From Fire-Wheel Boats to Cities on the Sea: Changing Perceptions of the Steamships in the Late Qing, 1830s-1900s

Jenny Huangfu Day


This essay charts the changing meaning of the steamship in late Qing China. During the Opium Wars, the steamship was often seen as a variant on traditional Chinese shipbuilding technology; soon after the Second Opium War, technical manuals translated into Chinese emphasized westerners’ intuitive understanding of qi in designing the steam engines. The beginning of transoceanic journeys in the 1860s opened up a new space for using the steamship as a “packaged tour” for elite travellers. As an instrument of war and a portable display of western superiority, the steamship was a microcosm of western culture unto itself, transporting ideas regarding progress, international law, race, and civilisation to the places it visited. The confines of the material ship opened onto vistas of industry, military might, scientific optimism, and racial difference. The Chinese travellers’ interactions with officers, other travellers, merchants and indigenous peoples fostered a new geographical understanding infused with a dual imperial consciousness. By using poems and letters written by coastal literati, newspaper accounts, technical manuals, and notes and journals kept by travellers and diplomats on oceanic voyages, the essay seeks to unearth sentiments and emotions engendered by and conveyed through the steamship and transoceanic voyages, using them as a lens to understand the larger shift in the Chinese cultural milieu.


steamship; late Qing China; shipbuilding technology

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