Chinese railway lives, 1912-1937




Morgan, Stephen Lloyd

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During the first four decades of the 20th century the railways created a new type of worker in China, the railwayman. He was employed in the use of a new and evolving technology, and he was organised and managed in ways different to the previous organisation of Chinese labor. This study, in looking at the experiences of railway workers, inquires into the origin and formation of the emergent Chinese industrial working class in the first half of the 20th century. The years up to 1937 were those during which the working for the railways became an established occupation and the administration was placed in the hands of a new elite of managers who were increasingly trained specially for the tasks of running the railway system. By inquirying into the lives of railway workers this dissertation opens a window onto a vista of complex questions about the development of modem industry in China and its working class. The study is focussed on those who ran the Chinese National Railways. What was it like for former peasants and artisans to become railwaymen in a large bureaucratic organisation that required and enforced new work practices and discipline in a world of mechanised regularity? How did one become an engine driver, a workshop craftsman, or a station hand? Was the experience of Chinese railwaymen different from that of their counterparts elsewhere? What does the experience of railwaymen tell us about the early Chinese working class? Were they part of a new class, or did the persistence of the past, the ties of village and kin, fragment railway workers? In common with recent studies of Chinese labor this dissertation has used the archival and other sources which have become available over the past decade to draw a different picture to that which we have become acquainted through the past labor history of China. The workers and their families are made to speak to us. In their stories which are is told here we see the crucial role of native place and family in the recruitment of railway workers and the segmentation of skill. Work was organised differently on the railways. Its discipline system structured the working day, determining career and life outcomes. Hard as this system might have been at times, there were also big rewards: the railway worker was well off compared with other industrial workers. They earned more than most, had steady work, and shared in a large social wage which included education, medical and welfare benefits. In an analysis of the long-run trend in real wages this dissertation demonstrates a sustained rise in living standards from the late 1910s to the mid-1930s. This finding is a major contribution to our understanding of the distributional effect of economic growth during the interwars years of Republican China.






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