Are Horses Socialist? Logistics in Chinese History

Beijing draws resources and wealth from the rest of China. That was as true in the Ming Dynasty when emperors used the grand canal to extract taxes, resources and luxury goods from the Jiangnan area of China as it is today with the government creating another type of Grand Canal to move a precious resource from north to south: water.

Historians understandably pay more attention to the movement of peoples than the movement of goods. Moving for necessity or pleasure, survival or opportunity, travelers reflect on the multiple meanings of their experiences in journals, essays, memoirs and photographs. They give historians a lot to work with.

Stuff—food, bricks, construction materials– don’t have the gift on language and are easy to overlook.  They simply move from origin to destination without much thought from the rest of the world, unless, of course, they don’t arrive or arrive at the wrong place.

Historians generally write about logistics in two ways. First, and most obvious, are the ties between logistics and war. As the cliché goes, and like most clichés, we should not ignore it because of its ubiquity, amateurs think about strategy; professionals think about logistics. However, a focus on wartime logistics comes at the expense of peacetime, civilian-led logistics. Second, and not quite as obvious, historians follow an object through time and space. Commodity histories, of salt and sugar, cod and coffee, take this approach to unravel how, in humanity’s search for flavors, tastes and luxuries, we change environments and these goods, in turn, change us, the rhythms and contours of our daily lives.  This approach, however, focuses on the object and not necessarily on how it gets around. Logistics float on the periphery of a story more concerned with the environment, politics and consumption.

Rarely do logistics stand at the center of history. When they do, the results are remarkable. A book about the shipping container sounds awful but, in fact, contains original insights on every page. Even Bill Gates recommended it.

With all this in mind, logistics, as much as politics, philosophy, war and governance, is an important but overlooked aspect of Chinese history. How did imperial government’s develop and regulate transportation networks? How was important cargo handled in route? How did ever-normal granaries work?

Of course, we know the answer to some of these questions but thinking in these terms allows us view familiar periods from new perspectives. In doing so, the history of the 1950s, long viewed through the lens of politics, becomes the history of logistics as the Chinese Communist Party focused on the monumental task of rebuilding cities wrecked by war. At the end of 1954, the Beijing Transportation Company estimated that it would move, in the coming calendar year, 10,214, 046 dun of basic construction materials,978, 925 of materials for the city government, 5,395, 270 dun of basic food products and 592,124 of manufactured goods. No matter what scale you use, that is a lot of stuff. And these are just the statistics from one city and one year.

The Beijing Transportation Company relied on a mix of vehicles—cars, horses and sanlunche—that each had benefits and drawbacks.

Cars, of course, were fast and efficient but they suffered from three distinct weaknesses, one concerning their provision, one related to labor and one due to the layout of Beijing.  Most of the cars in Bejing belonged to government organs of one type or another and sat idle for a majority of the day when not ferrying leaders to meetings. The problem going forward was how to figure out a way for government danwei’s to allow their cars to take part in transportation work. Idleness was also a problem for cars already involved in transportation: workers took their time loading and unloading goods. Cars were only on the road about half the day. Finally, the narrow, twisting lanes of Beijing often did not allow cars to arrive at the ultimate destination. Materials had to be transferred to another type transportation that could weave through the streets to the ultimate destination, usually horses.

Horses don’t often make an appearance on the streets of Bejing but in the 1950s there were thousands of them. Beyond getting into hard to reach hutongs, horse drawn wagons were generally more economical than cars, especially over short distances. Though horses were useful—and necessary—in the short term, they would eventually needed to be phased out. Not only did their droppings cause potential health concerns, but their very visibility would harm the image of Beijing as a modern city, that was also the political, economic and cultural capital of the country. Having too many of them would impact the impression (guanzhan 观瞻) the city gave to visitors.

Pedicabs, or sanlunche, stood somewhere between cars and horses. Like a trycicle with a flat bed for storage, sanlunche were nimble and convenient, able, like horses, to go where cars could not. But pedaling a sanlunche piled high with bricks of construction materials was quite arduous (fanzhong 繁重). As a report by the Beijing Transportation Company observed, the rhetoric of socialism did not match with the demands made on workers who pedaled around the city. The labor was too hard. The solution, though, was simple: gradually move to motor-powered sanlunche.

It turns out that moving stuff around Beijing was not easy. The decisions about what type of transportation to employ connected to practical considerations like cost and the layout of the as well as the abstract but important areas of ideology and whether horses or sanlunche had place in a modern, socialist city.

*Discussion of statistics, cars, horses and sanlunche come from Bejing Municipal Archives 001-006-02414

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