Century-old Industrial Heritage Finds New Life in the New Era

2020-03-30 15:30:56

Century-old Industrial Heritage Finds New Life in the New Era

Fuzhou Daily Reporter Ouyang Jinquan 

Correspondent Ma Xuan, Wang Xiaoxia, Lin Jie 

All photographs by Fuzhou Daily reporter Zhang Renfeng unless otherwise credited


March 30, 2020


Century-old Industrial Heritage Finds New Life in the New Era

▲A bird’s eye view of Majiang River. By Xu Xiaoli 

Century-old Industrial Heritage Finds New Life in the New Era

Luoxing Pagoda and statues of shipbuilding pioneers.

Century-old Industrial Heritage Finds New Life in the New Era

School children paying tribute to shipbuilding pioneers and the motherland’s prosperity at the site of the former Fuzhou naval administration offices. (Photo courtesy of Mawei District)

FUZHOU, March 30 (Fuzhou Daily) – China’s 150-year-old shipbuilding culture demonstrates the achievements of late-Qing China in technology, modern education, industrial production, and the introduction of Western culture (through translation). Shipbuilding culture also nurtured many luminaries and their intellectual accomplishments, reflecting the Chinese nation’s unique ability to learn from others, propensity for innovation, enterprising spirit, and patriotic love for the motherland. In recent years, Mawei District has thoroughly implemented President Xi Jinping’s directives on the conservation of historical and cultural cities, breathed new life into historic buildings, and vigorously promoted and carried forward the spirit of shipbuilding culture. Mawei District has launched the "12345" project, burnished its reputation as a “Shipbuilding Cultural City” and raised the profile of the "Langqi International Eco-tourism Island". The district has also built a “5A” national tourist attraction based on shipbuilding culture, imbibing Fuzhou’s industrial heritage with new vitality in the new era. 

Discovery records

The “Shipbuilding Cultural Complex” is located in Mawei District’s Mawei Town. Construction on the complex began in the Qing Dynasty, during the 5th year of the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor (1866), and was largely completed in two years. Surviving buildings, such as the factory that built steam engines, the offices where ship designs were hand-drawn, the “Free Life Pond” (fangsheng chi, where animals were set free by Buddhist devotees), the clock tower, the residences that once housed foreign experts, and the No.1 Dock, can be found in the complex. In addition, the complex also houses China’s first museum themed upon shipbuilding – the China Shipbuilding Cultural Museum – as well as Fuzhou’s Zhaozhong Temple. The complex is also home to a symbol of the Fuzhou Port – Luoxing Pagoda. As an international navigation landmark, the pagoda is also known as the “China Tower”. 

In recent years, the shipbuilding cultural complex has been designated as part of the third batch of “national patriotic education demonstration bases” (2005), the first batch of “national defense education demonstration bases” (2009) and the first batch of “cross-straits relations demonstration bases” (2011), the second batch of “China 20th century architectural heritage sites” (2017), the first batch of “national research/learning practical education bases for primary and secondary students” (2017), as well as part of China’s list of protected industrial heritage(2018). In addition, the complex was also awarded the China Habitat Environment Award in 2009 and named the “Qingfeng Fuzhou clean government cultural demonstration zone” in 2017. Fuzhou’s shipbuilding cultural complex was also named one of Fuzhou’s top four “business cards” (i.e. one of Fuzhou’s representative aspects) and one of Fuzhou’s “top ten tourist attractions”. The complex has also been designated as a national 4A tourist attraction.

Tracing its historical origins

Fuzhou’s shipyards: a microcosm of late-Qing China 

Narrator: Wang Fang, China Shipbuilding Culture Museum 

Nested between the peaks of Mount Gu and the torrents of the Minjiang River, Mawei District was the birthplace of Chinese industry during the late-Qing era, as well as the cradle of China’s first modern navy. Mawei was also where the Chinese nation embarked upon the march towards rejuvenation. More than a century ago, Mawei was at the forefront of what the great Qing Dynasty reformer Li Hongzhang described as “the unprecedented challenges faced by China” (referring to the geopolitical landscape of the time, when China first began modern interactions with the West). Shipbuilding pioneers, who built ship factories, warships, aircraft, and modern schools, left an indelible mark upon Chinese history through their patriotism and innovative spirit. 

