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The American Spirit behind China’s New Silk Road
Until recently, the Chinese role in building America’s transcontinental railway was nearly written out of history. It was only in 2014 that the US Department of Labor inducted the Chinese railway workers into the Hall of Honor, officially recognizing for the first time the vital role and sacrifice of the Chinese, whose numbers amounted to over 15,000 workers at the peak of the project’s construction – 90% of the total Central Pacific Railway workforce.
Not only were these workers vital for the project’s success, but the Chinese workers suffered the greatest injustices during and after its completion, facing racism, beatings and even lynchings. When Central Pacific Railway executives realized that they could employ the Chinese at half the pay of their white counterparts, thousands of Chinese were brought into the operation. While racism abounded, the Chinese seem to have displayed a near superhuman stoicism, working longer hours and taking on the most dangerous tasks. They blew tunnels through the Sierra Nevada with nitroglycerin explosives, faced avalanches and hung precariously off cliffs – things no European or American worker dared to do.
To add insult to injury, when the ceremony to celebrate the completion of the railway was held on May 10, 1869, a photograph was taken on Promontory Summit, Utah, featuring over 100 workers. Not a single Chinese face is to be found among them.
While the abuses suffered by the Chinese workers were unimaginable, we must be careful not to hold too unnecessarily cynical a view of American rail development. There is also an under-appreciated side of this story, which I was shocked to discover while researching the history of rail development in America. Through it, we can also learn the American roots of China’s revolution of 1911 and the current Belt and Road Initiative.
Many of the earliest and strongest advocates of the construction of an American transcontinental railway believed wholeheartedly that China and America shared a common destiny to lift the world out of poverty. A leading figure behind the transcontinental railway, William Gilpin, was recorded saying in 1852:
“Salvation must come to America from China, and this consists in the introduction of the “Chinese constitution”… The political life of the United States is through European influences, in a state of complete demoralization, and the Chinese Constitution alone contains elements of regeneration. For this reason, a railroad to the Pacific is of such vast importance, since by its means the Chinese trade will be conducted straight across the North American continent. This trade must bring in its train Chinese civilization. All that is usually alleged against China is mere calumny spread purposefully, just like those calumnies which are circulated in Europe about the United States.”
In this spirit, Gilpin organized an important rail convention in Missouri in 1849 to promote a transcontinental railway, which featured in its resolutions a call to unite China with America so “that supreme commerce between oriental nations and the nations of the Atlantic” could be ensured.
One of Gilpin’s most powerful co-thinkers during these years was a businessman named Asa Whitney, who arguably did more to build the momentum for the railway’s construction than anyone else. Having returned from a two-year business venture in China, Whitney devoted all of his time and resources into popularizing the project, stating in an 1849 report to Congress:
During a residence of nearly two years in Asia I collected all the information within my reach… with a starving, destitute population of 250,000,000 on the one side of us [in Europe], and all Asia on the other side with 700,000,000 souls still more destitute [in China], seemed to demand the accomplishment of this great work, this great and important change for the benefit of the entire human family.
In response to the warm welcome the Chinese were receiving from America during these years, and the hopeful economic alliance of both nations, an 1853 plaque now installed in the Washington Monument [see image] was gifted to America from leading Chinese merchants, with the etched prose taken from Qing geographer Xu Jiyu’s 1849 work A Short Account of the Oceans Around Us:
“Of all the famous Westerners of ancient and modern times, can Washington be placed in any position but first?”
America’s slide into civil war halted the momentum of the transcontinental railway by many years. By the 1860s Gilpin, who had also served as Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard, was appointed as Colorado’s first territorial governor, working closely with Secretary of State William Seward to keep the West free of slavery’s expansion. By 1868 Seward announced the Seward-Burlingame Treaty with China (Anson Burlingame being the American Consul to Beijing and William’s son George F Seward being the consul in Shanghai), based on free immigration, reciprocal access to education for citizens living in the others’ country, and “favored nation status” for trade with China.
It was this treaty and these Americans – often close allies of Lincoln – who were responsible for bringing Chinese students to America after the Civil War, including a young revolutionary named Sun Yat-sen, who came to America in 1879 to train himself and his allies in political economy and American constitutional law.
With the ouster of Lincoln’s allies from power after the assassination of President Garfield in 1880, however, the stage was set for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which overthrew Seward’s treaty and many of the efforts to create a new global system based upon US-China cooperation. In spite of that setback, their efforts continued.
After 1882, Gilpin continued to give hundreds of speeches, and published a widely-read book in 1890 titled The Cosmopolitan Railway, in which he forecast the eventual spread of railways around the world, which he believed would usher in a new era of win-win cooperation:
“They will continue to expand their work to [the] Bering Straits, where all the continents are united. This will extend itself along… the oriental Russian coasts into China. To prolong this unbroken line of cosmopolitan railways along the latitudinal plateau of Asia, to Moscow and to London, will not have long delay… The whole area and all the populations of the globe will be thus united and fused by land travel and railway.”
Speaking of China, Gilpin stated, “The ancient Asiatic colossus, in a certain sense, needed only to be awakened to new life, and European Culture finds a basis there on which it can build future reforms.”
Gilpin’s latter years were spent in Denver, Colorado, where he made the state a hub for railway construction and engineering expertise. It was while in Denver, raising funds and studying railroads, that Sun Yat-sen learned of the success of the Chinese revolution in 1911. Thirty years later, Denver was chosen as the location to launch the sale of a stamp which featured Sun Yat-sen and Abraham Lincoln, former presidents of their respective nations, with the caption “Of the People, By the People, For the People” upon which Sun Yat-sen modelled his Three Principles of the People – “民族, 民權, 民生,” which roughly translates as “A nation of the People, government by the People, for the People’s welfare” – which also appear on the stamp.
Sun Yat-sen’s designs for Chinese rail development were published in his 1920 report, International Development of China, featuring tens of thousands of kilometers of rail, as well as dozens of ports and transportation corridors, opening China up by sea and rail to the international community [see image below]. Buried for decades, it was revived only in recent years as a guiding force behind what has now become known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
Forecasting an interconnected Eurasian railway system and US-Asia alliance, Sun Yat-sen echoed the spirit of Gilpin, Seward and Whitney, famously stating in his 1917 treatise:
“The world has been greatly benefited by the development of America as an industrial and a commercial Nation. So a developed China with her four hundred millions of population, will be another New World in the economic sense. The nations which will take part in this development will reap immense advantages. Furthermore, international cooperation of this kind cannot but help to strengthen the Brotherhood of Man.”
With the Belt and Road Initiative creating transport infrastructure across the world, China has not only begun to accomplish the grand designs laid by its first president, but has also revived the global dream of Abraham Lincoln’s allies when they planned and constructed the American transcontinental railway – which also used Chinese workers to fulfill that dream.
Matthew Ehret the Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Patriot Review , and Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow. He is author of the ‘Untold History of Canada’ book series and Clash of the Two Americas trilogy. In 2019 he co-founded the Montreal-based Rising Tide Foundation .