Chinese Workers of the World
Colonialism, Chinese Labor, and the Yunnan–Indochina Railway
Selda Altan



ON A SCORCHING SUMMER DAY in June 1906, a Sichuanese named Li Chengfa left his hometown with his eighteen-year-old son. They were two of the many Chinese workers recruited to toil at the construction of a foreign-built railway in the neighboring Yunnan province. They had signed work contracts with a French recruitment company on recommendation from the Catholic missionaries in their village.1 Along with the wadded blankets, blue work jackets, and bamboo fiber hats they had received, they were also given expectations and dreams of opportunity, soon to be tested by dangerous and challenging conditions.

It was a time of complex international politics. On April 10, 1898, the Qing central government had signed a treaty with France. In compensation for German colonial acquisitions in northern China, the treaty granted the French Indochinese government the right to build a meter-gauge railway from Haiphong, Vietnam, to Kunming, China, the capital of the southwestern border province of Yunnan.2 With the French parliament ratifying the convention on June 20, 1901, and the establishment of a private company, the railway’s construction began in earnest by 1903. Yet, the execution of this ambitious project proved to be riddled with challenges. The undertaking became a monumental engineering feat, particularly with a considerable portion of the 466-km Yunnan section constructed in the inhospitable and disease-ridden Nanxi valley. Ascending from 76 km in Hekou to 2,030 m in Kunming, the railway’s path demanded the creation of 158 tunnels, 22 iron bridges, and 108 stone bridges as it wound through mountainous terrain and across turbulent rivers.3 These engineering challenges were compounded by a series of problems, including the railway company’s austere labor management, the recklessness of Italian contractors, persistent worker resistance, and a bourgeoning nationalist sentiment in the region. As a result, contentions, rebellions, and a fatal crisis involving thousands of Chinese and Vietnamese workers turned what initially seemed like a promising venture for colonial expansion into a symbol of imperialist misadventure.

MAP 1 Map showing French Indochina and China’s southwestern provinces in the early twentieth century.

Amid this turbulent backdrop of conflict and failure, the experiences of ordinary laborers like Li and his fellow workers take on profound significance. Their story illustrates a conflict, rooted in changing production relations and work ethics, between Chinese traditional labor practices and French industrial expectations. Upon their arrival, Li and his son were tasked with shoveling a large trench and building the embankment at the entrance and exit of the trench, using the soil drawn from it. The task was difficult for the men who were not used to working with the peculiar Western tools. The workers quickly overcame their clumsiness in using the shovel, but the wheelbarrow seemed outlandish.4 What was the point of using that contraption instead of a shoulder pole, which left their hands free for smoking?

To French employers, practices like the use of shoulder poles and frequent breaks for smoking were the root causes of inefficiency. Workers’ acts, including smoking or absenteeism due to illness, were scorned as “pretexts for them [the workers] to stroll and idle around.”5 Any restriction on their individual “prerogative” would be condemned and lead to “nothing less than a strike or a mass desertion of the worksites.”6 The journalist who detailed Li’s railway work experience stated that due to the strength of trade guilds in China, which zealously defended the rights of their members, any disagreement over the implementation of the contract terms or the enforcement of work discipline would cause strikes or mass desertions, albeit temporarily resolved by prompt interventions.

To satisfy the expectations of their workers, whom the French journalist labeled as “self-indulgent,” the railway company’s managers had to organize the work in such a way that the workers labored for appropriate durations, depending on the season, and had enough breaks for meals, naps, and observance of significant holidays such as the Chinese New Year, Lantern Festival, Dragon Festival, Autumn Festival, and the Festival of the Emperor. Every month, the company granted the workers a two-day respite to partake in nearby markets and fairs, as documented by the journalist. These holidays did not include the harvest season, during which Li and his fellows were reported to have increased their income by working on local farms rather than the railway. Owing to traditional work methods and frequent recesses, the output of a Chinese worker amounted to “only a quarter of the work that a good European worker would have done in a shorter time.”7 When considering the added costs of compensation for work-related accidents, allegedly caused by the workers’ ignorance, along with salaries and other benefits, the notion of cheap Chinese labor was a mere fantasy. In the words of the French journalist, “the fate of these [railway] workers was more worthy of envy than pity.”8

FIGURE 0.1 Workers using wheelbarrows at 214 km of the railway. ©Archives Cité du Train–Patrimoine SNCF.

