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(2015-06-29 14:31:16)




by Brendan Whyte and Ting Zhao

Dr. Brendan Whyte is Assistant Curator of Maps, and Mr. Ting Zhao is a map cataloguer, at the National Library of Australia.


Transliteration note: The Romanisation of Chinese placenames, particularly for cities with a long history of contact with the West, is complicated by historical attempts to render their pronunciation into Latin, English, French, German and other languages. Over its history, the railway discussed here has been known as the Peiping-Hankow, Peking-Hankow, and Beijing-Hankou Railway, the last name using the now-standard pinyin transcription system. The first time a name is given herein in a non-pinyin form (e.g. Peking), it is followed by the pinyin name in square brackets (e.g. [Beijing]).




arlier this year (2012), the National Library of Australia purchased a collection of historical Asian maps. One of these was a 1909 Map of Peking-Hankow Railway with time table and fare table (Figure 1), printed and published in Shanghai by the Commercial Press.  The map and timetable were in pristine condition, despite their century-old age and the thin paper on which they were printed. Both were still folded inside the envelope in which they were originally sold.


Before describing and analysing the map and timetable, a brief history of railways in China up to 1914 is given, followed by a history of the Peking-Hankow [now Beijing-Hankou] line up to the present day.




While a handful of enlightened Chinese has recognised the usefulness of railways from soon after their development in Europe in the 1830s, it was not until the 1860s that serious proposals were made, generally by westerners themselves, to construct railways in China. These early schemes were rejected by the authorities on a variety of grounds: fear of foreign political, economic and cultural penetration; peasant opposition to land acquisition and the disturbances to local feng shui (geomancy) that construction would entail, and also a general ideological reactionary opposition to modernisation. For example, an 1863 proposal by 27 foreign firms for a line west from Shanghai to Soochow [Suzhou] was ignored, along with the more extensive proposals of Sir MacDonald Stephenson in the same year, to link Hankow with Burma; and a toy railway built by a British merchant outside the Hsuan Wu [Xuanwu] gate of Peking in 1865, to promote railways, was suppressed by the government after a hostile local reaction.  Likewise when a 10-km line from Shanghai to the Yangtze [Chang Jiang] River mouth at Woosung [Wusong] was constructed in 1875/6 by Jardine Matheson without authorisation, the Chinese government bought it up the next year and immediately dismantled it, the rolling stock being dumped on a beach in Taiwan!


The first non-abortive railway in China was finally built in 1881: a 10-km track from the Kaipeng coal mine at Tangshan near Tianjin. It was initially horse-drawn, but soon added a steam locomotive, known as “the Rocket of China” after Robert Stevenson’s famous locomotive of 1829. By 1894 this line had been extended nearly 300 km to become the Peking-Mukden [Beijing-Shenyang] line. By the same year an 80-km line was also in operation in northern Taiwan.


Thus by 1894, China had barely less than 400 km of track, and while the railway had been grudgingly accepted by mandarins and peasants alike, it was still viewed with suspicion. With China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, however (as a result of which Taiwan was ceded to Japan), the glaring inferiority of Chinese power was revealed to the west as well as to the mandarins themselves. The imperial powers were quick to scramble for concessions of all kinds, not the least of which were railway concessions, while the Chinese realised they needed to modernise, and this meant promoting industry and improving internal transportation, both of which would be realised by railways. Despite the last gasp of the reactionaries in the Boxer rebellion of 1900, the 20 years between the Sino-Japanese war and the First World War saw almost 10,000 km of railways laid in China, 77% of which was foreign-financed. But after Japan’s defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, the ‘scramble for concessions’ was over, as the Chinese sought to emulate the modernisation that the Japanese had already undertaken since opening up in the 1860s. With conservatism in retreat, the government encouraged locally-financed railway operations, and after the Republican revolution which overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1911, adopted a policy to nationalise all the concessionary lines. After the First World War, western investment in Chinese railways almost ceased as those nations concentrated on their own reconstruction. Political instability in China, and her default on some loan repayments in 1917 did not help. In comparison with the two decades prior to 1914, in the following twenty years to 1935, only 6000 km of track was built in China, of which only 22% was foreign financed.




