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The History of Transportation in China

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Lee, Jong Wha
Term Paper, AP World History Class, November 2008

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Waterways
II.1 History of the Grand Canal
II.2 Shipping
III. Hakka
IV. Railroads
V. Bicycles
VI. Automobiles
VII. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Transportation - a link from city to city, from house to house, from person to person - has been the center of a country¡¯s economical and cultural development. For many, it is not unusual to find development of transportation and modernization of one culture take place at the same time.
            China is a country that possesses the largest population on earth. Despite the damage from World War II and other national disorders such as the Cultural Revolution, China is now the fastest growing nation that world pays attention to. Under such dramatic growth of China, the development of transportation has played a key role in facilitating its economy. It did not merely function as a method of traveling, but an entity that holds each city together and a fertilizer to China's modernization. Therefore, it is important to look at the unique history of transportation in China.

II. Waterways
            Waterway transportation is the oldest form of transportation in China. Chinese history with its great Yangtze River is deeply affiliated with waterway system. In addition, their construction of Grand Canal was significant not only economically but also socially as it greatly affected the lives of Chinese people in the old days. The Grand Canal linked Huang He river and Yangtze River, and there were many other canals and inland rivers that extended from these big branch and spread almost everywhere across China: Chaobai River, Hai River, Ziya River, Daqing River, Wei River, etc.

II. History of the Grand Canal
            China, a nation that started from Yangtze River, is greatly related to waterway system. The first Grand Canal built in China (Han Gou, 486-484 B.C.) was built in the late Spring and Autumn Period (722-381BC) by the Duke of Wu. (1) He ordered it to be constructed for trading purposes, as well as a means to ship ample supplies north lest his forces should engage the northern states of Song and Lu. Known as Han Gou, this canal played a significant role in not only private trades but also other various aspects such as Wang Jun's war strategy against Eastern Wu in the year 280. (2)
            The early history of Chinese canal is followed by Sui period, in which created most of Grand Canal today. During Sui dynasty the economical and agricultural base moved away from Yangtze River to Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, which mean the transport of grain obtained from Yangtze River, was no longer needed. (3) By the year 600, there were major build ups of silt on the bottom of the Hong Gou Canal, obstructing river barges that were not shallow enough for its waters. The Sui emperor, Yangdi, initiated the construction of Grand Canal in Yangzhou, and, by the year 605, with the help of five million men and women, the first major part of the Grand Canal was completed. (4) Called Bian Qu, it made a direct connection to Huai River. The second Sui emperor completed the second part of Grand Canal in 604-609. (5)
            At this time though, Canals were not completely continuous man-made canals but collection of often non-contiguous artificial cuts and canalized or natural rivers. (6) As the Grand Canal was the collection of smaller canals, the period when these small canals were built varied greatly; for example, some of them were even built during 5th century BC.
            After the fall of Sui dynasty and the rise of Tang dynasty, Grand Canal contributes greatly to the economical hub of the nation, Yangzhou. Despite the fact that the greatest metropolis during Tang era was Chang'an, Yangzhou greatly benefitted from Grand Canal as it allowed reduction of the cost of shipping taxed grain from Yangtze Delta River to northern China. (7) Furthermore, Yangzhou's trading links with Arab merchants were well-established as it was recorded 'at night a thousand lanterns lit up the clouds.' (8) After the An Shi Rebellion (755-763), the economy of China undergoes a tragic fall and never recovers because of wars and constant flooding of Yangtze River. These natural disasters and confusion in the state were perceived as the dynasty's losing Mandate of Heaven. (9)
            Although Tang fell, and Song dynasty and its capital Kaifeng rose as the major hub, Grand Canal still existed and spurred the greatest amount of economic activity and commercial profit within Chinese inland. Also, because ships occasionally got crashed and wrecked along the Shangyang Yundao section of the Grand Canal, an Assitant Commissioner of Transport for Huainan invents a double-gate system (pound lock).
            Unfortunately, much of the canals of the South Yangtze River were destroyed when Du Chong decided to fight the Jurchen invaders. Such destruction was left until 13th Century, when Mongols take over China and repair some. (11)
            Yuan dynasty, however, did not fully utilize the benefits of the Grand Canal as the Tang and Song did. As their capital moved to Beijing, there was no need for them to use canal flowing to Kaifeng. They shortened the Canal by 700km, and near the end of the dynasty the canal fell into disuse and dilapidation. (12)
            After laying dormant and dilapidated for decades, the Grand Canal was restored under Yongle of Ming Dynasty from 1411-1415. The reason for the restoration of the Grand Canal was mainly due to inefficient and difficult transport of 4,000,000 shi (equal to 107 liters) to Beijing. Yongle commissioned 165,000 workers to dredge the canal bed in western Shangdong and built a series of fifteen canal locks. (13)
            After Manchu invasion and the establishment of Qing dynasty, the Grand Canal maintains its function unlike the railway system that triggered strong opposition from its government officials. However, in 1855, the Yellow River's flooding changed the course of the Grand Canal in Shangdong, and the change caused some difficulty crossing Yangtze River. Furthermore, the opening of Jinghan and Jinpu railways suggested alternative route, the canal languished for decades and still did not recover fully. (14)
            The Grand Canal, in a sense, was at the core of Chinese dynasties. It not only served as the essential in transport of grain into the capital, but also enabled cultural exchange and political integration between north and south of China. Therefore, the Grand Canal, the power source of China, embraces critical significance in the history of China.

