The First Bridge Over The Yellow River(2008-11-13 04:32:13)
The First Bridge Over The Yellow River
By Bing Chen
As the world held it breath at the televised drama of Tiananmen Square in June 1989, millions of young students at universities across Chinas joined them to watch history being made.
As a fourth -year student at Sichuan University in Chengdu, I too, was a spectator on the sidelines of a defining moment whose outcome I could barely guess at.
And when the tanks rolled on, I felt an awful sense of loss and bewilderment about where my country’ s future lay.
Within a couple of months I’d returned to my final year studies in history and archives, depressed and demotivated.
Beijing university student Wang Weilin’s heroic defiance of a People’s Liberation Army tank had seemed like a summer bridge to a new society
But that prospect was fading as fast as the halls of Chengdu campus has I made the 700-mile train journey back to my home town of Lanzhou where I’d been sent to complete practical work in the Gansu provincial archives
Little did I guess that I was about to uncover another piece of history in unique documents lost for more than 80 years.
It would cast new light on Imperial China’s first hesitant attempts steps at modernisation – and demonstrate how fearful the current regime still is at coming to terms with its past humiliations at the hands of the Western powers.
At the heart of this historical secret was a bridge – the first constructed of iron, and the first built by Western capitalists, in the dying days of the old imperial order.
The bridge as emblematic of a new beginnings is as old as civilisation itself. And in China, the oldest civilisation, that is especially true.
At the heart of the country’s most popular folk tale is the Magpie Bridge. It’s a saga of star-crossed lovers so compelling that it has even been recreated in opera form in The Butterfly Lovers Concerto, and most famously performed by violinist Vanessa Mae.
The bridge as metaphor for love, life and death – even an
eternal gateway to Paradise - has long haunted the innermost depths
of the human psyche. Many have become the stuff of legend and
folktale - The River Kwai, San Lue Rey,
The first iron bridge over the mighty Yellow River bids fair to join this legendary roll call.
The Zhongshan Bridge at the Gansu provincial capital Lanzhou was
the first successful joint enterprise between the Middle Kingdom
and the West. Completed in 1909, it is now regarded officially as a
symbol of opening China’s doors to the world.
The extraordinary story of its building was minutely documented by Imperial officials, but the calligraphers’ manuscripts were soon lost as the time of the Last Emperor, P’u-yi faded into history.
For more than 80 years the parchment bundles lay untouched in
the provincial government archives at Lanzhou. Neglected, they
deteriorated over the years, becoming yellowing
It was these “useless” paper bricks that Lanzhou’s state archivist asked me to investigate – to earn a few marks toward my final degree.
I soon realised the 12-inch thick, A-4 sized “bricks” given to me by my venerable elder were going to be a big problem.
I’d been asked to catalogue the contents of some three dozens manuscript blocks. But I soon found that the individual pages had become firmly stuck together during their years dumped carelessly in a back room.
Not only did it seem an impossible task, but also it promised to be mind-numbingly boring.
But as I gingerly began to prise apart the manuscript “bricks” page by page – sometimes using a warm iron to separate the sheets – and amazing story began to unfold before my eyes.
There in yellowing parchments was the full saga of China’s first
bridgehead to the future – initiated by Imperial decree – signed by
the Emperor Kuang-hsu
And dozens of telegram in English, detailing how disputes between Lanzhou City Council, the German contractors and American designers and engineers were resolved over the 18 months it took to construct the country’s first iron bridge.
There was also dramatic evidence of the sheer scale of the undertaking which involved the transportation, mainly by hand or animal-drawn cart, of prefabricated iron sections 1,100 miles from the port of Tientsin to the capital of Gansu province.
Only 300 miles of this daunting journey was by rail. The rest involved traversing some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world.
I managed to complete the rescue of hundreds of folios during my three-month attachment at the provincial archives, and each one is annotated with my signature to record my role in the restoration work.