The story of the Peking-Hankow [Beijing-Hankou] line up to 1906 is most easily given by quoting a contemporary source. A French-language account of the new railway was given in Le Mouvement Géographique (#28, 1906), and the facts from that article were anonymously summarised in English in a 1906 issue of the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, under the title “The Peking-Hankow Railway”, which also reproduced the sketch map that accompanied the original article. The American summary reads:


The line from Peking to Hankow is 753 miles [1212 km] long between the terminal points, with short branches to mines, adding about sixty miles [100 km] to the length of the track. It traverses, from north to south, the provinces of Pechili, Honan and Hupé [i.e. Hebei, Henan & Hubei], which are among the most populous of China. The construction of the road was begun at both ends of the lines at the end of 1898 and the opening of 1899. The northern section of the work had been extended for a distance of 114 miles [183 km] south of Peking when it was interrupted in May, 1900, by the Boxer revolt. A large part of the completed portion of the railway was destroyed, a considerable number of the employees were killed, and the final completion of the road was undoubtedly set back at least a year by the insurrection.


Early in 1901 order was sufficiently restored, through the military occupation of Peking by the Powers, to warrant the resumption of work. There was no further interruption of the enterprise, and it was steadily – though, according to Western ideas, not very rapidly – pushed until its completion towards the end of 1905. It was officially opened on November 12 of that year [Kent 1907, 104: 15 Nov.; Sun 1954, 130: 13 Nov.].


A little more than half the road was built by the northern working force, which met the southern party a little to the south of the Hoang River [Huang He = Yellow River].


The railway was built by the “Société d’étude de chemins de fer en Chine” [i.e. Company for the Study of Railways in China], composed of a group of French and Belgian banks and some of the leading construction companies of the two countries. This company carried out the work under a revised concession granted by the Chinese government in June, 1898, under which the capital of the company, $250,000, was augmented by the floating of bonds to the amount of $22,500,000 [£4,500,000], guaranteed by the Chinese Government and by the earnings of the railroad, the debt to be paid in twenty years after 1909.


Most of the material, fixed and rolling, was imported from Belgium and France. China having little timber, even the railway ties were imported, 130,000 of them coming from France, 50,000 from the Baltic countries, a small quantity from Oregon, and the remainder from Japan. The steel works of Hanyang, near Hankow, supplied about 75,000 tons of rails. A supplementary issue of bonds to the amount of $2,500,000 [FFR12,500,000] under the same conditions as the first loan [5% interest, security being the railway itself], was floated in 1905 to meet the final expenses of the construction and rolling stock.


At the close of last year [i.e. 1905] there were in the service 101 locomotives, 145 passenger cars (first, second, and third class), and 2,200 freight cars of from 15 to 40 tons capacity [all of French or Belgian origin].  The foreign builders of the road have formed a mining company under the name of “Mines du Luhan,” which holds the concession for the development of several coal fields that will supply the railroad with an excellent quantity of fuel.


Although the line extends in part through a very hilly and even mountainous country, there are only two short tunnels, both of them piercing the hills immediately south of the Hoang [Yellow] River. There are, however, about 100 steel bridges from 650 to 2,200 feet [200 to 670 m] in length, besides the great bridge over the Hoang River, which is wholly constructed of metal, is nearly 9,900 feet [actually 9875′ = 2915 m] long, and is one of the great bridges of the world.


The abstract of statistics in the Chinese “Returns of Trade” for 1905 says that the work on the prolongation of this railway from Hankow to Canton [i.e. Guangzhou] was deferred until it should be settled who was to construct it and with what funds, but was resumed in March, 1906, under Chinese auspices and with Chinese capital.