When discussing shipbuilding culture, it is impossible not to mention Zuo Zongtang and Shen Baozhen. China’s naval culture is traditionally said to have been “initiated by Zuo Zongtang and developed by Shen Baozhen”. 2020 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Shen Baozhen (previously romanized as Shen Pao-chen). As the first Director-General of the Foochow (Fuzhou) Navy Yard (also translated as the Foochow Arsenal or Foochow Shipyard), Shen Baozhen has been honored as the “father of shipbuilding in China”. Away from the limelight, Shen advocated tirelessly for the establishment of the Beiyang Fleet (the late-Qing naval fleet based in northern China). Beginning from March 27, there will be a series of activities to commemorate shipbuilding culture, including the launch of the book Cong Chuanzheng dao Nan Bei Yang – Shen Baozhen Li Hongzhang Tongxin yu Jindai Haifang (roughly: “From Shipbuilding to the Southern and Northern Seas – Naval defense in the late-Qing era as depicted by correspondences between Shen Baozhen and Li Hongzhang”). 

When the First Opium War broke out in 1840, the armies of the Western powers forced open the gates to China. Without exception, learned men were devastated by China’s national plight, and devoted themselves to seeking ways to strengthen the nation. Mawei’s shipyard was founded against this historical background. In 1866 (the fifth year of the Tongzhi Emperor’s reign), Zuo Zongtang, then governor of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, launched a naval shipyard in Mawei. Later on, when he was reassigned to the provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu, Shen Baozhen became the first Director-General of the Foochow Navy Yard on Zuo’s recommendation. By the late years of the Qing Dynasty, the navy yard had built more than 40 warships, of which as many as 15 were completed during Shen Baozhen’s “five-year plan”. 

Thereafter, the lights of the Luoxing Pagoda became a bright beacon leading the Chinese dream of a maritime nation. Later on, the constraints of the times would bring the glory of shipbuilding to a premature end. However, with their tenacity, a patriotic desire to strengthen the nation, and innovative spirit, the naval pioneers managed to forge many “historical firsts”. They built China’s first large modern shipyard, China’s first kiloton-class steamer Wannianqing, the first Chinese floatplanes, the first naval academy, the first modern Chinese navy, and nurtured 629 men who would go on to become leading intellectuals, industrial technicians and national heroes of their era. Among their ranks were Yan Fu, the most renowned translator of Western treatises in the social sciences, Zhan Tianyou, who presided over the construction of China’s first railway, the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway, and Liu Buchan and Deng Shichang, late-Qing navy admirals. The shipbuilding community would go on to comment that “half of late-Qing Chinese history can be found in the history of shipbuilding”. 

Over the past 100-odd years, shipbuilding culture has nurtured the roots of urban development. Shipbuilding culture has withstood the trials of the ages, and has grown in the new era to become a source of inspiration. After a century and a half, a couplet by Shen Baozhen that flanks the doors of the Navy Yard administration office, now part of the Shipbuilding Gezhi Park, remains as eye-catching as ever. Very loosely translated, the couplet reads: “that which is new to us, this is the crux of modern science; when striving for perfection, we pursue our craft with all our hearts”. In June 2019, the People's Daily reprinted Preface to Fuzhou’s Ancient Houses by President Xi Jinping. The Preface mentions Zhaozhong Temple, which is also a memorial to the Sino-French Battle of Fuzhou, as well as an ideal site for patriotic education. The Preface states that “On our visit, the Mawei Zhaozhong Temple was solemnly telling us about the tragic history of the Fujian Navy’s heroic resistance against a surprise raid by the French warships.” Today, Mawei District has taken on the burden of historical continuity. These old buildings, which have endured for more than a century, have now been restored and revitalized. Shipbuilding culture is now “going global”, and have become attracted multitudes of tourists to Fuzhou, and even the wider province of Fujian. 

Conservation, continuity and revitalization

Burnishing Fuzhou’s reputation as a “shipbuilding cultural city”

During his tenure in Fujian, President Xi Jinping issued many important instructions with regards to shipbuilding culture and pointed out that it was necessary to vigorously promote shipbuilding culture. In the spirit of President Xi’s directives, and to further protect shipbuilding culture, which is a unique treasure that belongs to both China and the world, provincial, municipal and district authorities have attached great importance to the development of shipbuilding culture, and have given special priority to Mawei’s cultural affairs, in order to create a shipbuilding cultural profile with local characteristics that will be known both domestically and internationally. 

Century-old Industrial Heritage Finds New Life in the New Era

▲Zhaozhong Temple, which was mentioned in Preface to Fuzhou’s Ancient Houses

Century-old Industrial Heritage Finds New Life in the New Era

Exterior view of a hospital built by Christian missionaries in Mawei 

New progress each day – Architectural restorations that revive cultural continuity

According to an official from the China Shipbuilding Culture Management Committee, Mawei District has launched the “Mawei · China Shipbuilding Culture City” project, in order to ensure historical and cultural continuity and retain the cultural elements of the city. This has become yet another opportunity that will benefit the development of shipbuilding culture. This year, Mawei District implemented the "12345" project as part of the series of activities themed “New Missions, New Enterprises”. The district will develop an integrated portside city complex that incorporates multiple functions, including sightseeing, eco-leisure, and innovative commerce, and develop a 5A national tourist attraction based on shipbuilding culture. 