Contrasting the French reporter’s self-serving narrative that painted a rosy picture of the working conditions, Swiss engineer Otto Meister’s (1873–1937) memoirs tell a starkly different story. Both local workers and recruits from other provinces were faced with numerous difficulties immediately after they arrived at the worksites. The region to the south of Mengzi was plagued by fever, cholera, and dysentery. While the European staff enjoyed a diet of chicken, beef, veal, mutton, and various vegetables, even indulging in cakes and tarts baked by Vietnamese cooks (though they had to pay for bread), the contractors hoarded worker provisions due to the logistical challenges of transporting food supplies to the worksites. Many workers were reduced to subsisting on nothing but rice and tea.9 Medical clinics and ambulances were stationed at certain intervals along the railway, but corruption was rife among the medical personnel, who often sold medicine to sick workers at exorbitant prices, despite the company providing medical supplies for free. In Meister’s chilling words, “the coolies were dying like flies.”10 He was tragically correct: by the end of construction, at least 12,000 of approximately 65,000 Vietnamese and Chinese workers had succumbed to malaria, work-related accidents, and fatal conflicts with their employers or Qing military forces.11

While these accounts may appear to be contradictory, they both contain elements of truth. Particularly in the early years of construction, the company and non-Yunnanese worker recruits were caught off guard by the region’s malarial climate. Once the harsh reality was uncovered, workers did not hesitate to abandon the worksites to preserve their lives. These mass desertions, often misinterpreted by Europeans as a cultural distaste for hard work, were only part of the story; unexpected was the widespread worker resistance to harsh working conditions and the contractors’ ruthlessness. Despite the legal advantages held by the European staff, Chinese and Vietnamese workers were unafraid to pursue their interests through both official channels (petitioning and court appeals) and defiant acts (mass desertion, absenteeism, rebellion, theft, and even homicide). While some of these actions might seem unconventional when viewed through the lens of European histories of class struggle, they were indicative of a sophisticated understanding of acceptable work and the growing awareness among Chinese workers of changing production relations and labor market dynamics in an industrializing world. This phenomenon highlights a relatively unexplored dimension of European colonialism in China, namely, the formation of new class identities.

Building Class Identities: A Transnational Analysis

Li was the third child of a prosperous merchant-landowning family from Sichuan, one of China’s largest and most prosperous provinces. The province’s climate was so exceptional and the soil was so fertile that, even with primitive methods, farmers enjoyed bountiful harvests garnering wealth and comfort. Yet, the longstanding tradition of partitioning lands into smaller lots among family members, in adherence to progenitorial rights, had gradually reduced income from agriculture. Historically, the Li family had relied on the trade of silk and vegetable tallows to manufacture soap and candles. But Li’s parents had made a series of unfortunate investments that diminished the family fortune. The financial downturn deepened when the family’s conversion to Catholicism—an unpopular decision within their community—led to social ostracization.

On a larger scale, Li Chengfa’s personal story is intertwined with China’s sweeping socioeconomic transformations at the dawn of the twentieth century. Militarily defeated by European powers and Japan in several wars from 1839 to 1900, China found itself burdened with crippling financial sanctions and a lack of industrial production.12 It had to open its borders to foreign powers for railway projects, mining, and other industrial investments while simultaneously suffering from a parasitic, British-imposed opium trade that caused a steady depletion of Chinese silver reserves.13 The influx of foreign investments in treaty ports, which the Qing government attempted to offset by sponsoring enterprises in nearby locations, served to undermine traditional handicraft industries in the interior. Shanghai, for instance, emerged as a hub for cotton textiles, silk reeling, candles, and soap, largely at the expense of small-scale rural production. By 1907, the only industry in which the Li family remained involved was the home-based production of straw sandals, commonly worn by impoverished Chinese citizens. From 1895 to 1913, Sichuan saw the inauguration of a mere nineteen manufacturing and mining enterprises, a figure still higher than the five native-capital enterprises founded in Yunnan during the same period.14

The confluence of foreign capital, popular rebellions, and administrative reforms in China instigated a series of structural changes, the effects of which were not uniformly distributed across the country’s diverse regions or even within individual provinces. For instance, population increases since the eighteenth century varied in magnitude, leading to dissimilar outcomes in rural interior regions compared to the more commercially developed eastern cities. Similarly, modifications to administrative regulations in the tenancy system enhanced the living standards of farmer-tenants in some provinces, whereas in others there was a trend toward higher deposits and payments in silver instead of copper or payment-in-kind, as in Chongqing, Sichuan.15 The situation in Yunnan, where mining was the main economic activity and diverse ethnic groups populated border areas within a nearly autonomous rule, presented a completely different story. The province consistently ranked among the lowest in the Qing provinces in terms of population size, cultivated land, and rice yields.16

The establishment of treaty ports and the augmented presence of foreign investors and missionaries in peripheral economies created opportunities for peasants needing supplementary income to subsist in an increasingly monetized economy. Li Chengfa’s decision to convert to Christianity, for example, was influenced in part by the church’s role as a safety net, offering immediate help in times of need. In the absence of missionary aid, the Li family lacked the resources to endure recurrent famines. In this evolving economic context, where cash wages became an essential source of income for the average person, Li saw the rationality in working on the railway to earn cash and send it home to pay for the hired labor on the family’s land. Although economic historian Bin Wong posits that Chinese peasants became only semiproletarian due their continued connection to the land—thus differing from their European counterparts—the overall trend was a significant increase in the number of Chinese peasants engaging in wage labor.17

