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An imperial railway failure: the Indochina-Yunnan railway, 1898-1941.


In 1910, one of the most ambitious projects ever initiated by French colonial authorities in their overseas territories was completed. Over a century later, the 848-km-long Indochina-Yunnan railway (1) still links the Vietnamese port of Haiphong to the cities of Hanoi in Vietnam and Kunming in landlocked Yunnan Province of Southwest China (Figure 1). By 2012, freight trains still regularly traveled along the narrow gauge and mostly single-track railway, while a new replacement railway is currently being constructed on both sides of the border to further facilitate booming Sino-Vietnamese trade. Much like the workers who built the original railway over a hundred years ago, those currently constructing the new link have come from all over China to work in the remote borderlands. Although current labourers endure difficult working conditions, this hardship pales in comparison to that faced by their predecessors, thousands of whom lost their lives.

For the colonial authorities, the loss of these 'coolies' meant little in comparison to France's ambitions in Yunnan. Notably, Yunnan was framed as an outlet for developing trading networks that could potentially rival those previously centred on Hong Kong. However, planned economic benefits alone could not justify an enterprise as expensive and risky as the Indochina-Yunnan railway. Indeed, only a clear commitment from Paris would convince financiers and industrials to participate in the venture. To get this commitment, colonial authorities needed to demonstrate the potential military, geopolitical and 'civilising' benefits of this first international rail link to China.

This article addresses these issues and builds from primary data obtained during site visits along the railway and from colonial archives dating from the era of the French occupation in Indochina. The latter documents belong to the collection from the Hanoi-based Vietnam National Archive Centre No. 1. (2) Secondary sources include historic travel diaries, as well as newspaper articles and publications specialised in colonial affairs, geography, political science and economics, most of which belong to the collection in the Bibliotheque nationale de France.

This article retraces the political circumstances and arguments that convinced France's National Assembly to bear most of the responsibilities and risks associated with the Indochina-Kunming railway. In order to increase our understanding of why the project indeed faced great reticence in the Metropolis, I highlight some of the problems that came about both before and after the first locomotive travelled between Haiphong and Kunming on 1 April 1910. In so doing, I outline the railway's small contribution to the objectives that justified its existence at first and demonstrate that only a handful of colonial actors benefited from its construction. As such, I conclude that the Indochina-Yunnan railway exemplifies wider arguments made about railway imperialism, about the 'locomotive being the main engine of imperialism' as well as on its role in generating both imperial and anti-imperial effects. (3)

The rationale for building the railway

During the nineteenth century, French and British colonial administrations devoted substantial energy toward developing regular trading networks between their Southeast Asian colonies and Southwest China. The British tried to find 'a river road to China' along the Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Mekong and Salween rivers, though none of their attempts were successful. In 1866, the French explorers Ernest Doudart de Lagree and Francis Garnier began surveying the Mekong River from Saigon to Kunming, concluding two years later that it was unsuitable for commercial navigation. (4)

From 1869 onwards, French explorers Jean Dupuis and Garnier navigated the Red River from Hanoi to Manhao. Dupuis' travel diary relates how, from then on, he and his expedition members rode horseback to reach Kunming - then called Yunnanfou or Yunnan-sen - to deliver French arms and other manufactured goods to Yunnanese authorities. (5) During the following decade, French trade caravans travelled the route pioneered by Dupuis and Garnier more or less regularly, but this was a tedious journey: average downriver expeditions lasted approximately seven days, but upriver travel could take over fifty days and was impossible during the four-month-long flood season. (6) Adding to these constraints was looting, as North Tonkin was then swarming with 'pirates', including the notorious 'Black Flags' that opposed great resistance to France's colonial project in North Tonkin until the end of the nineteenth century.

The Indochina-Yunnan railway project was first envisaged as a solution to these problems. After imperial troops had tamed the Black Flags in 1897, railway advocates kept emphasising the project's military importance, claiming that it would make Yunnan a rear base necessary to face any further opposition in Indochina. (7) They obtained the right to connect Indochina to Yunnan by rail in 1898 after China's 1895 defeat against Japan. Such railway concessions amounted to 12,000 km between 1895 and the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), exacerbating competition between foreign powers competing for railway influence in the Middle Kingdom. (8) For instance, both Britain and France emphasised that being the first to reach Kunming from their Southeast Asian colonial domains would give them the best chance at building a Yunnan to Sichuan province line. In that sense, the metropolises understood reaching Yunnan as a first step for extending their influence over the country's most populated province, then considered as an Eldorado where 'control over central China will be decided'. (9)

The railway also drove commercial ambitions. There were three. First, exporting European goods to China was the main economic motivation for developing efficient transport infrastructure between Indochina and Yunnan. (10) Second, the railway would also give access to Yunnan's natural resources and products, notably its mineral resources and opium. Third, the railway was envisioned as offering a new Chinese outlet for Indochinese products, including rice, dry fish, wood and coal. All in all, achieving these ambitions would contribute to re-centring China-Europe trading networks on Indochina and fulfilling one of the prime objectives of the colonial project there.

