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Crossed Wires

The Tale of the telegraph in the Middle Kingdom


Crossed Wires

The Tale of the telegraph in the Middle Kingdom


In June 1865, British businessman E.A. Reynolds attempted to construct a 16-km telegraph line connecting Shanghai to the port of Wusong. Like most traders on the Chinese coast, Reynolds felt the introduction of the newest communications technology was essential to the development of British business interests and to keep ahead of competitors.

But within a month, the project came to a sudden halt. 227 poles and wires disappeared, torn down by local residents. An unsympathetic local magistrate rebuffed the appeals of British Vice-Consul J. Markham on the grounds that the treaties between the Qing Empire and the foreign powers did not allow for the construction of telegraph wires.

Markham took a different approach, juvenile but effective, and replied that the treaties did not explicitly prohibit building a telegraph, therefore not only should the project go forward but that the British government was owed reparations for the damage done to the original poles and lines.

Markham’s bluff aside, Reynolds’ project was doomed from the outset. The local prefect Ding Richang (丁日昌) claimed that superstition was the main reason behind local opposition to the unsightly lines. The people, said Ding, could not abide the destruction of the natural harmony of the land or the possibility that the construction would disturb ancestral graves.

But Ding was no Luddite. In his later career, he would become one of the foremost proponents of modernization and reform in the Qing Empire. Local superstitions were a smokescreen for his real misgivings: the new technology could be used to electrify communications for rebel groups and foreign troops. Ding was not wrong. Beginning in the mid-19th century, it became the goal of the European powers and the United States to bind their colonial ambitions and their overseas territories tightly in copper wire.

Even as late as the early 20th century, when the completion of the Transpacific Cable meant that the world was indeed encircled by telegraph lines, Sir Charles Bright, son of the engineer who pioneered the first transcontinental undersea cable in 1858, remarked:

“It may be safely averred that railways, steamships, and telegraphs are combinedly our most powerful weapon in the cause of Inter-Imperial Commerce. It has, however, yet to be realized how much can be done towards Imperial unity and fostering trade betwixt the scattered units of the Empire by direct, efficient, and cheap telegraphic communication.”

But in China, the telegraph age, a new era of global communications, encountered fierce resistance and official hostility.

A second request to build a telegraph line, this time from Guangzhou to Shanghai, was made in 1868. Eleven foreign countries jointly petitioned the Zongli Yamen (总理衙门), the de facto foreign affairs bureau for the Qing government, only to be again rebuffed:

“All countries have cast their greedy eyes on the construction of telegraphs in China. [The request] sounds quite proper. Yet, the evil intentions they harbor are not voiced.”

Local and provincial officials continued to claim that their opposition reflected the will of the people, who naturally feared and loathed the new technology being forced upon their lands. The great provincial official Zeng Guofan ( 曾国藩) argued that new technologies like the telegraph and the railroad were bound to cause fierce opposition as they made redundant important social groups like barge-pullers, messengers, and drivers. Zeng’s protégé and sometimes rival Zuo Zongtang (左宗棠) worried that the telegraph lines, stretching for great distances in sometimes remote areas, would be difficult to protect and could be potentially troublesome. Local officials feared destruction of property would lead to armed intervention by the foreign powers into their jurisdictions.

In at least one instance, however, predictions of opposition to telegraph line construction were not left to chance; it was indeed Ding who, in 1865, secretly instigated local residents to destroy Reynold’s Shanghai-Wusong telegraph lines.

What could not be accomplished on land would instead be done by sea. Convergent forces would ultimately make the arrival of the telegraph on Chinese shores a fait accompli. By 1865, Russia had completed a line as far East as Vladivostok with an eye toward Shanghai. For the contract, the Russian government engaged the Danish company Great Northern, who had already been instrumental in linking Britain and Russia across the North and Baltic Seas.

From the south, British merchant John Pender founded the China Submarine Telegraph Company in 1869 for the sole purpose of operating a cable from Singapore to China and Japan. Rather than compete with each other, Great Northern and John Pender signed an agreement: Great Northern would operate the cable link between Russia and Shanghai, Pender would get his cable between Singapore and Hong Kong, and both companies would share in the profits of the vital link between Hong Kong and Shanghai. After completing the line as far as Wusong, the Danish company, remembering the problems of 1865, connected the last cable to Shanghai in secret, quietly laying the final terminus in the American concession without informing local officials until the line connecting the Chinese mainland to the world went live.

Equally important in connecting China by wire was the introduction of the first telegraph code for transmitting Chinese. Invented by Septime Auguste Viguier, a French customs officer stationed in Shanghai, the code relied on a numerical chart to reference common Chinese characters. In 1881, Viguier’s system was replaced by a new codebook invented by Zheng Guanying (郑观应). Zheng’s codebook would remain in use until 1929 and formed the basis of the telegraph codes used on the mainland and in Taiwan until the late 20th century.

Official hostility in China eventually gave way, in some quarters at least, to acceptance and even an embrace of the new technology. When Japan sent troops to Taiwan in 1874, Shen Baozhen (沈葆桢), director of the Fuzhou Dockyard, argued that the construction of telegraph lines between Fujian and Taiwan would mean a more efficient response by the Qing military and quicker communications between mainland officials and units defending the island.

In 1881, the eminent Qing statesman Li Hongzhang (李鸿章), who five years earlier had connected his headquarters in Tianjin by telegraph wire to the Taku Forts defending the water approaches to Beijing, recruited businessman Sheng Xuanhuai (盛宣怀) to work with Great Northern Company to construct and operate telegraphs throughout China.

Under the banner of “government control and merchant managed,” Sheng and Li founded the first telecommunications company in China, the Imperial Telegraph Administration. By 1900, the company operated over 22,000 kilometers of telegraph wires throughout China and supervised another 30,000 kilometers under local control. The government also used their influence with the Imperial Telegraph Administration to monitor and control the content of telegrams and would, from time to time, suspend services to specific parties for “matters of security.”

Like most new technologies, especially those which promised easier and faster communication, acceptance and official recognition of the telegraph took some time, but by the early 20th century, the Qing government realized the utility of electronic communication in administering the empire. Ultimately, though the fears of Ding and others were not misplaced. The telegraph connected the world at speeds unthinkable at the turn of the 19th century. The end of the 19th century saw an acceleration of colonialism and imperialism around the world, a process aided by the advent of nearly instant global communication. The telegraph would also make it easier for the enemies of the Qing to organize at home and abroad. Finally, the telegraph led to a new age of journalism. News from China reached the rest of the world at the speed of electricity. It is not a coincidence that a year after the telegraph reached Hong Kong and Shanghai, Reuters sent their first correspondent to China.

While the telegraph is a technology from another era, the coming of the copper wires ushered in an information age every bit as disruptive in its own time as the internet and mobile technologies are today. The first age of globalization was realized along copper wires strung along the bottom of the ocean, and the world would never be the same.

“Crossed Wires” is a story from our newest issue, “Internet Celebrity”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.