The proletarianization of Chinese peasants became particularly conspicuous in the southern port cities that emerged as hubs of the global coolie trade in the 1850s. In dire need of cheap labor after the abolition of slavery, European colonial powers, led by Britain, looked to the densely populated regions of China and India to fulfill the labor requirements for agricultural production and infrastructural development in their colonies. In this context, the term coolie, originally employed to describe unskilled day laborers, came to signify a particular category of South Asian and Chinese workers who were mass-recruited under contractual agreements stipulating the terms of employment and imposing penal sanctions onto workers for violations of those terms.18

For the male population of certain southern Chinese provinces, such as Fujian and Guangdong, seeking employment abroad in Southeast Asia had long constituted a conventional means of livelihood.19 In the nineteenth century, Dutch and British colonizers in Southeast Asia capitalized on this stable labor source in competition with regional labor “gangs.” Meanwhile, within China, where there was still a sovereign government, Britain used unequal treaties to “liberalize” the Chinese labor market so that it could be freed from the Qing government’s central control. This maneuver facilitated a more flexible and exploitative labor environment, aligned with the interests of foreign powers.

The Treaty of Nanjing, signed in 1842 after the First Opium War between Qing China and Britain, marked an initial step in the transformation of the Chinese labor market. This treaty dissolved Chinese intermediary companies (hongs) by allowing British merchants to “carry on their mercantile transactions with whatever persons they please” in the treaty ports of Xiamen, Fujian, Ningbo, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.20 Immediately after, the Qing government signed similar treaties with other foreign powers, freeing commercial transactions of various kinds. These treaties enabled foreign and Chinese dealers to dispatch mass coolie shipments to French Réunion, Spanish Cuba, Brazil, and Peru, despite a continued government ban on foreign travel. The Beijing Convention, ratified in 1860 after the Second Opium War, affirmed the autonomy of Chinese individuals in engaging with British subjects and “shipping themselves and their families on board any British vessel at any of the open ports of China.”21 An addendum six years later saw the Qing government pledge to end illegal coolie recruitments while also acknowledging the legitimacy of voluntary labor contracts. It even promulgated regulations concerning the conditions of coolie employment abroad. In sum, by 1866 a “free” labor market was created in southern China, which attracted dislocated rural populations to overseas work opportunities.

The same process through which Chinese labor’s circulation expanded across a larger area, from the Americas to Australia and South Africa, whether through free migration or indenture, sparked the development of a global race theory, commonly known as the “Chinese question” or “yellow peril.” On one hand, the theory portrayed the “docile” immigrant Chinese labor force as a menace to the white working classes in the West because trade union leaders contended that Chinese workers lacked the political maturity to cultivate class consciousness and advocate for higher wages.22 On the other hand, there was a recognition of the indispensability of inexpensive Asian labor during a period when it was vital for building the infrastructure of Euro-American capitalism. Still, the Western bourgeoisie campaigned against Chinese immigration. Their concerns centered on the potential threat posed by the success of “Asiatic races” in accumulating capital owing to their unrivaled standing in the global labor supply chain.23 Historian Mae Ngai traces this white anxiety to the gold rushes in the US and Australia, when Chinese gold seekers emerged as successful miners and merchants in the West thanks to their cooperative and egalitarian work arrangements.24

Conversely, Chinese overseas workers’ exposure to diverse labor regimes contributed to their self-definition, enriching their perspectives and interest-seeking actions. Since many Chinese workers viewed these overseas excursions as temporary arrangements to improve their living standards back home, an analysis of Chinese working-class identities would be deficient without considering the insights and experiences returned by these overseas workers.25 Additionally, many Chinese immigrants supported the revolutionary movement in imperial China by sending funds and providing a platform for republican propaganda. Their engagement extended beyond mere financial support, forming an intricate link between the diaspora and the mainland. If we recognize the Chinese republican revolution in 1911 also as a diaspora movement, it is equally crucial to consider the profound impact of Chinese overseas workers in shaping and contributing to the emergence of working-class identities in China.26 Given the interconnected nature of these labor phenomena, this book examines labor recruitment processes for the Yunnan railway within the context of the global coolie trade and Chinese emigration.

Labor and the Limits of Politics in Late Imperial China

Yunnan is known for its long history of uprisings, influenced by the dynamism of its vast miner population and ethnically diverse communities that historically experienced a degree of semiautonomous rule on the fringe of the Qing Empire.27 Right before French incursion into the region, Yunnan’s Muslim miners had revolted against Qing imperial authority and declared their independent sultanate in 1856, an ethnic state that endured until quelled by Qing forces in 1873.28 Prompted by escalating ethnic tensions and foreign intrusions in border regions, the Qing state in the 1870s hastened a program aimed at curtailing the autonomy of native chieftains, a continuation of the policy initiated during the Yongzheng emperor’s reign (r. 1722–1735), in preference for direct administration.29 As part of this plan, the central government tried to consolidate its rule over Yunnan’s ethnic communities by taking a proactive role in economic modernization. Historian C. Patterson Giersch categorizes these governmental initiatives as the initial stage of what he terms “disempowered development,” alluding to the flourishing of the government-backed Han enterprises to the detriment of minority populations.30 Although these policies came to fruition only in the Communist period, they laid the groundwork for viewing the economy as a pivotal factor in state consolidation and national cohesion.