Mission civilisatrice and realpolitik to the rescue

In 1897, when he began his five-year mandate as Governor General of Indochina, Paul Doumer was well aware that for many in the metropolis, the Indochinese colony was 'only worth its boundary with Yunnan'. (11) Doumer claimed that railways were necessary to valorising this asset and that France needed to proceed with railway construction as soon as it got the concession from the Chinese Emperor. However, some remained sceptical about the military, geostrategic and economic arguments that Doumer brought forward to convince Paris to embark on the Indochina-Yunnan railway adventure. (12)

After all, the railway was among the most ambitious and expansive colonial projects ever submitted to the French parliament and there were doubts about the real prospects that Yunnan offered. On the one hand, overly enthusiastic reports about the province's riches (including its mines, forests, opium and diversified agricultural products) systematically emphasised how important and strategic the Indochina-Yunnan railway was. (13) On the other hand, railway sceptics highlighted that by the late 1890s, the Province and its population of eight million were among China's poorest, that trade was anaemic and that the railway would cross mainly empty land. (14)

Doumer responded to such doubts by stressing the mission civilisatrice aspect of the Imperialist project at the core of the Third Republic's (1870-1940) colonial policies. Railways were state-of-the-art technologies in the late nineteenth century and Doumer argued that since 'civilisation follows the locomotive', railway development was necessary to achieve the cultural and technological aspects of the colonial project. (15) His claims emphasised examples such as that of France's own Plan Freycinet (1877-84) that oversaw the construction of 23,000 km of rail lines, mostly between isolated rural communities and consumption centres. (16) Similarly railways had 'sealed the Union in the United States and multiply their wealth ten times' and ' transformed the commercial landscape in the British Indies and Australia'. (17)

Civilising mission aside, Doumer did not hide the fact that he envisioned annexing South Yunnan to the colony, and that railways enabled what he regarded as 'peaceful conquest' appropriate to the task. (18) In 1898, Doumer thus visited Paris to promote an Indochinese railway network totalling 3,200 km of narrow-gauge (one meter) railways. (19) The first phase of his scheme encompassed 1,700 km of railway and investments totalling 200 million francs (763m [euro]), including the 848 km, 95 million franc (362m [euro]) Indochina-Yunnan railway. (20)

Doumer found backing from the Parti colonial which, between 1890 and 1914, remained 'the only colonialist lobby which was capable of exercising a significant influence on the formulation of French foreign policy'. (21) The Comite des Forges [Ironworks Committee], bringing together deputies from regions with important mining or metallurgic activities, also lobbied for the plan in the guise that overseas infrastructure projects would encourage recovery from the 1890s economic depression. (22) Moreover, France's steel industry still struggled from the end of the Freycinet Plan and was facing increasing price competition from American steel mills since the emergence of the Rockefeller-Carnegie Association. (23)

Such support, along with fine political manoeuvring in Paris, convinced the French Government to approve Doumer's project on a fast-track, and moved President Felix Faure to ratify it on Christmas Day 1898, just before the end of a parliamentary session. (24) This set the legal basis for developing the railway network the governor envisioned and for allowing private actors to participate in the Yunnan Railway venture. Indeed, while the colony was responsible for constructing the 384 km railway from Haiphong to the Indochina-China border at Lao Cai, the concession for the 464 km Yunnan railway stipulated that construction and management needed to be subcontracted to a private entity. (25)

Getting private money aboard

By the late nineteenth century, raising capital for financing railway construction in China was a major challenge. (26) The Lao Cai-Kunming link was no exception. Notably, the government wanted the concessionary company to assume all the costs and risks associated with the project except those resulting from 'troubles, rebellions or war in Yunnan', and this made the venture particularly repulsive to private capital. (27) The government responded by making many adjustments in the charter of the concessionary company, the Compagnie frangaise des chemins de fer de llndo-Chine et du Yunnan (CFY), quite attractive to private investors.

First, as for other Imperial railways, procurement contracts for the Indochina-Yunnan railway needed to prioritise suppliers from the Metropolis. This, combined with a requirement that each railway sleeper would be made from 36 kg of steel rather than wood, created potential bonanzas for construction conglomerates. The Societe des Batignolles and the Regie generale des chemins de fer felt they could not afford to miss such an opportunity and both groups rapidly pledged to invest in the venture.

Second, the private sector's entry into the CFY was set at a very low price. The initial capitalisation of the CFY was set at 12.5 million francs (48m [euro]) out of assets totalling 101 million francs (388m [euro]). (28) The government pledged a further 12.5 million francs and would authorise the Compagnie to raise 76 million francs (290m [euro]) from bond sales. Most important, the government would guarantee interest payment on the latter obligations, committing up to three million francs (11m [euro]) of public money to this venture annually for a period of seventy-five years. While the three per cent interest rate did not make this financial product the most lucrative on the market, the state guarantee was a strong incentive in a period when market confidence and economic recovery were faltering in Europe. The first series of bonds was oversubscribed three times (by as yet untraceable buyers) when they were offered on 26 October 1901. (29)

In spite of these incentives, financial institutions were still not convinced to join the CFY capitalisation. Indeed, the Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas and the Credit Lyonnais refused to participate in the project on the grounds that the risks were too high and potential benefits too low. (30) In order to avoid further defection among targeted financial partners, the government committed to handing over the Haiphong-Lao Cai section to the Compagnie after completion. The Indochinese section was forecast to yield much more traffic and profit than the Chinese railway, and this persuaded the Banque de llndo-Chine, the Comptoir national d'Escompte, the Credit Industriel and the Societe Generale to invest in the CFY. (31)

The same concession exacerbated critiques against the railway, including those both from the Parti anti-colonial and colonialists such as M. Le Myre de Vilers, deputy for Cochinchina, who argued that the project would monopolise too important a share of the colony's resources. Other objections were that both the geostrategic objectives of the project and Doumer's almost hostile attitude towards China would trigger retaliation from the Chinese and British alike. (32)