II.2 Maritime Shipping
            Before the start of shipping industry, Chinese were against general practices of maritime shipping. As they followed the principle of isolationism, until the western powers arrived and coerced China to open ports and allow transporting goods by ships. This triggered new form of transportation that was inland: Hakka people's way of living by transporting these goods via mountainous regions.
            Along with railroads, waterway shipping industry during mid 1900s rose as one of the fundamental industries and played a major factor in facilitating the development of Chinese's economy. In 1961, China established a state-run marine shipping company and subsequently signed shipping agreements with many countries. This company, later known as COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Company), becomes one of the largest shipping companies in the world. (15)(15) China, with its 14,000 km coastlines and 20 deep water harbors that are ice-free throughout the year, achieved to establish firm international coastal relationships with developed nations.
            Other than COSCO, CSCL (China Shipping Container Lines) was established in 1997 and underwent rapid growth to rise as the eighth largest container shipping companies in the world. (16) In November 2007, the number of container units reached 100 million, highlighting the country¡¯s position as a major player in the industry worldwide.
            In 1992, almost 2400 ships were registered as Chinese merchant ships. Compared to the number of ships that existed back in 1960s, it has multiplied tenfold. (17) Chinese shipping industry would not have developed this far if not with geographical advantages and artificial waterway system; therefore, the true source of Chinese shipping industry is the intricate waterway system that had developed hundreds of years ago.

III. The Hakka
            Derived from the opposition to maritime shipping, another unique inland transportation in China emerged, the: Hakka. Although China was geographically linked north and south, there were still places where the influence of the Grand Canal could not reach. In southern China, where Gunangzhou (Canton), the main port that facilitated trade with foreign nations, was located, there was no inland waterway system that could easily facilitate the transport of the imported goods to the capital. As the Chinese did not bother to transport them by ships along the coast, the goods were carried on the backs of humans over a mountainous region to reach a navigable/raftable river connected with the Yangtze river system. The main group associated with the profession of carrying the goods are the Hakka. These Hakka people, settled in the mountainous region of Fujian, Jiangxi and Guangdong province, developed a unique form of job that eventually functioned as instrumental transportation between river systems. Moreover, it functioned as one of the major transportation that could substitute the non-usage of shipping during the period.
            However, after the Treaty of Nanjing 1842, the Chinese were forced to allow the western seagoing ships to take on transportation of goods between Guangzhou and the Yangtse/Hwangho basin, and many of these Hakka people lost their job. As they would take any job to earn living, many of these unemployed Hakkas became coolies, left their homeland as indentured workers.