Simultaneously, rising nationalist propaganda emanating from China’s eastern treaty ports found its way to Yunnan with a reimagined conceptualization of national sovereignty. These antidynastic nationalists, akin to Qing officials, posited the economy as the bedrock of sovereignty in the modern age. Nevertheless, in their view, the state’s legitimacy was not derived from the emperor’s divine mandate but rather hinged on achieving a satisfactory growth rate and augmenting citizens’ purchasing powers through industrial output and international trade. The Qing government, conversely, had failed in forestalling foreign domination over the Chinese market and in cultivating a key prerequisite for a robust national economy: competition. In essence, the recognition of a “subject of right,” an individual endowed with civil and political rights before the state, was insufficient to confer the state’s legitimacy.31 Rather, the formation of a “subject of interest” was a requisite, an individual who would vie in the national market, ideally with international competitors, under equitable circumstances as reconstituted by the state—a condition disrupted by foreign imperialism in China.32

The Qing government was cognizant of its new role in the competitive age of modernity. Following the defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1895, the imperial court initiated a reform program with an emphasis on military modernization, but the undertaking was thwarted by a coup masterminded by conservative factions of the ruling elite. The outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion in 1899 and its suppression by foreign allied forces deepened the conflicts between those xenophobically opposed to foreign methods and those who perceived Western modernization as the sole avenue for the nation’s salvation. Within this latter contingent, divisions persisted over whether to lead change from above or below, from the state or the people. Even among nationalists who advocated for direct action and mass mobilization as their political modus operandi, there was a preference for fostering an elite interest group independent of the state, even if it meant marginalizing lower classes or minority groups. This stance was predicated on the assumption that capital accumulation by national elites (subjects of interest) necessitated a consistent and inexpensive labor supply. Consequently, they opted to circumscribe the lower classes to the status of the “subject of rights,” rather than elevating them to the role of “subjects of interests” within their nation-building project.33 That is, within the nationalist paradigm, Chinese workers (along with ethnic communities) were entitled to recognition of their civil rights but were not envisaged as a constituency with conflicting interests to the national bourgeoisie (to the Han majority in the case of ethnicities), at least until the creation of fair competition within the national market.

The nationalist project, as conceived, was self-contradictory at its inception. On one hand, it proposed an inclusive nation-state as a guarantor of the equitable distribution of sovereignty across the entire population. On the other hand, the definition of the nation as an ethnic category, combined with the confinement of politics to deliberate actions fostered through capital accumulation and political activism, effectively marginalized non-Han and uneducated sectors of society from participatory decision-making processes. Government-driven attempts to modernize the administrative system also amplified the disparity in power among various social groups. Bereft of the right to vote in newly constituted local elections, the lower classes, predominantly peasants and workers, were consigned to a supposedly apolitical realm, characterized by a perceived lack of national consciousness. Simultaneously and somewhat paradoxically, both revolutionary and constitutionalist intellectuals designated these same groups as essential elements in the realms of territorial defense, economic advancement, and national reproduction. Within this complex scenario, rife with ambiguity and overdetermination, workers had to navigate their path into self-empowerment.

Labor historians who studied the origins of the Chinese working class and the labor movement have often defaulted to a nationalist commitment toward the creation of a national bourgeoisie, focusing their inquiries on whether Chinese workers developed an autonomous movement that could be cast as class struggle. For example, historian Jean Chesneaux identifies at least 152 strikes occurring between 1895 and 1918 as protests against low wages and deplorable work conditions. Still, he posits that the Chinese working class “had not yet taken action on its own behalf” before 1919, but rather “merely provided support for movements directed by other social classes.”34 Similarly, he documents that worker organizations founded prior to 1919 were predominantly mixed associations, cofounded by employers and employees to advance national industries through vocational training and mutual aid in competition with foreign entities.35 Thus, while Chesneaux acknowledges the emergence of a bourgeois class during the waning years of the dynasty, he contends that the imperative to develop the national economy, coupled with the enduring dominance of traditional guild mentality, inevitably undermined the surfacing of class conflict. This, in turn, impeded the formation of trade unions and typical labor actions such as demands for an eight-hour workday or May Day celebrations, all of which are considered to be manifestations of class consciousness.

