In the first two decades of the 21st century, China has rapidly emerged as one the world’s leading “telecommunications superpowers.” It has the more netizens than any other country in the world, a higher number of cell phone users than any other country in the world, is home to telecom super-giants such as Huawei, ZTE, and Xiaomi, and an advanced high-speed Internet network. Most importantly of all, it has a cadre of students majoring in telecommunications who have helped give China the cutting edge of communications technology over the past couple of decades.
In recent years, China’s rise and international influence has been a major source of controversy and concern in Western countries. Its rise has seemed sudden, but it’s something that’s been almost a century and a half in the making.
During the 1860s, the parts of China controlled by the European imperial powers such as the British and Portuguese established telegraph lines to connect their territories and colonies with the outside world and to stay connected with Europe.
However, the Qing government was very reluctant to establish a telegraph service across the large portion of China they controlled out of fears the telegraph lines could be used by foreign powers to “spread false information and subvert the Qing government”. Furthermore, there was much paranoia about the alien technology from the local Chinese citizens and attempts by the foreign powers to spread telegraph lines outside their areas of control were at times resisted by mobs who feared the lines might bring bad luck upon their crops and homes.
The Great Northern Telegraph Company
In 1870, the Qing government finally agreed to allow foreigners to establish a telegraph line from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Denmark’s Great Northern Telegraph Company (now GN Nord) was commissioned with the task of laying the line….amid continuing resistance from some Chinese citizens over the new technology. Construction of the telegraph service and lines began a year later. Despite all the apprehension over the line, it saw a very significant amount of usage by both Chinese and foreigners.
A few years later, that telegraph line was followed up by a line from China’s southern Fujian province to Taiwan. This line was largely built for military purposes and was largely built by Chinese labor and with domestically-sourced materials.
By the end of the decade, the Qing government had taken full control of the country’s telegraph industry.
The Fujian Arsenal Telegraph Schools
Eventually, the time came for the Chinese people to start learning the telegraph trade on their own. On the 8th of April 1876, China’s first telegraph school opened at the famous Fujian Arsenal, which is considered to be the birthplace of the modern Chinese navy. This school took some of the country’s brightest students, most of whom were from Guangdong and Hong Kong and largely excelled at chemistry and physics. Foreign instructors from the Great Northern Telegraph Company taught them all the basics of telegraphy. Telegraph students learned how to send and receive telegrams, as well as the basics of electricity, Morse code, and electromagnetism. They also learned how to make telegraph wire (both for individual telegraph machines and for the burgeoning national network) and to string the wire along telegraph poles. Also due to the pressure to adapt to the ways of the West, students learned Western values such as the English language, Christianity, hair-cutting, and dressing in Western-style suits.
The school was overseen by Ding Richang, the governor of Fujian and a former customs intendant with the Qing government who helped oversee the development of the national telegraph network.
Sadly enough, only one and half years after the school opened, it closed its doors in December 1877 as the agreement between the Qing government and the Great Northern Telegraph Company concluded.
During its short existence, some 140 students graduated from the school. Many of them were sent to “hotspot” locations such as Tianjin and Shanghai to work with Great Northern Telegraph on building the telegraph lines. Others stayed close to home in Fujian province and helped build the military’s telegraph line there.
The Fujian school inspired other telegraphy schools to be created across China. Telegraphy schools opened up in major cities such as Tianjin, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Formosa (Taiwan). As a result of the education they received, the students of the Fujian Arsenal telegraph school are considered the forerunners of today’s Chinese telecom students.
As the decade came to a close, the Chinese people had mastered the art of telegraphy.
The Imperial Telegraph Administration
In 1881, the Qing government created the Imperial Telegraph Administration.
The ITA was a government-run company that gained a monopoly over all telegraph networks nationwide in a swift amount of time.
By 1900, it oversaw 14,000 miles of telegraph wires and supervised another 20,000 miles under local and provincial control. It had established lines between all cities along China’s eastern coastline and southernmost provinces.
In 1906, the ITA was absorbed by the Ministry of Posts and Communications, which had itself just been recently created by the Qing government. Control of the administration alternated between Qing-era tycoon, and ex-Minister for Transportation Sheng Xuanhuai and his rival (and future Premier of the Republic of China afer the end of the Qing rule) Tang Shaoyi.
The First Chinese Telephone Network
In 1900, the first Chinese telephone network was established by ITA in the city of Nanjing. Sheng Xuanhuai had pressed the government hard to establish a phone network and eventually, his persistence paid off.
By 1910, there were 7,000 phone subscribers in Qing-controlled areas of China and a similar number in the parts of China controlled by the foreign powers.
China’s Descent Into Chaos and Upheaval
In 1911, China descended into revolution, civil war, and warlordism and this has a huge impact on the telecommunications networks nationwide. More to come on this subject in part 2.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_Chinese_Telegraph_Administration (Wikipedia entry)
Harwit, Eric. China’s Telecommunications Revolution. Oxford: 2008, pgs. 18-28.
*Please note that I wrote portions of this blog post in 2014. Since then, some of the original websites and articles I used for reference – namely on the Fujian Arsenal school – have either disappeared without a trace or have started charging for access. At this time I’m trying to find alternate reference materials, but none in the English language are immediately forthcoming.