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


June 2024
256 pages.

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503638235
Ebook ISBN: 9781503639331

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Chinese workers helped build the modern world. They labored on New World plantations, worked in South African mines, and toiled through the construction of the Panama Canal, among many other projects. While most investigations of Chinese workers focus on migrant labor, Chinese Workers of the World explores Chinese labor under colonial regimes within China through an examination of the Yunnan-Indochina Railway, constructed between 1898–1910. The Yunnan railway—a French investment in imperial China during the age of "railroad colonialism"—connected French-colonized Indochina to Chinese markets with a promise of cross-border trade in tin, silk, tea, and opium. However, this ambitious project resulted in fiasco. Thousands of Chinese workers died during the horrid construction process, and costs exceeded original estimates by 74%.

Drawing on Chinese, French, and British archival accounts of day-to-day worker struggles and labor conflicts along the railway, Selda Altan argues that long before the Chinese Communist Party defined Chinese workers as the vanguard of a revolutionary movement in the 1920s, the modern figure of the Chinese worker was born in the crosscurrents of empire and nation in the late nineteenth century. Yunnan railway workers contested the conditions of their employment with the knowledge of a globalizing capitalist market, fundamentally reshaping Chinese ideas of free labor, national sovereignty, and regional leadership in East and Southeast Asia.

About the author

Selda Altan is Assistant Professor of History at Randolph College.

"Selda Altan brings a much needed and welcome perspective to China's labor history by focusing on the international context of working-class formation during the late 19th and early 20th century. Studies of class formation (and fragmentation) in China have to date looked at the 'roaring 1920s' and the mid 1940s during the high points of the labor movement. Altan's focus on labor in the construction of the Yunnan-Indochina railway is groundbreaking, expanding the spatial dimensions of China's labor history to include transnational dimensions and broadening the temporal treatment by suggesting that workers' subjectivity preceded the labor movement and Nationalist revolution of the 1920s by at least a decade."

—Joshua H. Howard, University of Mississippi

"Selda Altan's beautifully conceptualized and densely researched book analyzes the transformative labor relations formed during the building of the Yunnan-Indochina Railway in the early 20th century. Constructed in an area contested among French colonial, British imperialist, and Qing China's imperial administrations, this railway helped embed the complex norms of modernization into China's borderlands. These persisting norms include the enormous destruction of environment and habitat, the displacement and exploitation of large numbers of people, the violence of racialized labor regimes, the robustness of competing territorial and capitalist conquests, and more. Epic in scale and yet minute in detail, this book is simultaneously a materialist history; an intellectual history; and a history that intimately connects conflicting imperial projects at the dawn of a new century."

—Rebecca E. Karl, New York University

"Chinese Workers of the World deepens our understanding of Chinese labor and politics during the late Qing, an era of 'Imperial globalization.' France's construction of the Yunnan railroad on China's periphery highlights the abuses of the notorious 'coolie trade' as well as Chinese workers' resistance, which was informed by their own networks that were global, regional, and local.Altan offers a deft analysis of the formation of Chinese working class identity and its complex relation to anti-Qing nationalist movements. A must read for those interested in the politics of empire, labor, and the Chinese diaspora."

—Mae Ngai, Columbia University