The criticisms did not stop the French Chambre des deputes from adopting Arrete 2445 on 1 July 1901, concretising the status of the Compagnie francaise des chemins de fer de l Indo-Chine et du Yunnan (CFY). Of the Compagnie's 101 million franc initial assets, 95 million francs (362m [euro]) would be invested in the Yunnan railway, while the remaining 6 million francs (23m [euro]) were allocated for administrating the Paris-based Compagnie. Construction per se would be subcontracted to the Societe de construction des Chemins de fer indochinois, a newly created subsidiary from the CFY with a four million francs initial capital shared between the six stakeholders from its parent. (33)

As such, the CFY was set to manage the whole Haiphong-Kunming link under what would today be called a 'Build, Own, Operate and Transfer' (BOOT) agreement. Indeed, seventy-five years after the inauguration of the railway, all infrastructure was to be returned to the Colonial administration. (34) However, little went as planned, and an Islamic revolt that occurred in Mengzi in 1899 interrupted all preliminary survey work and became the first in a long series of unexpected complications affecting the project.

Construction challenges and problems

Teston and Percheron described the Indochina-Yunnan railway as 'Indochina's marvel', taking care not to emphasise its price tag of 243.5 million francs (929m [euro]). (35) Indeed, the construction of the Haiphong-Lao Cai section cost the Colony 78 million francs (298m [euro]), or fifty-six per cent more than planned in 1901. As for the construction fee of the Lao Cai-Kunming section, it exceeded provisions by seventy-two per cent and amounted to 165.5 million francs (631m [euro]). (36)

The budgeted ninety-five million francs were all gone by 1907, and a further thirty-further million were needed for the construction work planned for that year only. The Compagnie would not commit to such a sum in spite of its legal commitment to face budget deficits, leaving the government with no other choice but to either interrupt construction or pour more money into the project. The logistical complications, and the financial and political costs associated with the former scenario, were deemed too important and convinced the Colony to provide an additional thirty million francs, and the CFY to raise 5 million through a stock offering. Based on the conclusions from an arbitrage process on how to deal with further deficits, the Colony further contributed 23.5 million francs while the CFY would contribute 2 million more into the venture before completion. (37)

As such, average construction costs per kilometre reached 200,000 francs (764,000 [euro]) for the Haiphong-Lao Cai railway and almost 354,000 francs (1.4m [euro]) for the Lao Cai-Kunming railway. These figures far exceeded Doumer's 1898 estimates which were that the average building cost for the 3,200 km Indochinese railway network would reach 100,000 francs (381,000 [euro]) per kilometre on flat land, and twice as much in mountainous areas. (38)

Doumer had based his calculations on the report from a survey carried out in 1897-98 by civil engineer Guillemoto who drafted the first Yunnan railway route. Suspicions about both Guillemoto's data and enthusiasm for railway prospects justified a second mission in 1899. It pointed out that Yunnan's mountains would create logistical and engineering challenges and involve extra costs. (39) The Arrete 2445 from 1901 accounted for such findings, setting the maximum slope grade for most of the Chinese section at twenty-five millimetres per metre, compared to fifteen millimetres per metre in Indochina. (40) Nonetheless, this first routeing rested on poor quality maps and crossed the area known as the 10,000 staircases which, as its name suggests, was unsuitable for railway construction. (41) The whole Hekou-Kunming alignment was thus revised and a longer eastward route was chosen in 1902 (Figure 2). (42)

Technical challenges still remained, including curves with curb radiuses as low as fifty meters, and insuring a minimum speed limit of 15 km/h on slopes culminating at 2,020 meters above sea level. Yunnan's geography also necessitated the construction of major infrastructure. Vassal cites that the 469 km Chinese section of the railway comprised: '155 tunnels of a total length of eighteen kilometres and nearly 100 bridges of over ten meters span. Other works include 3,000 masonry culverts and 1,500 retaining walls'. (43) Brugiere's data are as impressive: 'In the end, the railway comprised 3,422 viaducts, bridges and aqueducts, or 7.3 for every kilometre'. (44)

Among these structures, the two most spectacular bridges are the eightpier curved bridge at kilometre eighty-three, called 'le pont en dentelles' [lace bridge] and the 'pont sur Albaletriers' [crossbow bridge] at kilometre 111. The latter V-shaped bridge, often drawn and photographed, is an awesome 70-metre-long structure joining two tunnels into sheer cliffs and suspended 100 m over Namti creek (Figure 3). (45)

As for the Haiphong-Lao Cai railway, it features thirty tunnels and 175 metal bridges, including the flagship 1,682 m Doumer Bridge (renamed the Long Bien Bridge in 1954), crossing the Red River between Gia-Lam and Hanoi. Paul Doumer himself considered this eponymous work as 'the most impressive structure that the European genius enabled to build in Indo-China'. (46) Such enthusiasm received great attention in the Metropolis where the railway was framed as exemplifying both the technical and artistic mastery of colonial projects. (47)

However, such achievements entailed catastrophic human costs. The most frequently quoted figures reckon that 60,000 Indochinese and Chinese coolies' were hired to build the Indochina-Yunnan railway. Twelve thousand reportedly died on construction sites. (48) However, according to American historian Virginia Thompson, these figures reach 80,000 and 24,000 respectively. (49) Given such a high mortality rate, hiring workers became increasingly challenging for the company. By the end of construction the CFY resorted to recruiting coolies' from as far as Manchuria. In total, forty-four of the 929 Europeans involved in construction work also died. (50) Compounding work incidents, there was a high incidence of malaria, deficient sanitary conditions and brutality among European supervisors.