That was 10 years ago and my venerable elder archivist and I parted on good terms – after all, she did give me an excellent reference.
It was as I was completing my MA at Westminster University, six months ago that I realised that my work in Gansu archives could provide valuable original source data for a seminar project.
However, when I contacted provincial archives authority for copies of some of the restored manuscripts, I was told such documents could not be published abroad.
Some state secrets, it seems, can go on forever.
Having failed to persuade the authorities to relent, I have had to rely on memory and notes, which, fortunately, I’d made of some of the most important manuscripts to tell the story you are now reading.
But if there was no deal with the modern-day Mandarins of Beijing for my project, it was a highly imaginative agreement between the old guard and the new of twilight Imperial china which ensured the Zhongshan Bridge actually got built,
For reading through those manuscripts, it soon became clear to me that this was almost the bridge that never was. Its planning and construction was plagued by tortured wrangling in the Manchu bureaucracy.
Though not explicitly stated in the Mandarin manuscripts, it seems certain that an amazing compact was reached between traditionalist elements who were obstructing the barbarian iron bridge and the modernisers who had won the ear of the Emperor.
Incredibly, Lanzhou City Council was prevailed on to organise the building of a second bridge soon after the contract for the iron bridge was signed.
This was the deliciously named “Handshake Bridge”, a traditionally built crossing, not over the Yellow River, but across the Leitan, a tiny tributary to the west of the city.
The Handshake Bridge paled in comparison to the iron bridge. At only 27 metres long and 4.6 metres wide, it was for use only by pedestrians – and a few at a time.
Despite its modest dimensions, the Handshake Bridge was warmly welcomed – especially by poets, artists and scholars who nicknamed it “The Rainbow Bridge” because its traditional curved structure was said, poetically, to resemble a rainbow.
It was to become a popular tourist destination until 1952 when it was demolished – to make way for a motorway by-pass.
In contrast, Lanzhou historic iron bridge still stands today, a symbol of the country’s crucial decision to join the modern world.
And at a cost of 82,500 kg of “white silver” - equivalent
The whole project was born out of Imperial China’s long nightmare period of unequal treaties, culminating in suppressing of the Boxers in 1900. The first non-stone, non-pontoon crossing of any river in China was, arguably, the Manchu dynasty’s last throw of the dice in the survival stakes.
And once built, it managed a succession of devastating national crises including the internecine strife the warlord era, the depredations unleashed by Japanese imperialism between 1931 and 1945, civil war between the Western-backed Kuomintang and Mao Tse-tung’s liberation armies, and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
Fortunately, few knew of the bridge’s antecedents or of the connections between Lanzhou’s the running dogs with the capitalist West.
The most dangerous moment for the bridge came in August 1949 when Mao’s Red Star guerrilla armies clashed in a titanic three-day battle with the America-backed Nationalist forces of General Chiang Kai-shek at Lanzhou.
The bridge was severely damaged in fierce crossfire, and most of its wooden superstructure destroyed. It was only saved when the People’s Liberation Army overran the KMT garrison defenders to capture bridge “for the people”.
On 1 September 1992, the importance of the bridge was finally publicly recognised when Lanzhou Metropolitan City Council erected a monument at the south end of the crossing.
The official plaque stated that the bridge, originally built to
Lanzhou’s honourable Mayor Peng Yingjia would have been smiling with his ancestors. He was the Imperial Mandarin who had initiated and the empire’s great leap forward into the 20th century,. The survival of the bridge into the 21st millennium has turned his life’s greatest work into a crowning milestone on modern-day China’s new Long March to First World Status.
When, standing on the wind-swept banks of the Yellow River in 1096, he’d first proposed a permanent iron bridge to replace the hazards of crossing by sheepskin rafts in summer and ice-bridges I winter, the Mandarin old guard were aghast.
It didn’t help that he proposed realising his dream with the help of foreign technology,
Soon the whispering campaign began.