When visiting the site, this reporter saw that the Mawei · China Shipbuilding Cultural City currently under development was divided into 5 major functional areas: the Guanjie zone, the former shipyard site, the Maxianshan zone, the Old Port zone, and the Luoxing Pagoda zone. Works on the gate to the former naval administration office and naval academies (inside the Gezhi Park), as well as the old shipbuilding street, the shipbuilding historic and cultural street block, the Maxianshan upgrading works, and the restoration of the Meiyuan Sanshe tourist attraction had previously been completed. Over the first half of the year, works on the former Navy Yard have focused on the restoration of four former factories: the factory that built the iron frames of ships, the general warehouse, the machinery repair workshop and the machinery warehouse, as well as exhibition sites at the former ship design offices. Works have progressed so fast that the site seems to take on a new look each day. 

“The works on the former shipyard mainly focuses on the renovation of some old buildings, and local restorations. We have focused on revitalizing characteristic architecture by using restoration and conservation techniques, incorporating history and culture to carry forward shipbuilding culture,” said Zhang Shaojian, head of the general contractor in charge of restoration works. According to Zhang, works on the factory that used to build ship frames aims to restore its original structure and showcase its historical evolution. The restored general warehouse will be part of a brand-new skyline. Restoration of the machinery repair workshops will showcase the industrial landscape of the era. 

Soon, the Gezhi Park, the historical buildings at the Navy Yard, the characteristic historical and cultural Mawei shipbuilding street block, the old shipbuilding street, the shipbuilding museum, the Zhaozhong Temple and the Luoxing Pagoda Park will be connected to form a “shipbuilding tourism chain”. Works on the Gangkou Road underpass and municipal infrastructure projects have already commenced. Upon completion, these projects will more tightly connect Mawei’s historic and cultural shipbuilding architectural cluster. 


Century-old Industrial Heritage Finds New Life in the New Era

▲A panorama of the Naval Shipyard 150-odd years ago. (Photo courtesy of Mawei District)

Telling the shipbuilding story and promoting its revitalization

During the course of restoration and conservation, Mawei has boosted the revitalization of historic buildings. At the former shipyard, this reporter saw a national key cultural monument – the engine factory built in 1867. The factory was housed in a building built from red bricks, with French-style steel beams and columns. Built by the French, the factory is one of the shipyard buildings that have survived to the present day, and was the birthplace of China’s first marine steam engine and the engines for China’s first steel-clad warships. In the coming days, the factory will become an exhibition hall that will introduce and showcase various shipbuilding mechanical manufacturing techniques. 

On the old shipbuilding street, a building that used to house the outpatient department of a former hospital built by Christian missionaries is now being repurposed as an intangible cultural heritage exhibition hall, a “characteristic cultural exhibition hall” and a venue for cultural performances. Works are expected to be completed by mid-May. Shipbuilding culture has also found a home on the stage: The Soul of Majiang, China’s first Min opera themed upon shipbuilding culture, has been performed several times, allowing an even larger audience to feast upon shipbuilding culture.  

The integration of research and learning is also a major feature of shipbuilding culture. As part of the first batch of “national research/learning practical education bases for primary and secondary students”, the shipbuilding cultural scenic area has launched a series of activities, including “learning modern Chinese history through the Battle of Fuzhou”, “summer camps for young commentators”, “China naval academy matriculation” and “young commentators”. The Zhaozhong Temple often hosts various thematic research activities that allow primary and secondary school students from all over the world to learn the value of Fuzhou’s ancient houses (known as gucuo) and appreciate their beauty in a relaxed and fun way. Wang Xiaoqin, curator of the Majiang Maritime War Memorial Hall (which commemorates the Battle of Fuzhou), said that the 20,000-square-meter memorial hall is not only a major monument protected at the national level, but also a “national patriotic education demonstration base” and a “national defense education demonstration base”, with attractions atop and at the foot of the mountain. “Field learning” can be seen as an integration of lessons on nature, physical education, and history. In future, the memorial hall will further unearth the heroic deeds of those who came before, promote the spirit of shipbuilding pioneers, and serve the new era.

