants in remote China could never imagine or explain in their wildest dreams. Whether it's playing baseball or simply wearing a shirt and pants instead of traditional robes, Zhan and his classmates are met with incomprehension and separation from traditional society. Eventually, the government itself succumbs to this, sending the students to work as translators or in the military instead of using their experience abroad. Here, once again, the all-powerful Fortune plays the role of Zhan. He is assigned to the navy, but it is completely destroyed during the war with France, and so a new opportunity opens up for Zhan. For he is allowed to become what he once dreamed of in the United States: A railroad engineer.

The Father of the Chinese Railway

To gain his first practical experience, he is recruited to build a railway between the city of Tianjin in northeast China and the coal mines of the Tangshan region. This line will be designed by the British engineer Kinder, whom Zhan joins initially as an engineering trainee. However, he quickly demonstrates the experience he has gained in the US and is promoted first to the position of engineer and then to regional engineer. Zhan spends 12 long years working on the railway, which will eventually be extended to the Beijing-Mukden line.

In 1902, a new challenge confronts Zhan. The Chinese Emperor decides to build a special line for Empress Dowager Cixi to visit the tombs of her ancestors. The main candidate to engineer this line is the aforementioned British engineer Kinder. However, due to the influence of France at the Imperial Court, Zhan is eventually preferred, as he is a much more acceptable option to the French than the British engineer. The imperial court will be extremely satisfied with the work done, and more opportunities will open up for Zhan.

The next opportunity will not be long in coming. The year is 1905, and the Chinese government decides to build a railway to connect Beijing with the trading city of Kalgan in northern China. Because of its importance, it is decided that this will be the first railway in China to be built without the help of foreign countries. Practically the only suitable candidate to manage the construction is Zhan, who is also selected as chief engineer. Zhan seizes the opportunity to make an indelible mark on national history in an unprecedented way, completing the construction two years ahead of schedule and still within the budget. He also manages to deal with the complicated terrain that will span the tunnels and bridges.

Wikimedia/ Tan Jingtang, <a href="//">谭景棠(1876年-1915年)</a>, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1909, in recognition of his life's work, Zhan would be elected a Fellow of the North British Academy of Arts and the American Society of Civil Engineers, a founding member of the Chinese Institute of Engineers, and in 1916 he would be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Hong Kong. Zhan would die in 1919 at the age of 57 in Hankow. In the announcement of his death, written by his American colleagues, he is aptly called the father of Chinese railways.