Railroads, East Asia and the Pacific

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Railroads, East Asia and the Pacific

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, railroads played a crucial role in advancing multifaceted imperialist agendas. According to the colonizers' ideology, railroads, uniform postage, and the electric telegraph were considered to be the three developments of Western science that advanced social improvement. Standard reference sources indicate that by the early 1900s, Asian areas had some 90,120 kilometers (56,000 miles) of track, with about 48,280 of those kilometers (about 30 miles) in British India, about 6,430 kilometers (4,000 miles) in China, and about 29,770 kilometers (18,500 miles) in Africa. By connecting up hinterland and ports within particular regions, and then linking countries to one another in the complex network of land and sea transport, railroads helped forge the modern capitalist world economy, with its enduring disparities between expansive, industrialized powers and the underdeveloped third world.

In some regions, railroads served a direct style of imperialism, where virtually enslaved indigenous laborers harvested cash crops or mined valuable commodities, and railroads hauled such goods to port cities for export. More significantly, however, railroads made possible and profitable what historians have come to describe as informal imperialism, where an indigenous government was held in place, and the tethers of dominance took the form of high-interest loans by private investors to the indigenous government, special treaty-based privileges, and spheres of influence. As historian Ronald Robinson notes in his introduction to Railway Imperialism, "the railroad was not only the servant but also the principal generator of informal empire; in this sense imperialism was a function of the railroad" (Davis et al. 1991, p. 2).

Beholden to foreign banks and financiers, indigenous governments could ensure repayment and continued investment only by harsh labor policies, suppression of anti-imperialist movements, and diversion of revenue away from, for example, education and housing initiatives. Local labor and capital markets, as well as seemingly autonomous indigenous political systems, were ever more pulled into the gravitational orbit of expansive, more developed nations. For indigenous populations, railroads brought a mix of possibilities and exactions. Affording unprecedented geographic mobility, modern conveniences, new areas of employment, and potential profits, railroads also displaced traditional occupations, such as barge workers, and carried ever more foreign settlers into colonial areas, exacerbating tensions with local communities. Although privately funded for the most part, railroad building in colonial areas depended upon home governments and colonial officials to provide the legal and political wherewithal, with financial guarantees, land grants, and a periodic deployment of troops to quash rebellion or teach locals a preemptive object lesson.

Japan was able to negotiate autonomy in railroad construction, using a loan from Great Britain to build its first railroad in 1872, and drawing upon substantial exports of tea and silk to fund other related projects. The first foreign railway initiative in China came in the 1860s with the tiny Woosung Railroad, built by Anglo-American partners with the tacit permission of business-minded local officials in the Shanghai area, but shut down by central authorities in response to local agitation. Dynastic weakness and forced indemnities following defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War in the mid-1890s opened the way to foreign loans and investment, a situation redoubled by the terms imposed by treaty powers after the Boxer Uprising (1900). Much of the noted "scramble for China" at the turn of that century was a scramble for railroad concessions.

According to historian Clarence Davis (1991), Chinese officials were initially successful in playing off imperial rivals with selective railway concessions, but the dynamic set in motion by these railroads once built contributed to the spread of antiforeign insurgence, with "antiforeign" coming to include the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911). By the early twentieth century, a dense network of railroads concentrated in the eastern regions of the country connected up port cities, such as Shanghai and Tianjin, to supplies of coal, cotton, rice, tea, cassia, sugar, and silk. Cities such as Shanghai boomed as entrepôts, receiver and distribution points in an expanding network of trade linked to world markets. This, in turn, led to the proliferation of factories in port cities to process raw materials for export, the emergence of a wealthy Chinese commercial elite, and growing disaffection among urban workers.

In China as in Africa, even while promoting the interests of expansive governments, railroad building paradoxically generated intense conflict among imperialist rivals, with a high-stakes competition over huge swaths of exclusive "railway zones" in Africa and Asia. Russo-Japanese rivalries flared over Manchuria, as Russia sought to extend the trans-Siberian railway through Manchuria, posing a threat to Japan's colonial consolidation of Korea. Franco-British commercial rivalry led to ambitious claims over territorial blocs in China, while Germany established a railroad monopoly in Shantung to expand market possibilities and provide a naval base for its increasingly powerful navy. Japan's seizure of Manchuria in 1931 and eventual push to empire turned upon effective control of regional railroad systems.

see also Railroads, Imperialism.


Davis, Clarence B, and Kenneth E. Wilburn Jr., with Ronald E. Robinson, eds. Railway Imperialism. New York: Greenwood, 1991.

Duiker, William J., and Jackson J. Spielvogel. World History; Vol. 2: Since 1400, 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Thompson-Wadsworth, 2004.

Murphey, Rhoads. A History of Asia, 5th ed. New York: Longman, 2006.

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