Enriching cultural history: The homecoming of a century-old machine tool 

In October last year, a 152-year-old “slotting machine” returned home, boosting Mawei’s collection of shipbuilding cultural artifacts. It turns out that conservation of shipbuilding industrial heritage involves a great many aspects. Previously, the site had already restored docks, shipyards and other buildings. After learning that there was a 152-year-old “slotting machine” idling in the Sanming Machine Tool Plant (which is quite a rare find), the China Shipbuilding Culture Management Committee took only 27 days to acquire and return the machine to Mawei. “In China, or even in East Asia generally, it is extremely rare to find such an old ‘slotting machine’,” said Chen Yue, an expert in shipbuilding culture. According to Chen, this machine was known as a zhi pao chuang (“straight planer”), and was considered an advanced piece of machinery in the 1860s. 

As shipbuilding culture becomes ever more influential, Mawei has successively collected more than 1000 shipbuilding cultural relics, including 499 rarer artifacts classified above “grade 3”. Though the shipyard museum already has a large collection of items and historical documents related to shipbuilding culture, the administration is still working to contact descendants of shipbuilding pioneers in the hope of collecting even more surviving historical artifacts, even casting their net as far afield as France and the UK. 

To usher in the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee, the Shipbuilding Culture Museum is overhauling its exhibits. Visitors to the museum would be greeted by a row of bronze statues, both in relief and 3-dimensional, depicting Zuo Zongtang, Shen Baozhen, Yan Fu, Sa Zhenbing, and Zhan Tianyou. The museum has used modern audiovisual means to highlight the contributions of shipbuilding culture to advanced technology, modern education, industrial production and the transmission of western culture in late-Qing China. In particular, these achievements include the 53 “shipbuilding firsts” and the first undersea cable. 

“Shipbuilding culture embodies patriotism, scientific mindset, innovative spirit and a fervent desire to strengthen the motherland. This is highly in line with the national spirit, centered upon patriotism, and the spirit of our times, centered upon reform and opening-up,” said an official from Mawei District. This year, Fuzhou will host the World Heritage session, which will present an opportunity for Mawei to gather suggestions from the public, promote the recognition of shipbuilding culture as a World Cultural Heritage, keep alive one of China’s cultural roots, and contribute towards the conservation of world cultural heritage.

Century-old Industrial Heritage Finds New Life in the New Era

▲Visitors to the Shipbuilding Culture Museum admiring a model of a warship.

Expert Comment

Chen Yue, an expert in naval history and chairman of the Mawei Shipbuilding Culture Research Association

A few years back, I wrote Chuanzheng Shi (“A History of Shipbuilding in China”) and Jindai Guozao Jianchuan Zhi (“Notes on the Building of Warships in Late-Qing China). Last Friday, I published a new book, Cong Chuanzheng dao Nanbei Yang – Shen Baozhen, Li Hongzhang yu Jindai Haifang (“From Shipbuilding to the Southern and Northern Seas – Naval defense in the late-Qing era as depicted by correspondences between Shen Baozhen and Li Hongzhang”). China’s shipbuilding culture embodies the “the unprecedented challenges faced by China” as described by Li Hongzhang. Shipbuilding culture embodies patriotism, scientific mindset, innovative spirit and a fervent desire to strengthen the motherland, all of which are still highly relevant to this day. Shipbuilding culture should play an even bigger role in the new era.

China’s navy during the late Qing Dynasty (which has its roots in naval administration) had two distinct characteristics. Firstly, because of the Fuzhou region was a leader in naval administration, Fujian became indispensable to China’s military forces in the late-Qing era. Secondly, the naval administration authorities, and the institutions that later replaced them, nurtured generations of naval talent that upheld an unyielding spirit, where they “held the flag high even when their ships were downed”. 

In the new era, we must explore the practical significance of shipbuilding culture, not only to tell its story to a local audience, but also to bring shipbuilding culture to ever more cultural exchange activities both inside and outside of China. We are even striving to bring shipbuilding culture to an even wider audience through audiovisual media. With the development of the Shipbuilding Cultural City, our “software” and “hardware” will continue to improve, and we will make ever greater progress in research and talent development. Mawei is expected to become a dominant leader in the study and utilization of shipbuilding culture, both at home and abroad. 

In addition, the history of China’s navy in the late Qing era was one of tragedy, and is part of the collective memory of Chinese on both sides of the Straits. The descendants of shipbuilding pioneers can be found in both the mainland and Taiwan. Today, many such descendants from Taiwan are visiting the mainland to learn more about their ancestral roots. With this common cultural identity, the descendants of shipbuilding pioneers on both sides of the Straits will be able to promote ever closer bonds of blood between Taiwan and the mainland. Compatriots on both sides of the Straits share weal and woe, and will jointly bring about the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.