Lanzhou city council officials secretly wrote to Shen Yun,
governor-general of northwest district, accusing him of embarking
on a personal ego trip at public expense.
Peng was summoned the regional capital Sian to explain. What angered Shen, who had handpicked Peng as the mayor, had not let him in on his grandiose scheme in advance.
A contrite Peng humbly pleaded that he would never dare bandy around any great undertaking without a concrete blueprint - and handed over a draft contract with the German engineering firm who’d agreed to build the bridge.
Shen was won over, even though the great
Shen was persuaded to present the idea to the Imperial court. Peng knew very well that the bureaucrats in Peking, who might not pay attention to a provincial mayor, would be falling over themselves to help a trusted confidant of the Emperor.
It was Shen who had escorted Kuang-hsü and the Dowager Empress
from Sian on their return to Peking five years earlier when the
armies of eight treaty-port Western nations sacked Peking after
suppressing the Boxer
Shen granted Peng plenipotentiary powers to build the bridge, issued an edict to the Lanzhou city council ordering no one was to interfere.
In June of 1907, the first batch of the bridge materials arrived at Tientsin Port from German. From that morment on, Peng and his officials faced two challenges: to get the prefabricated sections of bridge from the east coast port to Lanzhou, across 1,100 miles to west.
The railway only went as far as Zhengzhou, 300 miles from Tientsin. From there, it was cross-country all the way, using horses, mules and camels.
The manuscripts minutely detail the vicissitudes of this 19 months feat of endurable and organisation. On one occasion, the imperial army had to be called on to help deliver the bridge sections stranded after four horses had died and three carts fell apart as he drivers threatened to strike.
Around the Chinese New Year of 1908, 160 cart-drivers, overseers and guards were stranded on a mountain track for three days blizzards as temperature fell to minus 20 degree Celsius. Local county council officials save the days by sending 10 jars of spirit and 30 kilograms of cooked beef as a New Year’s gift.
And while Peng’s men battled in the Chinese landscape, he was daily mired in wrangles over custom duties, late deliveries and expenses.
The project almost came to a halt before it had started – over the appointment of a lead engineer. Instead of an experienced professional, a young American in his 20s was hired. McLeod Mamboben initially sighed up a temporary contract, but the young engineer soon won over sceptical Chinese project officials.
Mayor Peng’s biggest challenge came after the first bridge section arrived at Lanzhou. A Confucian scholar submitted a petition, asking the Emperor to issue a mandate to stop building the bridge.
The petition invoked the ambitions of forefathers, warned the iron bridge project would blow a big hole in the government finance.
The scholar also assured that the bridge would destroy Lanzhou City‘s natural defences to the north side of the Yellow River. “The ancient art of war told us that defending a bridge is the hardest part in military action”, the petition pleaded.
Peng’s reply was simple and direct: “Our forefathers also said the first duty for a government was to care for people. My determination is to free people from the difficulty of crossing the river”
In the spring of 1908, the building work began. And the junior engineer McLeod Mamboben earned a reputation for his hard work and wholehearted engagement. He won the respect of both Chinese and Germany bosses.
After nearly four years of unyielding efforts, the 233.33 m long and 7 m high bridge was finally completed in July 1909. Derek Gauss was rewarded with a bonus of white silver 2000 liang, or 1000kg. The bridge was officially named as “THE FIRST BRIDGE”.
It was a unwilling alliance between a rookie US engineer and a Chinese imperial courtier. But for Peng Yingjia, the history maker, there was no white silver or fulsome letters of praise. He only merited the briefest thumbnail sketch in China’s Manchuria Dynasty Famous Courtiers
Mr Mamboben, the American engineer, stayed in Lanzhou to maintain the bridge till the end of his life. Local chronicles recorded that the junior engineer had once gone on bended knees to a warlord begging him not to destroy his bridge. “Please bury me at the end of the bridge” were his last words in the world.