This book advances two interrelated arguments that contribute to our understanding of working-class subjectivities in late Qing China beyond the categories of class consciousness and movement politics. First, it contends that the emergence of the Chinese working class is not confined to archetypal labor protests but can be traced to contingent encounters and precarious transitions. Drawing inspiration from Ken Kawashima’s exploration of unemployed Korean workers in post–World War I Japan, the book acknowledges that the transition from peasant to proletarian is not linear but unfolds through an insecure process of contingencies.36 In these transitory moments, such as entering or leaving the labor market, worker identity is born, extending the scope of worker subjectivity beyond the traditional spheres of workplace encounters to include the very beginning and end of the employment process.

I frame the Yunnan railway workers’ refusal to work—whether by not signing the contracts offered by recruiting companies or deserting the worksites after seeing abominable working conditions—as political with the help of Marx’s discussion of the realization of labor. In Grundrisse, Marx writes that “the use value which the worker has to offer to the capitalist, which he has to offer to others in general, is not materialized in a product, does not exist apart from him at all, thus exists not really, but only in potentiality, as his capacity.”37 This capacity is realized only when the capitalist puts the worker to work. Contrary to the “objectified labor” or labor “present in space,” in the form of commodities and exchange value, the notion of “labor as subjectivity” or labor “present in time” provides an avenue to consider resistance to capitalist subsumption that precedes the materialization of class conflict at the production site.38 This resistance begins with the worker’s refusal to realize his productive capacity in the service of capital. In this sense, Chinese workers’ intuitive rejection of labor contracts on terms that deemed unacceptable stands as political as their decision to strike in protest against low wages or deplorable working conditions. Similarly, workers’ decision to withdraw their bodies from a deadly capitalist operation can have dire consequences for the capitalists, as seen in Yunnan. This reframing thus provides a nuanced understanding of the cognitive dimensions of identity formation that transcends conventional categories of class consciousness or labor movements.

Second, the book proposes a shift in understanding the space where class identities emerge. Instead of focusing solely on national contexts, it extends its inquiry to transnational encounters by integrating the overseas experiences of Chinese indentured workers with the interactions between Chinese workers and European employers, especially in the peripheral setting of Yunnan, where economic forces were less pronounced and social classes were less distinct than in the treaty ports or colonial territories. Drawing inspiration from Cedric Robinson’s theory of racial capitalism, which argues that capitalism is an inherently racialized system of profit making, the book illustrates how Chinese workers were racialized both in overseas colonial territories and within China through extraterritoriality, consular courts, and European medical facilities.39 European builders of the Yunnan railway dismissed Chinese workers’ acts of desertion, theft, and murder by racializing them as mere crimes originating from cultural characteristics. Yet, these defiant acts and day-to-day struggles were far from trivial. They not only spotlighted labor exploitation in Yunnan as a racial and moral question but also facilitated the birth of a Chinese worker identity in a universal sense. This universal identity was rooted in the shared knowledge of the nineteenth-century overseas work experiences but transcended those experiences in ways unforeseen by Chinese nationalists and foreign colonists. Early twentieth-century Chinese workers skillfully leveraged colonial competition for cheap labor to improve their employment conditions, juxtaposing contract terms from different colonial powers before lending their labor to foreign employers. It was this globally shaped cognizance that rendered them receptive to the calls of communism in the subsequent decade.

It is ironic that Li Chengfa had to move from the prosperous province of Sichuan to poverty-stricken Yunnan, one of the country’s three provinces sustained through government aid. He was rational enough to leave his hometown to escape creditors who would have condemned him to destitution. The French journalist complimented Li for his rational decision, depicting him as an enterprising individual (subject of interest) who would utilize his capital (labor/capacity) to maximize revenue. He exhibited this same rationality in converting to Catholicism without totally quitting significant Chinese customs, such as ancestor worship. The portrayal of Li as a rational actor sharply contrasts with the stereotypical Euro-American image of the Chinese worker as an inassimilable, crafty Oriental. The coexistence of these contradictory depictions of the Chinese worker in Western colonial discourse complicates efforts to understand how Chinese workers perceived themselves in a globalized world. Still, the following chapters will elucidate how they discerned the value of their labor in the face of racial stigmatization or underestimation by various political and economic actors.

Chinese and French Historiography on the Yunnan–Indochina Railway

At the time of its construction, the Yunnan–Indochina railway sparked intense controversy within French political circles as the nation was trying to set the best course for their country, either through colonial expansion or protectionist developmentalism. In the postcolonial period (Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam in September 1945), French historiography gained a monolithically critical tone in seeing the railway as a failed project of French imperialism. In 1963, Michel Bruguière, emphasizing the Franco-British rivalry in East Asia, argued that the exploitation of China’s abundant resources was dependent on the creation of a solid colony, not on obtaining “artificial and revocable concessions.”40 Thus, the fierce colonial competition in the region rendered the railway economically unviable within the broader French colonial project. In a more recent work, Jean-François Rousseau contends that the Yunnan–Indochina railway exemplified a typical imperial railway venture, failing to achieve its military, geopolitical, and economic objectives. Particularly noteworthy is the stark disparity between the substantial financial and human costs incurred and the railway’s hasty abandonment during World War II.41 The recent proliferation of publications featuring personal memoirs from French diplomats, business figures, and railway employees further reinforces this argument of failure.42

