China’s railways fascinate railway supporters and enthusiasts. But did you know that Chinese railways were in no small part the work of the French and Belgians in the early 20th century?
In 1898, in a challenging political environment, the Chinese government and the Chinese Imperial Railway awarded the contract for construction of a 1,214-km railway line between Beijing and Hankou (now Wuhan) to a Belgian company. It was the first part of a major railway project to link northern and southern China.
The French and Belgian teams who were to complete this colossal task were led by a Belgian engineer, Jean Jadot, with the assistance of French engineer Georges Bouillard. In less than seven years, these men built a line equivalent to the Brussels-Nice route, without the infrastructure needed to transport materials and equipment to the site. In spite of this, during this time they succeeded in building 2,420 bridges, 125 stations and all of the line equipment needed for the trains to run. This was achieved despite the work being suspended for more than six months in 1900 due to the violence of the Boxer Rebellion, which caused much damage on the northern part of the line.
To complete work on the line, numerous French and Belgian suppliers of railway equipment and metal structures were called upon to provide locomotives, wagons and other necessary equipment. This included, to name but a few, Fives-Lille, Schneider & Cie, Cail, Franco-Belge, Cockerill, La Meuse, Tubize, etc., as well as world-renowned construction companies such as Baume et Marpent and many others.
From 1905, the newly constructed line was to become the backbone of the future Chinese network, later extended to the south with the addition of branch lines and connections with the few other existing lines constructed during the same period.
After the first part of the 20th century, which was marked by turmoil, the People’s Republic of China relied on this network to provide a major boost for its railways. This involved the phenomenal development of high-speed rail in China from 2008, as well as huge numbers of passenger and freight services. Today, China boasts international connections reaching as far as Europe; its railway project has come full circle.
This great adventure is recounted in an exceptional book, richly illustrated with more than 300 photos and maps – many of which are being published for the first time – as well as exclusive drawings by a duo of renowned artists: François Schuiten of Belgium and Li Kunwu of China.
The book, published by Éditions Dargaud-Kana, costs €34.90 and is available in French and Dutch from major bookshops. It is also being exhibited at Train World in Schaerbeek, Brussels, from 7 May to 10 October 2021.