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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The bicycle's long way to China: The appropriation of cycling as a foreign cultural technique (1860-1941)

by Amri Moghaddas Esfehani

China -today the nation with the largest fleet of bicycles in the world- is surprisingly underrepresented in cycle history: we know nearly nothing about Chinese cycle history, cycle production, cycling habits or other aspects of the bicycle in China.
This contribution presents first results from historical Chinese sources, which were collected for my doctoral thesis, on China's cycle history around the turn of the century (1880s to 1920s). The article intends to give a chronological overview of the introduction and spread of the bicycle in China, from the first written account, to the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. It takes up the question of how Chinese contemporaries of the late 19th and early 20th century perceived the bicycle, as a technically new and culturally foreign means of transportation. The paper illustrates the process of cultural appropriation in the changing terminology for the bicycle.

A chronology of Chinese cycle history
1860s. The earliest Chinese reports and official perception of the bicycle 
Shortly after Michaux' construction of the pedal-driven prototype of a bicycle, and even some months before the invention became known to the European public, a selected Chinese readership learned of a new "cycling device" from the travel notes of a Chinese official. The author, Binchun, had just returned from his journey to Western Europe. As member of the first group of high-ranking Chinese officials, he had visited France, Great Britain, Germany and other nations between March and July 1866. After his return, he reported to the court on various curiosities he had discovered during his mission in the West. Among these he had seen in Paris two types of a strange device:
"On the avenues", Binchun writes, "people ride on a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe. They sit above this pipe and push forward with movements of their feet, thus keeping the vehicle moving. There's yet another kind of construction which is propelled by foot pedaling. They dash along like galloping horses." (Binchun, Chengcha Biji, 1866/68)
Binchun's delegation was formally sent on a diplomatic mission, but the participants had been instructed by the Chinese imperial court to investigate the latest trends in industrial development, administrative structure, and military technology. They were therefore very aware of all kinds of technical constructions. But while other technological discoveries of their visits -especially the steam engine and its mobile sister, the railway- are reported on in depth, and critically considered by the court officials with a view to their practical application towards the modernization of China's economy, the velocipede is not commented on in any known official source.
To assess the degree to which the introduction of modern technological products challenged Chinese society at the end of the 19th century and later, one has to take into account the need for industrialization and modernization in China. Military defeats and treaties after the 1840s triggered this, the Chinese saw them as humiliations, and they were closely connected to a sinking self-esteem.

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