In contrast to French scholarship, Chinese historiography on the Yunnan–Indochina railway has exhibited notable fluctuations. Until the late 1990s, the railway was constantly portrayed as the Trojan horse of French colonialism, and the local uprisings between 1898 and 1910 were purported to be manifestations of Chinese anti-imperialist nationalism against foreign colonizers.43 According to these accounts, the economic activities of France and Britain in Yunnan also fueled the emergence of a nascent local working-class movement, thereby transforming the province’s class structure in a capitalist direction.44

During the early 2000s, Chinese scholarship underwent a radical shift in perspective regarding the Yunnan–Indochina railway. While the emphasis on the imperialist nature of the railway project remained a background theme, a new interpretation that emphasizes the railway’s positive contributions to Yunnan’s socioeconomic development and modernization has become commonplace.45 These positive perspectives culminated in the official centenary celebrations of the railway on March 31, 2010, which saw the participation of representatives from France, Vietnam, and China. The celebration ceremony was not only a commemoration but also part of China’s broader plan to revitalize commercial and diplomatic ties between China, France, and Southeast Asian nations, later to be connected to a Silk Road revival project.46 During the ceremony, Chinese official representatives highlighted how the Yunnan railway had contributed to the modern development of the ethnically diverse and economically underdeveloped province. This new emphasis served to underscore the railway’s significance in driving progress and connecting the province into a larger regional economy.

In parallel to this change in official standpoint, Chinese scholars have produced a nostalgic and even artistic portrayal of the Yunnan railway since 2010. Through these visually captivating works, these scholars illustrate the railway route’s aesthetic landscape, prominently featuring railway stations with distinct architectural characteristics while also evoking collective memory by sharing personal accounts of railway employees and villagers along the railway tracks.47 Anthropologist Wu Xingzhi explores the Yunnan railway within the framework of Arjun Appadurai’s theory of “things of events,” and extensively examines its place in collective memory as a signifier of the province’s colonial past.48 In 2018, acclaimed novelist Fan Wen published a novel titled Bisezhai, centered on the Yunnan railway’s construction process.49 The narrative revolves around two Greek brothers who, in their pursuit of Oriental riches, find themselves in the service of the French railway company as section overseers. In addition to depicting the hardships endured by Chinese workers, the book delves into the psychological impact of colonial power dynamics, akin to George Orwell’s exploration in “Shooting an Elephant.” Complementing these scholarly and literary endeavors, a multitude of art exhibitions and museum showcases in China and France further contribute to our comprehensive understanding of the railway. These collective efforts, in a postcolonial spirit, expand the discourse beyond mere economic analysis, shedding light on the broader sociocultural implications of colonial encounters intertwined with the Yunnan–Indochina railway.

Chapter Overview

I have structured this book to portray two sides of the Sino-French encounter. The first four chapters, relying mainly on French sources, illustrate how French colonial agents approached the railway and labor conflicts in Yunnan. The last two chapters emphasize Chinese perspectives and analyze how Chinese nationalists and officials deliberated the relationship between labor/class and Chinese state building.

The first chapter lays out French motivations for initiating the Yunnan railway. When southwest China became a backyard to the French Indochinese colony following the Sino-French War of 1884–85, debates about the desired Yunnan railway project centered on whether to frame it in terms of British-inspired free-trade expansionism or neomercantilist protectionism. The railway received parliamentary approval in 1901 only because it promised to be labor intensive rather than requiring large capital investments. The chapter discusses the significance of the Yunnan railway for the economic restructuring of France’s Indochina colony, notably with the creation of the Indochinese opium monopoly. The latter part of the chapter examines the foundation of the Yunnan railway company as an extension of Indochinese railways and analyzes the Yunnan–Indochina Railway Treaty, highlighting French shortsightedness about China’s labor-market dynamics.

The second chapter continues discussing French economic aspirations in Yunnan, specifically in mining. As Yunnan’s mineral deposits attracted nineteenth-century French travelers, laying the foundation for the “Yunnan myth,” they also enticed French protectionists to invest in the Yunnan railway. But when French colonizers secured mining rights in Yunnan, they faced overwhelming challenges due to local miners’ resistance, which was amplified by the Qing government’s aspirations to use mining revenues as the basis of its consolidation over Yunnan’s ethnic minorities and Chinese nationalist propaganda depicting mining as the epitome of China’s industrialization. They then turned to a relatively marginal project: using Islam as a nexus to connect Yunnan’s marginalized Muslim communities with Middle Eastern Muslims living under French rule. To the dismay of French officials and investors, none of these endeavors gave France a solid ground to establish itself in Yunnan.