Other problems involving construction workers include an attack in June 1905, in which sixteen Annamite railway workers armed with knives assaulted their co-workers near Lao Cai: two were injured, and about 500 piastres stolen. (51) Also, in 1909, ten Chinese workers fired at Hekou were blamed for cutting the telegraphic line parallel to the railway twice with tools from the Compagnie. (52) Such wrongdoings were no surprise to this official writing to the Tonkin Resident: the Compagnie's agents treatment of the Chinese coolies is to be condemned, as you know'. (53) France's public opinion was not insensitive to such reports as they, along with similar reports originating on working conditions in rubber plantation in Cochinchina, led to the adoption of the very first all-colony labour legislation in 1910. (54)

Unmet expectations

In spite of these hurdles, the train made its maiden trip from Haiphong to Kunming on 1 April 1910, seven years after work began on the Hekou-Kunming link. (55) This section revisits how the military, geostrategic and commercial objectives vested in the line stood the test of time, purposely leaving aside the mission civilisatrice rhetoric that has been discussed extensively elsewhere. (56)

The railway did not serve the anticipated French military purposes. France did not conduct any major military operation in Tonkin or Yunnan after the railway's completion, nor did the colonial government face serious opposition from the local population before World War II erupted. Menace then came in the form of Japanese bombers: twenty-seven bombarded sections of the line between Haiphong and Hanoi in March 1940. (57) Damages, including those along the busy Haiphong-Hanoi link, were not repaired before the end of the fighting.

Nonetheless, the railway served unexpected military functions, including contributing to Chiang Kai-Shek's struggles against both Japanese and Communist troops between 1937 and 1940. Chiang's Chongqing-based commandment then coped with the blockage of its main supply line, the Yangze River. (58) Also, the railway ironically contributed to anti-colonial resistance in two ways. First, as Del Testa documents, while Indochinese railway workers were initially active contributors to the French-led modernisation programme in Indochina, their subsequent disillusion about this programme convinced many among them to become active within communist movements. (59) Second, China's Communist troops utilised the railway to supply Viet-Minh troops during the Indochina war, contributing to their victory at Dien Bien Phu. (60) As for France and Britain's rivalry in Southwest China, it faded after the railway was completed, both metropolises having more pressing issues to address in Europe than those in their colonial domains.

Last but not least are the economic impacts of the railway. Whereas the reliability of archival material is open to debate, three conclusions stand out. First, the Indochina-Kunming was relatively more lucrative than the other Indochinese railways (Table 1). However, the financial success of the line relied first and foremost on the Haiphong to Hanoi section where the contribution to the railways' income was twice as important in the 1920s and 1930s than anticipated in 1901 (Table 2). Concurrently, the Yunnan railway never contributed as much income to the Compagnie as planned.

Second, the vision that the railway would create wealth in an undifferentiated manner wherever it passed and stopped failed to materialise. There were ninety-nine stations along the line in 1927; a mere ten contributed almost seventy-five per cent of the Indochina-Yunnan line's revenues. (61) Likewise, the objective that 550,000 tonnes of freight would travel along the Lao Cai-Kunming railway per year was never attained, and registered cargo peaked at 500,000 tonnes per kilometre prior to World War II. (62) The same goes for the Indochina-China trade ambitions: while a quarter of Indochina exports in tonnage were destined to China in 1927, these only accounted for nine per cent of the Colony's export revenues, compared to forty-two per cent for its exports destined to Hong Kong.

Finally, the Indochina-Yunnan railway was a financial bottomless pit, or as Cordier noted laconically in 1909, it was not a good project from a financial point of view'. (63) Adding to its skyrocketing construction costs discussed above, the Yunnan railway was more expensive to maintain than any other French railway built in Indochina. By 1941 the route equalled fourteen per cent of the Indochinese network and had required no less than thirty per cent of all maintenance fees contracted by that date. By 1941, the price tag for the Yunnan link reached 589,736 francs per kilometre, compared to the network average of 499,335 francs per kilometre. (64)


Capitaine Bernard concluded in 1901 that 'each step forward in China calls for another one and we always end up looking for immediate riches farther than we first thought'. (65) Within this article, I have documented an episode from this continuous quest. Moreover, I have documented the ways in which individuals promoting the Indochina-Yunnan railway project overcame all the political, economic, geostrategic, logistical and geographic constraints confronting their project. I have demonstrated that the arguments of railway enthusiasts were often biased, failing to account for the geography, culture and real economic potential of the areas the railway traversed, and that these omissions often played a strategic role in serving the personal interests of railway supporters. After all, Doumer did make his Indochinese mandate a springboard' that would ultimately allow him to become France's President in 1931. (66)