To fill out this contemporary account, we can add that the Chinese government planned the line from 1889, intending to build it itself. But by 1896, attempts to raise local capital for the line, whether by government appropriations, private subscription, or both, had failed. Foreign capital was then sought, and the negotiations leading up to the awarding of the contract to the Franco-Belgian syndicate “precipitated one of the acute periods of the ‘Battle for concessions’” by the various imperial powers (Rhea 1919, 94). The negotiations are described by Kent (1907, 96-103), who notes that even while these were in progress, the Chinese had begin construction themselves at both ends of the line from 1896, so that the Belgian concessionaire actually began its construction in 1898 from Baoding (km 146), not the initial Beijing terminal of Lukouchiao [Lugouqiao]. When construction restarted after the Boxer rebellion, the line was extended 15 kilometres from Lugouqiao to the very walls of Peking, directly outside the southern, Qianmen or Zhengyangmen, gate. This caused the line, hitherto known as the Lu-Han line (from the first two syllables of the terminal stations) to become the Pe-Han line (and it has since been renamed the Jing-Han line using the last two syllables of Beijing and Wuhan).


With the line proving very profitable even before its full completion, the Chinese were eager to free themselves of the 20% profit and management control vested in the Belgians by redeeming the loan, and did so in 1908 by means of a 30-year Anglo-French loan of £5,000,000 that left control of the line in Chinese government hands from 1 January 1909, albeit with many French technical staff (for details on the redemption, see Lee 1977, 211-223). This loan, underwritten by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and the Banque de l’Indochine, was at 5% interest until 5 October 1923 and 4½% thereafter, and secured on salt revenues, and sundry taxes in the provinces of Chekiang, Kiangsu, Hupeh and Chihli [Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Hubei & Hebei].


So from 1909 to 1911 the line was managed by the Qing, and after 1911 by the Republican, governments. It comprised fully a quarter of China’s railway mileage in the first year of the republic, and generated good profits in its first decade of operation, transporting 15% of the country’s coal production. A balance sheet for the years 1906 to 1913 is given by Charignon (1914) and reproduced in part below. The currency is the Mexican silver dollar, the standard international currency of East Asia at the period, and to which the Chinese yuan had been pegged at par in 1889.


Table 1. Peking-Hankow Railway balance sheet 1906-1913 (units: Chinese silver dollars)









































































  % of revenue










Over the period 1906-1912, passenger revenue increased almost 50%, freight revenue had more than doubled, and total revenue, expenses and profits had all increased by about 90%. Profit continued to be good until 1917, in which year extensive floods destroyed much of the track and many bridges.


An early description of the line is given by Kent (1907, 106-108):


The gauge is standard (4′8½″), and the rails, a considerable portion of which have been turned out by the Hanyang Government Iron Works, weigh approximately 85 lbs. to the yard [i.e. 42.2 kg/m].




The railway serves a thickly populated country of splendid possibilities. Running north from Hankow, for the first 60 or 70 miles [100 km] it traverses a well-watered region of great fertility. Then, for a time, the nature of the country changes, the plain giving place to picturesque hills, for the most part clad with young valleys. Embankments and cuttings carry the line ever upward until it reaches the mouth of the tunnel, the first to be constructed in China, that pierces the Hwaiyang [Dabei] Mountains, dividing the Yangtze Valley from the basin of the Yellow River. At Hsinyang [Xinyang] the plain is again reached, and for miles the line runs through an orchard country, the commencement of the Great North China Plain, stretching away to the north and the north-east beyond Peking towards the Great Wall.


The characteristic of the greater portion of this great plain is the unique development of the famous loess deposit, with its wonderful fertility, which renders North China one of the most productive grain-producing regions in the world. It is of interest too, in that its inhabitants, at least in the southern portion, are largely cave-dwellers. [...] And as one travels by the railway, something of this phenomenon can be observed when approaching the south bank of the Yellow River, where a series of loess hills rise with ingeniously contrived cave-dwellings at varying altitudes in the hillsides.