The third chapter examines how French officials racialized disobedient railway workers as “undisciplined” “Orientals.” Facing the labor shortage in Yunnan, the railway company agents had to recruit workers through the intermediary of foreign companies involved in the overseas coolie trade. While the railway company tried to eliminate government interventions in recruitment to minimize labor costs, the supply-demand dynamics of the Chinese labor market gave the workers the upper hand in negotiating the contract terms. The chapter argues that Chinese workers’ skillful market manipulation was part of a global movement toward labor awakening and that their large-scale exodus from deadly worksites brought attention to the cruelty of colonial developmentalism.

Chapter 4 explores French strategies, mainly in medicine and security, to control the defiant labor force. In response to mass mortality among workers, France expanded medical facilities along the railway and recruited doctors from its colonies, but they failed to either forestall worker casualties due to malaria or override workers’ preference for traditional Chinese remedies. French security enforcement also fell short despite the existence of consular tribunals, a French-operated prison, and Vietnamese railway guards from Indochina. The chapter argues that medical racialization and the utilization of extraterritorial rights to the advantage of French citizens were part of a larger French biopolitical scheme, seeking to expand French colonial influence by subjugating the laboring body.

In chapter 5, the focus shifts from the constitution of French biopolitics in Yunnan to an analysis of Chinese nationalist approaches to the use of Chinese labor in colonial railway projects. The chapter analyzes several pieces in the Japan-based revolutionary periodical Yunnan Journal (云南杂志) to understand why Yunnanese nationalists, affiliated with Sun Yatsen’s Revolutionary Alliance, did not theorize labor when forced labor was a significant characteristic of French colonization in Indochina. Instead, the alliance focused on improving land value and relegated labor to a secondary position in their broader nation-building project.

Chapter 6 discusses the nationalist movement in Yunnan in its two major episodes. First, it analyzes nationalist arguments for the retrocession of the Yunnan railway, situating them in the campaign for railway nationalization. The chapter asserts that the Yunnan branch of the movement eventually failed due to the Yunnanese gentry’s economic weakness, even when French officials were prepared to negotiate the railway’s sale, which they deemed a financial disaster. The latter part analyzes the failed Hekou rebellion, organized by Sun Yatsen with assistance from the Revolutionary Alliance located in Vietnam. The group’s condescending attitude prevented them from mobilizing workers and local ethnic groups for their antidynastic cause. The chapter concludes that nationalist activism’s limited outlook in Yunnan confined worker struggles into a racialized discourse rather than viewing them as building blocks of a dynamic economy.


1. Villechénoux and Reynaud, “Précis d’une monographie d’un coolie,” 265–91.

2. A meter-gauge railway is a narrow railway with a track gauge of 1,000 mm or 1 meter. European colonial powers often used meter-gauge railways in mountainous areas for light passenger and freight traffic.

3. Cheng, “Dang’an jilu xia de dian-yue tielu” [The Yunnan–Vietnam railway in archival records], 40.

4. Villechénoux and Reynaud, “Précis d’une monographie d’un coolie,” 278.

5. Villechénoux and Reynaud, “Précis d’une monographie d’un coolie,” 279.

6. Villechénoux and Reynaud, “Précis d’une monographie d’un coolie,” 279.

7. Villechénoux and Reynaud, “Précis d’une monographie d’un coolie,” 279.

8. Villechénoux and Reynaud, “Précis d’une monographie d’un coolie,” 279.

9. Meister, “In den wilden Bergschluchten widerhallt ihr Pfeifen,” 124.

10. Meister, “In den wilden Bergschluchten widerhallt ihr Pfeifen,” 129.

11. There are varying speculations about the number of workers employed and the number who perished during the railway’s construction. The figures I present are my own estimations, derived from a comparison of numerous archival sources.

12. China suffered several military defeats that forced the country into an unequal treaty system. Britain defeated China in two (opium) wars, the first in 1839–42 and the second in 1856–60. France emerged victorious in the Sino–French War of 1884–85, followed by China’s defeat in the Sino–Japanese War of 1895. The last blow came when allied foreign forces suppressed the anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion in 1900, forcing China to pay an enormous indemnity.

13. For the changes in trade deficit between China and Britain after the Opium Wars, see Wong, Deadly Dreams. For the global economic impact of the opium trade, Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy.

14. Salt, silk, and opium remained the main items of commerce in Sichuan, but they were exported abroad or to other parts of the empire in raw forms. Feuerwerker, “Economic Trends in the Late Ch’ing Empire, 1870–1911,” 36, 43.

15. Zelin, “The Rights of Tenants in Mid-Qing Sichuan,” 499–526.

16. Shi, Agricultural Development in Qing China, 54–55, 67, 198–99.

17. Wong, China Transformed, 47.

18. Lai, Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar, xi.

19. Li, Migrating Fujianese.

20. Statistical Department of the Inspectorate General of Customs, Treaties, Conventions, etc. Between China and Foreign States, 161.

21. Statistical Department of the Inspectorate General of Customs, Treaties, Conventions, etc. Between China and Foreign States, 240.