Thomas Misa's study on the history of technology demonstrates that Doumer and the other railway supporters who I introduced here were no different from their contemporaries serving a biased colonial economic system. (67) As Misa argues, 'the wealth-consuming nature of imperial technologies sets off the imperial era from the earlier wealth-generating ones of commerce and industry'. (68) Therefore, only the interests mastering imperialist technologies could really benefit from projects such as the Indochina-Yunnan railway. Chief among them were the engineering firms involved in the CFY which secured some of the most lucrative contracts ever awarded in France's colonial domain. The same rationale explains the banks' lukewarm attitude towards financing railway construction in China, as Davis documents. (69) With regards to the Indochina-Yunnan railway, the banks hesitated to embark in the project, taking into consideration that while the risks of investing in the CFY were minimal, their potential returns were inconsequential. Indeed, Meuleau explains that dividends from the railway company were three to four times less than those offered by the Banque de l'Indochine. (70) Finally, French subjects from both the Metropolis and the colony ended up paying for both the expensive railway and its astronomical maintenance and operations costs. (71)

As for the contribution of the railway to the imperialist project from which it emerged, history demonstrates that the Indochina-China Railway failed to ensure that France would rule over Indochina for at least 75 years after its completion. In that sense, Starostina's conclusion that the considerable cost of the line, both in terms of human lives and money, presents a striking contrast with its limited usefulness to the goals of French imperialism in Indochina' is appropriate for the three decades during which the French controlled the line. (72) Subsequently, the railway actually precipitated their defeat against nationalist troops in a number of ways, therefore creating what Robinson calls an anti-imperialist effect'. (73)

By 2012, only one cargo train travelled the obsolete Indochina-Yunnan railway across the Sino-Vietnamese border daily. Railway sites are now being reconverted as tourist venues and queue for obtaining a UNESCO World Heritage status as a result of government-driven myth making efforts that, again, only emphasise selected aspects from the train's history. (74) Also, as mentioned in the Introduction, a new railway is being built in Yunnan along the first route envisioned by the French for the Indochina-Yunnan railway, while construction work is also occurring along the Vietnamese section of the railway. The commercial prospects of this line might appear much brighter today than they did a century ago, but this project again silences some of the geopolitical challenges at hand. Indeed, while trade surges between the two neighbours, mutual confidence remains imperilled by long-standing and unresolved conflicts, including that over control of the Spratley and Paracels Islands in the South China Sea. In such an uncertain context, only time will tell if the new Vietnam-Yunnan Railway awaits a better future than its predecessor. 10.7227/TJTH.35.1.2


Thanks to Stan BH Tan-Tangbau, Jean Michaud, Sarah Turner, Noelani Eidse and Bernard Huber, along with the Journal of Transport History's editor and anonymous reviewers, for their constructive comments on previous versions of this article. The research was made possible with support from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the National University of Singapore (WBS No. R-117-000-012-112/133: 'Beyond Hills and Plains: Rethinking State, Society and Economy in the Southeast Asian Massif').

Jean-Francois Rousseau

McGill University


(1) This is a translation from the railway's French name, Le Chemin de fer de l'Indochine et du Yunnan. Other authors have labelled it 'Dian-Viet Railway', probably after its Chinese name [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--' dian-yue tielu': Yunnan-Vietnam railway. I argue that the latter name suggests Yunnan was the starting point of the line rather than its terminus. The history I present below makes it clear that the opposite is true.

(2) Colleagues participating in a collaborative research project involving the author gathered the archival materials. These include annual reports from the Compagnie frangaise des chemins de fer de l lndo-Chine et du Yunnan (CFY) and correspondence between Indochina-based political and economic actors.

(3) R. E. Robinson, 'Introduction: Railway Imperialism', in C. B. Davis, K. E. Wilburn and R. E. Robinson (eds), Railway Imperialism (New York, Greenwood Press, 1991), 3; see also R. Lee, France and the Exploitation of China, 1885-1901: a Study in Economic lmperialism (Hong Kong and New York, Oxford University Press, 1989); C. B. Davis, 'Railway Imperialism in China, 1895-1939', in C. B. Davis, K. E. Wilburn and R. E. Robinson, Railway lmperialism, 155-73; R. E. Robinson, 'Railway and Informal Empire', in C. B. Davis, K. E. Wilburn and R. E. Robinson, Railway lmperialism, 175-95; T. J. Misa, Leonardo to the Internet: Technology & Culture from the Renaissance to the Present (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 2004).

(4) E. Doudart de Lagree, L. M. J. Delaporte, F. Garnier, E. Joubert and C. Thorel, Voyage dExploration en Indo-Chine Effectue Pendant les Annees 1866, 1867 et 1868 Par Une Commission Frangaise Presidee Par M. Le Capitaine de Fregate Doudart de Lagree (Paris, Hachette et cie, 1873); M. Osborne, River Road to China: the Mekong River Expedition, 1866-73 (New York, Liveright, 1975).

(5) J. Dupuis, LOuverture Du Fleuve Rouge Au Commerce Et Les Evenements Du Ton-Kin 1872-73, Journal de Voyage et d'Expedition de J. Dupuis (Paris, Challamel Aine, 1879); Anonymous, Pour Penetrer En Chine (Senlis: Imprimerie et Lithographie Ernest Payen, 1890).

(6) H.K.'The Province of Yunnan: Recommendations in Favour of the Free Transit of the Red River (Annam), on Order to Search the Markets of Western China', The China Review, 9 (1881), 350-62.

(7) Anonymous, 'Le Yunnan et l'Indo-Chine', A travers le monde (Paris, Librairie Hachette, 1904), 43-4.

