When a train leaves or enters the station in China, the train attendants inside the train each stand straight like soldiers behind their respective doors, looking out at their fellow employees on the platform who likewise are standing in the same fashion facing them. The ritual is out of mutual respect and out of respect for the train. “Peace”, “Anti-imperialism”, “Progress”, and “Freedom” are some of the names of Chinese steam locomotives, which demonstrate how integral the railroad system is to the Chinese culture and economy.
Approximately 2 million people work for the government owned China Railway Corporation. China has rapidly built out its railway network, becoming the second largest railway network in the world, with 121,000 km of track, enough to circle the globe three times.
The advertising for the China Railway Museum in Beijing mentions “…the building of railway spiritual civilization.” The Chinese railway system is a world unto itself, with its own rhythm, codes and life. On one train one can meet all strata of Chinese society, from high-ranking businessmen in “soft sleeper” (1st class) to migrant workers in “hard seat” (4th classs) with a standing ticket. To make the often more than 30 hour long journeys safe and more pleasant, there is a large crew of train attendants, technicians, engineers, police officers, cooks, waitresses, and a trained announcer-DJ, serving the passengers.
With the generous support of the Avery Foundation China Travel Grant, I had the privilege of spending many days and nights over 8 weeks, crisscrossing China’s railway network, on rolling stock ranging from steam powered trains to the fastest train in the world, the Maglev. I had the honor of meeting, photographing and interviewing (on video) many employees and passengers from all walks of life.