IV. Railroads
            One of the most important forms of transportation in China is the railroad. Railroads have branched into every city of China, functioning as the key method of traveling between cities. (18) Woosung Railroad, the first railway in China, began its service since 1876, linking Shanghai and Woosung. However because it did not win the approval of the Qing government, a year later in 1877 the Qing officials purchased and demolished the locomotive.(19) Second railway was a 10 km railway from Tangshan to Xugezhuang, transporting the coals from the coal mine in Tangshan. The construction of this railway was opposed by the Qing officials, but fortunately it managed to survive by the support of powerful viceroy of Zhili, and Li Hongzhang. (20)
            Qing officials did not like railways from the first place. To them, the locomotive was just an iron monster that does not benefit their economy. Due to their strong opposition to its constructions, the extension of these railways was delayed until 1895, when Qing dynasty got defeated by Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War. (21) Only after such tragic defeat did the Qing officials finally understand the importance of railway; on the other hand, the power of the dynasty fell to such an extent that allowed construction of railways in China by great powers.
            After the fall of Qing dynasty, the railway construction was focused on China¡¯s capital Beijing. As the center of the network, several lines came out from it, including the three main rail lines: Jinghan railway, Jingfeng railway, Jingpu railway. Jinghan railway was from Beijing to Hankou. The construction started in 1987 and was completed in 1906. Guangneiwai railway, later renamed as Jingfeng, was extended west to Beijing and east to Fengtian by 1912. Jinpu railway was built during 1908 - 1912, and it linked from Tianjin to Pukou, going across Jingfeng railway. (22)
            Sadly, the major constructions of railways in China were not managed by Chinese. While Jingzhang railway, the first Chinese railway built in 1905-1909 by Zhan Tianyou, the father of China's railroad, most of the other railways, including three major railways that branch out from Beijing, were built by foreign powers. (23) Jiaoji railway, connecting Qingdao and Jinan, was built by Germany and was completed in 1904. The Sino-Vietnamese railway was built by France in 1904-1910, connecting Haiphong, Vietnam, and Kunming. The length of this railway within China was 466 km out of total 855km railway, as the other 389km railway was in the realm of Vietnam's border. (24) Chinese Eastern Railway (South Manchuria Railway later by Japanese) was an extension of the world's longest railway in the world Trans-Siberian Railway; in 1896, China granted construction concession and the construction started in July 1897, finally finishing in 1902. (25)
            In consequence, Chinese railway industry experienced fast growth from 1895 to 1911 as Qing, starting from only 1516 km of railways in 1901 to that of 9854 km in 1911. (27)
            After World War II, after the Second Sino-Japanese war, the statistical information of Chinese railway open literally proved to be no use. Although the length of total railway was claimed to be 27,000 km by Chinese, it was identified that over 23,000 km was unusable. In 1948, it was revealed that only 8,000 km of railway was usable due to Chinese Civil War. Communists actively sabotaged these railways to disrupt the ruling of Kuomintang, while Nationalists also sacrificed lesser used railroads to repair the most important ones. (28)
            In October 1949, the Communists finally established People's Republic of China (PRC) and implemented an extensive investment in reconstruction of savaged railroads. (29) Although half of reconstruction took place in Manchuria (about 11,000 km) Chinese government succeeded in restoration back to 22,300 km of usable railways open. In addition, few long-planned railway constructions finally finished and started their service. Longhai Railway, which was intended to reach Lanzhou as its final destination, started in 1952 and became a major railway hub in northwestern China. (30) As it was hard to reach Tibet province due to high mountain terrains, Chinese took gradual steps to reach the province by extending the railway to Xining and Golmud in 1984, Lhasa in 2006. The completion of this long railroad finally enabled China to virtually link every province-level entity in the People¡¯s Republic of China. (31)
            Since then, the construction of railway has lasted for a century, displaying steady growth; in 1998, the railway line open in China surpassed over 53,950 km. (32) Compared to a neighboring country India, which constantly had around 60,000 km of railway since 1922, such growth of railway in China truly stands out. (33) As the modernization of China started with the development of railway transportation in China, it tremendously contributed to China in terms of economical and societal scale.

