Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Engineering the Empire of Images: Constructing Railways in Asia before the Great War

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Engineering the Empire of Images: Constructing Railways in Asia before the Great War

Article excerpt

This article addresses how the construction of railways in Indochina and the Chinese province of Yunnan shaped representations of the French "civilizing mission" prior to 1914. In the early 1900s, Paul Doumer (1857-1932), as governor-general of Indochina, initiated a large program of railway construction in Indochina and Yunnan. There, French engineers created technological marvels such as the pont Doumer (Doumer Bridge), the pont sur Albaletriers (Crossbow Bridge), and the pont en dentelle (Steel Lace Viaduct). Railway construction demanded millions of francs; and over twelve thousand workers died while building the Yunnan railway. The French were ultimately able to use this railway line only until 1940--for fewer than thirty years. Nevertheless, images of railway masterpieces created illusions of French imperial presence in southern China. Such images also suggested that the French had a profound impact on modernizing Indochina and Yunnan, a perception that was far from the truth.

Representations: Image, Reality & Colonial Complications

Two decades before World War I, French railway engineers traveled to distant parts of Asia to construct railways. The modernization of transport frequently accompanied colonization, and French technological achievements in Indochina--Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina (together, present-day Vietnam)--and the Chinese province of Yunnan (Kunming) stand out as technological masterpieces. In comparison with such chefs-d'oeuvre of engineering, the railways in metropolitan France often looked dull. There was a strange dissonance between, on the one hand, expensive, sophisticated engineering solutions for railway construction and, on the other hand, their limited political and economic impact on both colonial economies and the advancement of French imperial goals in Asia. The wondrous images of railway viaducts and bridges mesmerized French contemporaries, who considered such images as ultimate proof of successful imperial expansion.

Tragically, however, over twelve thousand coolies working on the Yunnan railway lost their lives for the sake of French imperial ambitions in China. Yet the French railway of Yunnan failed to make a dramatic difference in promoting French imperialism in China. Almost immediately after completion of the Yunnan line, China succumbed to civil war, and French dreams of integrating this Chinese province into the French sphere of influence were shattered. The French were able to use this railway line only until 1940, for less than three decades. Nevertheless, for the French and broader European audience, images of railway masterpieces created the illusion of the civilizing mission. Analysis of railway construction in Asia shows that the French administration wanted to build railways whose imagery would excite contemporaries and would convince them of the power of technology to expand the French Empire.

Blanchard, Bancel, and Gervereau (1993); Leprun (1986); Meynier (1993); Norindr (1996); Peer (1998); Schneider (1982); Silverman (1989); Thomson (2004); and others have underlined the significance of the visual in shaping political discourses in French history. In explaining how image became an important medium for forging contemporary society, Roland Barthes (1977) argued that a photograph resembles an illustration in a scientific text, an association that only adds to the credibility of the claim that a photograph represents objective reality. Barthes argued that, in the modern epoch, image became more important than text as a channel for shaping the perceptions of the world.

Adorno (2001) and Benjamin (1969) addressed the emergence of early mass culture, which included cinema, illustrated magazines, photographs, exhibitions, and the culture of visual spectacle. Mass culture and the new culture of the visual reordered the role of image in the French cultural landscape and, in particular, played an important role in redefining the place of technology in the French public imagination (Rearick 1985; Schwartz 1998). …

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