Skip to main content

30% Off New Releases: Explore the List

Harvard University Press - home
Railroads and the Transformation of China

Railroads and the Transformation of China

Elisabeth Köll

ISBN 9780674368170

Publication date: 01/14/2019

Request exam copy

As a vehicle to convey both the history of modern China and the complex forces still driving the nation’s economic success, rail has no equal. Railroads and the Transformation of China is the first comprehensive history, in any language, of railroad operation from the last decades of the Qing Empire to the present.

China’s first fractured lines were built under semicolonial conditions by competing foreign investors. The national system that began taking shape in the 1910s suffered all the ills of the country at large: warlordism and Japanese invasion, Chinese partisan sabotage, the Great Leap Forward when lines suffered in the “battle for steel,” and the Cultural Revolution, during which Red Guards were granted free passage to “make revolution” across the country, nearly collapsing the system. Elisabeth Köll’s expansive study shows how railroads survived the rupture of the 1949 Communist revolution and became an enduring model of Chinese infrastructure expansion.

The railroads persisted because they were exemplary bureaucratic institutions. Through detailed archival research and interviews, Köll builds case studies illuminating the strength of rail administration. Pragmatic management, combining central authority and local autonomy, sustained rail organizations amid shifting political and economic priorities. As Köll shows, rail provided a blueprint for the past forty years of ambitious, semipublic business development and remains an essential component of the PRC’s politically charged, technocratic economic model for China’s future.


  • Köll…has done a rare thing, and done it magnificently. She has written a book that will inform historians and economists of China, but also curious new readers, who will get a brainful of China’s development from the last emperors to the current president-for-life, Xi Jinping… She is adept at showing the impact of railways on all aspects of Chinese life.

    —Jonathan Mirsky, Times Higher Education


  • Elisabeth Köll is the William Payden Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Book Details

  • 416 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

From this author