V. Bicycles
            The bicycle is the most primitive and widespread method of transportation for Chinese locals. However, when it was first mentioned in 1860, it neither won approval from Chinese nor became integrated into the Chinese way of life. In addition, as Chinese officials viewed the loss of wars against western powers as humiliation and a dishonorable event, Chinese did not easily accept this new method of transportation. (34)
            The first users of this bicycle were foreigners in Shanghai. Many Chinese, whose way of life is unfamiliar with this physical activity, rather took rickshaw, invented in 1870; no man - even a man with tiniest wealth - would want to move on his feet. (35) Bicycles, in a sense, brought great curiosity from Chinese; cyclists were regular theme in the Shanghai newspapers, and the pictorials of that time, and Chinese admired Westerners' physical stamina. On the other hand, ironically, rather than paying attention to how one can ride it, Chinese expressed their amusement over the fallen cyclist. They tended to get shocked by the picture where a cyclist loses his face in front of two pedestrians. (36)
            Finally in 1890s, the bikes were introduced to few wealthy Chinese, but bicycles sold at that time were not only high quality racing bikes, but also very costly.
            After the turn of the century, the cost of bikes goes lower but still was 40% higher than that from the original country. (37) The consumers were only limited to nouveau riche - especially those who studied abroad - of a few harbor cities such as Shanghai. Another group of consumers were prostitutes in treaty ports, as they were almost free from social constraint. In Shanghai, with 2 million of inhabitants, 9,800 bikes were counted in 1925, and the number rose up to 20,000 in 1930. (38)
            In the 1930s, the Chinese bicycle industry come into being. Almost at the same time, the three largest importers of bicycles Tongchang Chehang (Shanghai), Changcheng (Tianjin), and Daxing (Shenyang) established their own production lines. Furthermore, the price of these bikes reduced to a level in which normal people could buy due to the increase in the production of bikes. In 1949, half a million bicycles were used national-wide. (39)
            The history of bicycles in China faced a great turning point in 1949, when the People's Republic of China was established and became the enthusiastic advocate of the use of bicycles. They granted them numerous benefits if a person bought a bicycle. They even subsidized a commuting worker when purchasing a bike. These bicycle companies thus could achieve annual growth of 58.7 %. Finally in 1958, the level of one million bicycles was reached. (40)
            Today's ubiquity of China's bicycle truly reveals that bicycle is the representative transportation in China. But different from our assumption that it was from cultural preconditions, the real source of this ubiquity was 1949¡¯s economic and modern infrastructural reasons.

VI. Automobiles
            The automobile industry in China is now rising as the second largest in the world. In 1931, Zhang Xueliang founded his arsenal to make one truck called Ming Sheng. Another general, Yang Hucheng, patronized the inventor Tang Zhongming to make a new type of mobile energized by charcoal. (41)
            During mid 1900s, the automobile companies start their services. In 1956, the first modern automobile factory First Automobile Works began production. In June 1958, "Guerin" two and half truck, modeled from Russian GAZ, was produced in Nanjing. In addition, from late 1950s to 1960s, several automobile factories were set up in Nanjing, Shanghai, Jinan and Beijing. All of these companies survive till today and rename them as Nanjing Automobile Corporation, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, China National Heavy Duty Truck Group, and Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Corporation. (42)
            Although the adaptation of automobile industry in China was very late, the use of motor vehicles in use is exceptionally high as the size of population stands out from others. While there were only 259 thousand motor vehicles used in 1978, it grew dramatically in 1997 to 5 million 806 thousands. (43) As the use of motor vehicles is rapidly rising, automobiles are becoming one of the most common transportation in China now.

VII. Conclusion
            Starting from waterway transportation to modern automobile industry, a stream of transportation have functioned and interacted with Chinese culture.
            Waterway system, the first and the most significant transportation in China, not only facilitated China's economical status tremendously but also played a key role in unifying south and north of China together. This system was very interactive and critical throughout Chinese history. On the other hand, it could not cover all part of China as there were some other challenging areas in which no boat can reach. Instead, Hakka complemented transportation of south port to north China by covering mountainous regions that lie between south port and the inner river.
            Railway, which was one of the major industries in 1900s, laid the foundation in not only in the China's economy but also in interaction with foreign powers. Moreover, when much of the Grand Canal was destroyed, Jinhang and Jinpu railways took over and carried many to the capital Beijing. Most currently, shipping industry and automobile industries both met with great success to establish themselves in world¡¯s global market.
            Therefore, the significance in the history of Chinese transportation does not merely come from methods for people to travel but from its deep affiliation with the country's economic status. In this sense, the importance of transportation in Chinese history is truly immense.