22. Gyory, Closing the Gate.

23. Colleen Lye employs the term “Asiatic racial form” to distinguish the Asia in European colonial imagery from the concept of “America’s Asia.” The latter emerged as a racial category in the nineteenth century with the importation of Asian labor to the US and evolved through the contradictory tropes of the “yellow peril” and the “model minority.” In this sense, it includes the idea of Euro-American anxiety over Asia’s potential for boundless success. Lye, Racial Form and American Literature, 1893–1945.

24. Ngai, The Chinese Question.

25. Williams, Returning Home with Glory.

26. Chan, Diaspora’s Homeland.

27. For the Qing Empire’s borderland management in Yunnan, see Bello, Across Forest, Steppe, and Mountain; Giersch, Asian Borderlands.

28. Atwill, The Panthay Rebellion.

29. Herman, “Empire in the Southwest: Early Qing Reforms to the Native Chieftain System,” 47–74.

30. Giersch, Corporate Conquests.

31. For a discussion of revolutionary renditions of rights and citizenship in the late Qing period, see Zarrow, After Empire, 195–206.

32. In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault explores the distinction between the “subject of rights” and the “subject of interest” within liberal economic theory. This distinction is important to understand the individual’s relation to the state. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 267–89.

33. In late-Qing intellectual debates, equal citizenship and democracy were central themes, but they all included a mistrust of Chinese people’s ability for self-governance due to their lack of intellectual resources. Peter Zarrow attributes this totalizing view of the nation to the scientific racism of the day, “which equated a people with the ruling elite.” Zarrow, After Empire, 157.

34. Chesneaux, The Chinese Labor Movement, 1919–1927, 131.

35. Chesneaux, The Chinese Labor Movement, 1919–1927, 119–22.

36. Kawashima, The Proletarian Gamble.

37. Marx, Grundrisse, 267.

38. Marx, Grundrisse, 272.

39. Robinson, Black Marxism.

40. Bruguière, “Le chemin de fer du Yunnan.”

41. Rousseau, “An Imperial Railway Failure,” 1–17.

42. François, Le mandarin blanc. Jorge Amat’s documentary, Through the Consul’s Eyes, includes François’s personal video recordings of China. Réau and Marchant, Lettres d’un diplomate en Chine au début du Xxe Siècle; Marbotte, Une chemin de fer au Yunnan. Engineer Albert Marie’s family has donated his archive to the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore. Based on this collection, Vatthana Pholsena published a photo essay: “Technology and Empire: A Colonial Narrative of the Construction of the Tonkin–Yunnan Railway.” The memoirs of engineers Georges-Aguste Marbotte and Albert Marie became the basis of a recent book: Bernard, Locard, and Marbotte, Le chemin de fer du Yunnan.

43. Duan, 1910 nian de lieche [The train of 1910]; Miao, “Fa diguozhuyi yu dian-yue tielu [French imperialism and the Yunnan–Vietnam railway]; Zhuang, “Qiantan dian-yue tielu dui yunnan shehui jingji de yingxiang [On the Yunnan–Vietnam railway’s impact on the economy and society of Yunnan].

44. Yunnan sheng zong gong hui gongren yundong shi yanjiu zu, Yunnan gongren yundong shi ziliao huibian, 1886–1949 [Documents on the Yunnan labor movement].

45. Sun, “Fan-ya tielu jianshe yu dian-yue tielu lishi wenhua baohu” [The construction of the trans-Asian railways and the historical and cultural protection of the Yunnan–Vietnam railway]; Wang and Fan, “Dian-yue tielu yu dian dongnan shaoshu minzu diqu gongyehua hudong guanxi pingshui” [The Yunnan–Vietnam railway and industrial development in ethnic regions of southeast Yunnan]; Wang, Peng, and Fan, Dian-yue tielu yu dian dongnan shaoshu minzu diqu shehui bianqian yanjiu [The Yunnan–Vietnam railway and social change in the ethnic regions of southeast Yunnan], Duan, Dian-yue tielu: kuayue bainian de xiao huoche [The Yunnan–Vietnam railway: The small train that spans a hundred years].

46. Although the “Belt and Road Initiative” has been proposed by current Chinese president Xi Jinping, the idea of reviving ancient Chinese commercial routes, both inland and maritime, has long been on the Chinese diplomatic agenda.

47. Peng, San guo yanyi, bainian migui–Dian-yue tielu de lishi tuxiang [The story of three kingdoms and the one hundred years of meter-gauge train—The historical image of the Yunnan–Vietnam railway].

48. Wu, Yanshen de pingxingxian–Dian-yue tielu yu bianmin shehui (Extended parallel lines—Dian-Vietnam railway and borderland community); Wu, “Zuowei jiben jiyi yu ziwo yanxu de wuzhi wenhua yanjiu–Yi dian-yue tielu weilie” (A research on substance culture as collective memory and self-continuance—Taking the Yunnan–Vietnam railway as example).

49. Fan, Bisezhai.