(8) P. Leroy-Beaulieu, 'La Situation et les Perspectives Economiques de la Chine', Revue des Deux Mondes, Tome Vingt-Sixieme, Cinquieme Periode (1905), 559-90; G. Barbezieux, 'La France au Yunnan', La Nouvelle Revue, Vingt-huitieme annee, Tome XLVII (1907), 289-308; E. H. Lee, China's Quest for Railway Autonomy, 1904-11: A Study of the Chinese Railway-Rights Recovery Movement (Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1977); Davis, 'Railway Imperialism in China .

(9) M. De Coppet, 'L'Action Economique des Puissances en Chine', Annales de Science Politique, Tome quinzieme (1900), 94; Anonymous, 'Discussion et Vote du Projet du Chemin de Fer du Yunnan', Journal des transports, 24e annee, No 27 (6 July 1901).

(10) D. W. Del Testa, 'Paint the Train Red: Labour, Nationalism, and the Railroads in French Colonial Indochina, 1898-1945 (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California Davis, 2001).

(11) P. Doumer, Llndo-Chine Frangaise (Paris, Vuibert et Nony, 1905), p. 330; see also Anonymous, Pour Penetrer En Chine.

(12) Del Testa, Paint the Train Red.

(13) M. Landry, 'Le Chemin de Fer de Haiphong a Yunnan-Sen', Le Figaro, (2 July 1901), 2; That, 'L'Oeuvre de M. Paul Doumer en Indochine', Minerva, 1ere annee, Tome quatrieme (1902), 5-31; G. Courtellemont, 'Ce que vaut le Yunnan', Revue Politique et Parlementaire, TomeXLll (1904), 558-68.

(14) P. Leroy-Beaulieu, 'Le Probleme Chinois, la Chine et les Puissances', Revue des Deux Mondes, Tome Cent Cinquante-Deuxieme, Livraison du 1er Mars (1899), 112-47; Anonymous, Faut-il Prolonger le Chemin de Fer du Yunnan, Bulletin de la Societe de geographie de Toulouse, Vingt-neuvieme annee (1910), 222-4; M. Meuleau, Des Pionniers en Extreme-Orient: Histoire de la Banque de l'Indochine, 1875-1975 (Paris, Fayard, 1990).

(15) A. Lorin, Paul Doumer, Gouverneur General de l lndochine: 1897-1902: le tremplin colonial. (Paris, L'Harmattan, 2004), 85.

(16) A. L. Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1997).

(17) E. Levasseur, 'L'Indo-Chine Franjaise en 1901', Revue Politique et Parlementaire, Tome XXXII, No. 95 (1902), 230.

(18) Doumer, L lndo-Chine Frangaise, 343; Anonymous, 'Discussion et Vote du Projet du Chemin de Fer du Yunnan', Journal des transports, 24e annee, No 27, (6 July 1901), 334.

(19) While most of Vietnam's trains still roll on narrow-gauge rails, the Indochina-Yunnan railway Line is the last narrow-gauge commercial rail link in China. Standard (1,435 m) gauge railways make the bulk of the country's vast rail network.

(20) Conversion rates were obtained from the French lnstitut national de la statistique et des etudes economiques (INSEE). Conversions should not be taken at face value, as the construction of such a railway today would cost much more than the figures quoted here. Even so, the monetary values shown correlate with those from P. Morlat, lndochine Annees Vingt : le Balcon de la France sur le Pacifique (Paris, Indes Savantes, 2001).

(21) L. Abrams and G. J. Miller, 'Who Were the French Colonialists? A Reassessment of the Parti Colonial, 1890-1914', Historical Journal, 19 (1976), 686-7; see also C. M. Andrew and A. S. Kanya-Forstner, 'The French "Colonial Party": its Composition, Aims and Influence, 1885-1914', Historical Journal, 14: 29 (1971), 99-128.

(22) Del Testa, Paint the Train Red.

(23) M. Bruguiere, 'Le Chemin de Fer du Yunnan, Paul Doumer et la Politique d'Intervention Franjaise en Chine (1889-1902)', Revue d'histoire diplomatique, 7 (1963), 23-61, 12962, 252-78.

(24) lbid.

(25) J. C. Stuttard, lndo-China (Cambridge, Great Britain Naval Intelligence Division, 1943).

(26) Davis, 'Railway Imperialism in China .

(27) Chambre des deputes, Projet de Loi Ayant pour Objet d Approuver la Convention Conclue par le Gouvernement General de l lndo-Chine pour la Construction Partielle et l Exploitation du Chemin de Fer de Haiphong a Yunnan-Sen (Paris, Imprimerie nationale, 1901), V. & 34.

(28) lbid.

(29) Anonymous, 'Chemins de Fer de l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan, Paris Capital (30 October 1901),1.

(30) M. Meuleau, Des Pionniers en Extreme-Orient: Histoire de la Banque de l lndochine, 1875-1975 (Paris, Fayard, 1990).

(31) M. Bruguiere, ' Le Chemin de Fer du Yunnan .

(32) Anonymous, 'Disucussion et vote du projet du chemin de fer du Yunnan, Journal des transports,24e annee, No 27, (6 July 1901), 334.

(33) A. Des Chaumes, 'Les Chemins de Fer Franjais en Chine', Revue Politique et Parlementaire, Tome LXX, No. 209 (1911), 286-302.

(34) Chambre des deputes, Projet de Loi.

(35) E. Teston and M. Percheron, L lndochine Moderne : Encyclopedie Administrative, Touristique, Artistique et Economique (Paris, Librairie de France, 1932) 429.