To proceed, however, the line, in brief, traverses a richer country agriculturally than that traversed by the Peking-Newchwang [i.e. Peking-Mukden = Beijing-Shenyang] line, and when the Pekin Syndicate’s concession areas in Honan and Shansi [Henan & Shanxi provinces] have been developed it will serve what is thought to be one of the most inexhaustible coalfields in the world. Furthermore, a concession has been obtained for working valuable mines in Lincheng [70 km S of Shijiazhuang], in the province of Chihli [Hebei], in connection with the railway. Again, the importance of the two terminals must not be overlooked in estimating the factors that should make for success. In the north is the capital, with a great population, supplied to a large extent with the necessaries of life from the rich plains to the south-west, while at the southern terminal lies primarily Hankow, the third treaty port in China, with Hanyang in the angle formed by the confluence of the Han River and the Yangtze, and Wuchang on the opposite bank of the Yangtze in close proximity. These three cities form together the industrial centre of China, the “Chicago of the East,” as they have been called, and between them boast several factories, including a large match factory, antimony ore works, the Hupeh Arsenal and Small Arms factory, and the important Hanyang Government Iron and Steel Works. Furthermore, in course of time the rich province of Shensi [Shaanxi] will be reached by the branch line between Kaifengfu [Kaifeng] and the capital city of Hsianfu [Xi’an], so that there should be every chance of favourable development in that region.


This expected development did, indeed, occur. Myer (1985) notes that the line “provided the means by which hundreds of thousands of farmers were able to participate in handicraft production, grow cash crops, and thereby earn additional nonfarm income; it helped to create new financial institutions; it produced additional demand for products from the Hanyang Iron and Steel Works [opposite Hankou]; and it made it possible for the government to obtain more salt-tax revenue after its reform of the salt-monopoly system.” But the line also had some negative economic effects: “Its managers discouraged any new railroad construction into Shansi [i.e. Shanxi province] which might develop that province’s rich coal resources; the line often displaced workers from water and overland transportation services”.


A later study shows that adds that cotton, tobacco and sesame cultivation spread along the line simultaneously with construction, that there were increased merchant activities and peasant expectations, and that the line helped alleviate the famines of Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces in 1920-21; but otherwise benefits for the peasant appear inconclusive. The line was also plagued by inefficiencies: “expensive foreign experts, corruption, waste of resources, overstaffing and nepotism” (Edmonds 1988). Huenemann (1984) holds that railways did not lead to new movements of goods, only to cheaper and quicker movement, with less spoilage and loss, along traditional routes, and that this held even for the Peking-Hankow line which as late as the 1930s was one of only six Chinese lines that did not have direct water-route competition.


The profits and developments of the 1910s and early 1920s reversed abruptly in the middle of the latter decade when deteriorating efficiency and profits reflected China’s economic stagnation and decline, affected in no small part by the political instability and civil war into which the country descended.


In 1936, the southern continuation of the line, begun in 1905, from Wuchang, on the southern bank of the Yangtze opposite Hankow, to Canton [Guangzhou] was completed. Thereafter, apart from a ferry connection over the Yangtze, passengers could ride direct from Peking to Canton.


Much of the line and its rolling stock were dismantled or deliberately destroyed in the face of the Japanese advances into China in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The line was restored after the 1945, and direct connection to the southern Wuchang-Canton line was made when the first bridge over the Yangtze, a double-deck road-rail bridge, was completed with Russian assistance, opening on 15 October 1957, replacing the former ferry service.  This connection, via Hanyang, consolidated the three sister cities of Wuchang, Hankow and Hanyang, each on a separate bank at the confluence of the Han and Yangtze rivers, into a single metropolis since known as Wuhan. Being the backbone of China’s north-south communication, the line had been mostly doubled by 1957-58.


