China against the backdrop of high speed rail expansion
In 2008 I was working on a project about North America and its railroads. I’d gone south for the winter and back north with spring. When the opportunity to visit Beijing came up I had nowhere in particular to be so I went. It was a lark. China was so far beyond my orbit that I imagined it was a once in a lifetime trip. I flew out from Vancouver just after the Beijing Olympics. The Bird’s Nest stadium and Water Cube were in the inflight magazine. I also had some inkling of an old photo with thousands of bicycles filling a Peking street. Mostly though I had no idea what to expect. My first glimpse of China was through a window as we taxied in from the runway; a chorus line of twenty or so workers push-brooming the vast tarmac. They were tiny beneath the planes which were in turn miniaturized by the massive gleaming PEK terminal.
The next year my series By Rail went to a festival in Zhejiang, and I was able to go along. In 2010 I had work in Canada’s pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. Somehow China had become part of my beat. I enrolled in a Mandarin course and contrived a project to return for. I grasped that photographing exotic locales could set me up as some Orientalist looky-loo. There’s no shortage of picturesque archaisms in China, but it’s also ferociously modern. For every gang of tarmac sweepers, some futuristic mega-project looms in the background. There are still rickety bicycle flocks, but half the world’s tallest buildings are also there. China is riddled with contradictions, but it’s perfectly capable of withstanding consideration, misunderstanding and even critique. My primary intention for this work was to acquaint myself with the nation that seems set to dominate the coming decades.
The Great Eastern looks at China against the backdrop of high speed rail expansion. In many ways it’s in response to my study of North America, the westernmost front of Western civilization. In many ways China’s high speed network itself is a response to the West. In the history of humanity only the US Interstate Highway System (1956-92) is more expansive and expensive. I don’t see these metrics as all that interesting or useful though. What fascinates me is the civilizational engineering each scheme facilitates. The United States was a different place before the Interstates. McCarthyism and the desperate need for a civil rights movement notwithstanding, there’s something charming about the notion of driving along a patchwork of country roads, city streets and barely paved byways. I like to imagine eating fried chicken in the South and seafood on the coasts, and chatting with locals who’d point you in the right direction or say where to get gas… and there would have been a lot of those stops. Travel was slow, confusing and weather dependent back then. The America we know today began taking shape in the sixties. “Love affair with the automobile” was coined in 1961. City cores were rendered driveable as suburban living took off. The four McDonald’s restaurants in operation when the highways bill passed in 1956 would be a thousand in 1968. Development came with social costs, social benefits and ostensibly neutral markers, but greater navigability was conspicuously good for business. Google Books’ Ngram Viewer indicates that "consumer” appeared in print about as much as “citizen” in 1956. At present it’s used about three times as often.
China is at its own crossroads now. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution left huge swaths of the country dysfunctional and languishing out of time. Some areas became modernized in subsequent decades as economic growth drew an estimated 200 million rural migrants into cities between 1990 and 2015. Nonetheless more than 30% of the Chinese population still work in agriculture, and much of that is at subsistence levels. It’s down from a staggering 60% in the early 2000s, but it’s been centuries since the West was structured like that. For context, 2.5% of America’s labour force is in agriculture. In this sense China’s high speed rail system could be likened to a time machine. It will connect myriad backwaters to robust coastal cities and also to one another. Removing passenger traffic from existing lines will effectively double the nation’s freight capacity. And perhaps most importantly, this sprawling infrastructure project is the armature for millions of regional and local ventures that could reduce, then stem, then reverse the tide of migrants draining China’s interior. New stations are often built tens of kilometres into the countryside with expectations of filling in from and out to brand new centres. Eerie empty towerscapes are built on spec, and people carrying live chickens zoom along in sci-fi trains. At some point I got over my bewilderment and accepted local realities as best I could. The weirdness of disembodied western tropes and equally odd homegrown solutions are likely moot anyhow. This is a process of reinvention. Missteps are inevitable; some are colossal failures, some are rounding errors, some are teachable moments, and some get papered over. Fortunes can be conjured out of nothing or lost cent by painful cent. Entrepreneurial Chinese are hustling hustling cheek by jowl with others too exhausted from basic survival to even conceive of more. These all exist in intimate and unflinching proximity.
As a wandering foreigner, my encounters were understandably superficial. I refined a smalltalk routine through repetition: “-I am from Canada. -Your railway, the landscape is very interesting. -I don’t have any children. -I like Chinese food. Yes, stomach misses home.” I accepted that people would pet my beard and liken it to Marx’s. I explained myself to police who seemed not at all suspicious, just concerned I’d become injured or lost and they’d have some sort of consequences to deal with. Very occasionally I crossed paths with other foreigners, mostly businessmen looking tired and displeased. Non-tourist China can be kind of gruelling. Some hotels aren’t able to accept foreigners. Some areas are entirely off limits. I never did learn to discern where I could and couldn’t be.
Lodgings tend to fall into three basic categories: fine, vile, and ad hoc. One “business hotel” I stayed in had no mattresses, just cardboard-and-slats bed simulacra with elaborate pillow displays and sheets stapled on. Another place probably wouldn’t be considered a building where I’m from. It had no windows. A shower had been assembled but not hooked up to anything. There was just a ribbon across a gaping elevator hole, and the carpet was shaped and sized for an altogether different room… I could see how it might have resembled images from a lo-res brochure, but I don’t believe that the proprietor had never actually been inside another hotel. That’s the hustle though, and good on him I suppose. He wasn’t catering to my tastes. China folded aggressive Capitalism into a Communist universe. It drinks orange juice hot. It can define its own conventions of travel, small business and comfort. McDonald’s became ubiquitous with the advent of the Interstates. Maybe we’ll all be stapling ourselves into bed by the time this plays out.