(36) Gouvernement general de l'Indochine, Chemins de Fer, Statistiques de l Annee 1941 .

(37) C. Depince, 'Revue des Questions Coloniales', Revue Politique et Parlementaire, Tome LII, No. 154, (1907), 172-85; Anonymous, 'Emprunts coloniaux, Annam, Tonkin et Indo-Chine', Journal des Finances, No. 24, 12 June (1909), 2; Compagnie franjaise des chemins de fer de l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan. Assemblee Generale Ordinaire du 29 juin 1914, Rapport et Resolutions (Paris, 1914).

(38) Doumer, L lndo-Chine Frangaise.

(39) A. Des Chaumes, 'Les Chemins de Fer Franjais en Chine, Revue Politique et Parlementaire, Tome LXX, No. 209 (1911), 286-302.

(40) Chambre des deputes, Projet de Loi.

(41) V Thompson, French Indo-China (London, George Allen & Unwin, 1937).

(42) Des Chaumes, 'Les Chemins de Fer Franjais en Chine

(43) G. M. Vassal, ln and Around Yunnan Fou (London, William Heinemann, 1922), 34.

(44) Bruguiere, 'Le Chemin de Fer du Yunnan, 59.

(45) R. Lee, 'Potential railway world heritage sites in Asia and the Pacific', 12. Unpublished paper, Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History, University of York, 2003. For a partial photographic record see:

(46) Doumer, L lndo-Chine Frangaise, p 127

(47) Starostina, 'Engineering the Empire of Images : Constructing Railways in Asia before the Great War', Southeast Review of/Asian Studies, 31 (2009), 181-206.

(48) G Arnaud, 'Les chemins de fer de l'Indochine franjaise Annales de geographie, 33: 3 (1924); Compagnie franjaise des chemins de fer de l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan, Societe de construction des chemins de fer Indo-Chinois, Le Chemin de Fer du Yunnan (Paris, Imprimerie G. Goury, 1910); Vassal, ln and Around Yunnan Fou.

(49) Thompson, French lndo-China.

(50) Compagnie franjaise des chemins de fer de l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan, Societe de construction des chemins de fer Indo-Chinois, Le Chemin de Fer du Yunnan; Doumer, L lndo-Chine Frangaise.

(51) Residence superieure au Tonkin, Letter 1316 (Hanoi, 1905 RST 29801).

(52) Gouvernement general de l'Indochine, Letter 394 (Hanoi, 1909 RST 77568).

(53) Province de Laokai, Lettre au Resident de France (Ho-Keou, 23 August 1909, RST 77568).

(54) Del Testa, Paint the Train Red.

(55) Anonymous, 'Emprunts coloniaux, Annam, Tonkin et Indo-Chine, Journal des Finances, No. 24, 12 June (1909), 2; A. Des Chaumes, 'Les Chemins de Fer Franjais en Chine , Revue Politique et Parlementaire, Tome LXX, No. 209 (1911), 286-302.

(56) See Del Testa, Paint the Train Red; Lee, France and the Exploitation of China; Starostina, 'Engineering the Empire of Images .

(57) P. L. Riviere, 'Yunnan et Nippon', La Croix (30 March 1940), 2.

(58) Compagnie franjaise des chemins de fer de l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan, Assemblee Franjaise des Chemins de l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan, Assemblee Generale Ordinaire du 3 Mai 1939, Rapport du Conseil d Administration (Paris, 1939).

(59) Del Testa, Paint the Train Red.

(60) L. Bodard, Les Grandes Murailles (Paris, Grasset, 1987).

(61) Gouvernement general de l'Indochine, Chemins de Fer, Statistiques de l Annee 1927, Dressees a l lnspection Generale des Travaux Publics (Hanoi, Imprimerie d'Extreme Orient, 1929, Vietnam National Archive Centre No. 1).

(62) Bruguiere, 'Le Chemin de Fer du Yunnan .

(63) H. Cordier, 'Yunnan, the Link between India and the Yangtze, by Major H. R. Davies , Toungpao, ser. 2:10 (1909), 711.

(64) Governement de l'Indochine, Chemins de Fer, Statistiques de l Annee 1941 (Hanoi, 1942).

(65) Capitaine F. Bernard, 'L'Indo-Chine, Erreurs et Dangers, La Revue de Paris, Vol. premier, livraison du 15 fevrier (1901), 746.

(66) A. Lorin, Paul Doumer. Doumer was assassinated in 1932.

(67) Misa, Leonardo to the lnternet.

(68) lbid., 99. Emphasis in original.

(69) Davis, 'Railway Imperialism in China .

(70) Meuleau, Des Pionniers en Extreme-Orient.

(71) The added fiscal pressure from the Indochina-Yunnan railway for colonial subjects is still undocumented. Reviewing the evolution of Indochinese taxation policy is outside the scope of this article.

(72) Starostina, 'Engineering the Empire of Images', 199.

(73) Robinson, 'Introduction: Railway Imperialism ,3.

(74) S. Ponsavady, 'Yunnan Railway Museum and Exhibits, China', Journal of Transport History, 34:1 (2013), 63-6.


Jean-Francois Rousseau is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at McGill University, Montreal. His doctoral research focuses on renewable energy development in China's Yunnan Province, and its impacts upon rural livelihoods. He has also conducted research on agricultural trajectories in Southeast Asia.