In April 1960, the 3015-metre 102-span single-track bridge of 1905 across the Yellow River north of Zhengzhou was replaced a couple of hundred metres downstream by a 2890-metre double-track bridge of 71 spans. The piles of the original bridge can still be seen today (e.g. on GoogleEarth).


By the 1990s, the line had been electrified (25kV, 50Hz), but with the need for speed in such a large and populous country, a new high-speed line paralleling the original line was proposed. Construction began on the southern Wuhan-Guangzhou section in 2005, and it opened in 2009; construction on the northern section from Wuhan to Beijing began in 2008 and the scheduled opening is set for 1 October 2012. An extension at the southern end to Kowloon in Hong Kong is expected to open in 2015.




The 90×48 cm 1909 map is printed on a portrait 100×59 cm sheet. The 30×50 cm landscape timetable is on a 39×55 cm sheet. Both came folded in a 34×18 cm portrait envelope (Figure 1).




The map (Figures 2 & 3) is at a scale of about 1:1,425,000 and was engraved in a fairly typical engraved cartographic style for the time. Relief is shown by hachures, which make the mountain ranges stand out as ‘fuzzy caterpillars’. The map detail is entirely in black, except for all Romanised placename text which has been overprinted in red in an unidentified early Romanisation system (neither Pinyin nor Wade Giles). The Chinese names read top-to-bottom or right-to-left (which is confusing for Sinophones today used to reading left-to-right), yet the longitudes along the top and bottom margins read left-to-right! The main Peking-Hangkow line and its stations are shown, as well as the several branches of that railway (but without any stations). From north to south the branches are (see also Figure 4):

- two connections from Peking, one in the east and one in the south of the walled city, both branches converging at Tchan-hsin-tien [Changxindian];

- three short branches to the west: 16 km from Liang-sian-hsien [Liangxian Xiang] to T’oli [Tuoli]; 16 km from Liou-li-ho [Liuli He] to coal mines at Chou-k’ou-tien [Zhoukoudian]; and 43 km from Kao-pe(i)-tien [Gaobeidian] to Liang-ke-chuang [Lianggezhuang] to access the Western Qing tombs which are now a UNESCO World Heritage site (the last 10 km of this branch have since been removed back to Yi Xian);

- a short branch of 3-4 km east from Pao-ting [Baoding] to Nankuan;

- a 230 km branch west from Huo-lu-hsien [Shijiazhuang] across the Great Wall to Taiyuan in Shanxi province;

- two branches from Hsin-hsiang-hsien [Xinxiang Xian] on the north side of the Yellow River: 120 km west to coal mines at Tse-chou [Zezhou, now Jincheng] and 75 km northeast to mines at Tao-khou [Daokou, now Hua Xian] respectively (the latter line had closed by 1968);

- two branches from Tsen-tcheou [Zhengzhou] on the south side of the Yellow River: 125 km west to Ho-nan-fu [Luoyang] and 70 km east to Kai Fong [Kaifeng] respectively;

- a short branch west from Ho-shang-kiao [Heshangqiao, now Changge] to a mine or quarry.


The map also shows other existing and proposed railways (all of which are still functioning today). The existing lines shown are:

- a section of the Peking-Mukden [Beijing-Shenyang] line into Manchuria via Tientsin [Tianjin], built 1881-1897;

- a line north from Peking through the Great Wall towards Mongolia;

- a short branch east from Peking to Tung [Tong, now Tongxian], completed in 1902, at the northern end of the Grand Canal;

- a line from the German concession of Tsingtao [Qingdao] off the map westwards to Tsi-nan [Jinan], built 1900-1904, with a 39 km southern branch from Chang-tien [Zhangdian] to Po-shan [Boshan].

The proposed line links Tientsin [Tianjin] via Tsi-nan [Jinan] southwards to Phu’kow [Pukou] on the north bank of the Yangtze opposite Nan-king [Nanjing], generally following the route of the Grand Canal.


Finally the map also shows province boundaries, and major and minor roads.

 (to be continued)




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