(1)      Wikipedia : Grand Canal (China)
(2)      ibid.
(3)      ibid.
(4)      Yangzhou, from Discover Yangtze
(5)      ibid.
(6)      Nation Master : Grand Canal of China
(7)      ibid.
(8)      Yangzhou, from Discover Yangtze
(9)      Nation Master : Grand Canal of China
(11)      ibid.
(12)      Yuan Dynasty, from
(13)      Ming Dynasty, from
(14)      Wikipedia : Grand Canal (China)
(15)      Nation Master : Chinese Shipping
(16)      Wikipedia : China Shipping Container Lines
(17)      ASIA: Merchant Ships Registered, from IHS
(18)      History of Transportation in China, from Chinatown Connection
(19)      Nation Master : History of rail transport in China
(20)      ibid.
(21)      Wikipedia : Qing Dynasty
(22)      Nation Master : History of Transportation in China
(23)      Zhan Tianyou, from Chinese Culture
(24)      Nation Master : History of Transportation in China
(25)      Wikipedia : Chinese Eastern Railway
(27)      ASIA: Length of Railway Line Open, from IHS
(28)      Nation Master : History of Transportation in China
(29)      ibid.
(30)      ibid.
(31)      ibid.
(32)      ASIA: Length of Railway Line Open, from IHS
(33)      ibid.
(34)      A Short History of Bicycles in China, from radio86 All About China
(35)      ibid.
(36)      Bicycle Kingdom : The Bicycle and the Chinese People
(37)      A Short History of Bicycles in China, from radio86 All About China
(38)      Bicycle Kingdom : The Bicycle and the Chinese People
(39)      ibid.
(40)      ibid.
(41)      Wikipedia : Automobile Industry in China
(42)      ibid.
(43)      ASIA: Motor Vehicles in Use, from IHS


Note : websites quoted below were visited in December 2008.
1.      B.R. Mitchell. International Historical Statistics 1750 -2000 Firth Edition Africa, Asia, Australia, London, Palgrev. 2003
2.      Esfehani, Amir M. The Bicycle And The Chinese People. from Bicycle Kingdom. 2005-2008. .
3.      History of Chinese Transportation. 2005. Houston Chinatown. 6 Dec. 2008
4.      A short history of bicycles in China. from Radio86 All About China. 2006-2008. .
5.      Wuhan. 2005. Yangtze Council. .
6.      Yangzhou. DiscoverYangtze. .
7.      Zhan Tianyou. 2003. from China Culture. .
8.      Hakka ? An Important Element Of Chinese Culture, from Asia Wind
9.      Article : Ming Dynasty. from .
10.      Article : Yuan Dynasty. from .
11.      Article : Automobile industry in China, from Wikipedia. 18 Nov. 2008. .
12.      Article : History of rail transport in China, from Wikipedia. 15 Oct. 2008.
13.      Article : History of transportation in the People's Republic of China., from Wikipedia 4 Dec. 2008. .
14.      Article : Jiaoji railway, from Wikipedia. 2 Nov. 2008.
15.      Article : Qing Dynasty, from Wikipedia. 6 Dec. 2008.
16.      Article : Yunnan-Vietnam Railway, from Wikipedia. 17 Nov. 2008.
17.      Article: Hakka people, from Wikipedia.
18.      Article : China Shipping Container Lines, from Nation Master. . (text from Wikipedia)
19.      Article : Chinese shipping. from Nation Master. . (text from Wikipedia)
20.      Article : Grand Canal (China). from Nation Master. . (text from Wikipedia)
21.      Article : History of rail transport in China, from Nation Master. 2003. . (text from Wikipedia)
22.      Article : History of transportation in the People's Republic of China. from Nation Master . (text from Wikipedia)

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