Table 1 Indochina network and Indochina-Yunnan railway length and
financial statement, selected years (a)


              1913   1915   1916   1917   1921   1922

Length (km)                               2075   2075
Income                                    47.8   53.3
Expenses                                  40.2   41.2
Profit                                    7.6    12.1

Indochina-Yunnan Railway/percentage from the Indochina network

              1913   1915   1916   1917   1921 (%)   1922 (%)

Length (km)   848           848           848  41%   848  41%
Income        7.8    6.7    8.6    9.7    27.0 56%   30.9 58%
Expenses      5.5                         21.0 52%   22.4 54%
Profit        2.3                         6.0  78%   8.6  71%


              1923         1924         1925         1926

Length (km)   2075         2075         2075         2075
Income        63.7         78.7         99.5         141.4
Expenses      50.2         62.8         77.1         118.3
Profit        13.5         16.0         22.3         23.0

Indochina-Yunnan Railway/percentage from the Indochina network

              1923 (%)     1924 (%)     1925 (%)     1926 (%)

Length (km)   848  41%     848  41%     848  41%     848  41%
Income        34.9 55%     42.9 54%     57.2 57%     77.4 55%
Expenses      25.4 51%     31.5 50%     39.7 51%     62.8 53%
Profit        9.5  70%     11.4 71%     17.4 78%     14.6 64%


              1927    1928    1929    1930    1937   1938

Length (km)   2389    2395    2395    2395
Income        112.6   127.0   119.9   105.4
Expenses      102.8   108.2   105.6   97.8
Profit        9.8     18.8    14.3    7.6

Indochina-Yunnan Railway/percentage from the Indochina network

              1927 (%)   1928 (%)   1929   1930   1937   1938

Length (km)   848  35%   848  35%                 848    848
Income        57.9 51%   63.7 50%                 60.0   97.1
Expenses      53.6 52%   52.8 49%                 29.0   37.1
Profit        4.2  43%   10.9 58%                 31.0   60.0


              1939   1940   1941
Length (km)

Indochina-Yunnan Railway/percentage from the Indochina network

              1939    1940    1941

Length (km)   848     848     848
Income        155.4   111.3   55.9
Expenses      118.4   77.3    49.0
Profit        37.0    34.1    6.9

Note: (a) All monetary data in million francs.

Sources: Compagnie frangaise des chemins de fer de l'Indo-Chine et
du Yunnan. Assemblee Generale Ordinaire du 29 juin 1914, Rapport et
Resolutions (Paris, 1914); Compagnie frangaise des chemins de fer
de l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan. Rapport Commercial de la Ligne
Haiphong-Yunnanfou pour l'Annee 1916 (Hanoi-Haiphong, Imprimerie
d'Extreme Orient, 1917); Compagnie frangaise des chemins de fer de
l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan, Rapport Commercial de la Ligne
Haiphong-Yunnanfou pour l'Annee 1917 (Hanoi-Haiphong, Imprimerie
d'ExtrSme-Orient, 1918); Compagnie frangaise des chemins de fer de
l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan, Rapport Commercial 1924 (Hanoi, 1925);
Gouvernement general de l'Indochine, Chemins de Fer, Statistiques
de l'Annee 1926, Dressees a tlnspection Generate des Travaux
Publics (Hanoi, 1928); Gouvernement general de l'Indochine, Chemins
de Fer, Statistiques de l'Annee 1927, Dressees a inspection
Generale des Travaux Publics (Hanoi, Imprimerie d'Extreme Orient,
1929); Gouvernement general de l'Indochine, Chemins de Fer,
Statistiques de l'Annee 1930, Dressees a I'Inspection Generale des
Travaux Publics (Hanoi, Imprimerie d'Extreme Orient, 1931);
Compagnie frangaise des chemins de fer de l'Indo-Chine et du
Yunnan, Assemblee Frangaise des Chemins de l'Indo-Chine et du
Yunna. Assemblee Generale Ordinaire du 3 Mai 1939, Rapport du
Conseil d'Administration (Paris, 1939); Governement de l'Indochine,
Chemins de Fer, Statistiques de l'Annee 1941 (Hanoi, 1942).

Table 2 Indochina-Yunnan railway: railway sections and their
contribution to the line income, selected years

                      Length           1901 (a)   1927    1930    1941

                      km       %

Haiphong to Lao Cai   384      45%     57%        72%     73%     61%
(Haiphong to Hanoi)   (104)    (12%)   (29%)      (58%)   (60%)
Hekou to Kunming      464      55%     43%        28%     27%     39%

Note: (a): As fore cast in Arrete 2445.

Sources : Chambre des deputes, Projet de Loi Ayant pour Objet
dApprouver la Convention Conclue par le Gouvernement General de
l'lndo-Chine pour la Construction Partielle et ^Exploitation du
Chemin de Fer de Haiphong a Yunnan-Sen (Paris, Imprimerie nationale,
1901); Gouvernement general de l'Indochine, Chemins de Fer,
Statistiques de lAnnee 1927, Dressees a ^Inspection Generale des
Travaux Publics (Hanoi, Imprimerie d'Extreme Orient, 1929);
Gouvernement general de l'Indochine, Chemins de Fer, Statistiques de
lAnnee 1930, Dressees a ^Inspection Generale des Travaux Publics
(Hanoi, Imprimerie d'Extreme Orient, 1931); Governement de
l'Indochine, Chemins de Fer, Statistiques de l Annee 1941 (Hanoi,
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Author:Rousseau, Jean-Francois
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Date:Jun 1, 2014
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