Transition of shipping along the Yangtze River

By HE BI / 11-02-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Boatmen and the Wooden Sailing Industry in the Middle Reaches of the Yangtze River in Modern Times

Boatmen and the Wooden Sailing Industry in the Middle Reaches of the Yangtze River in Modern Times, by Chen Yao, an associate professor from the School of History and Cultural Heritage at Xiamen University, focuses on the development of the wooden sailboat shipping industry in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River from the 18th century to the mid-20th century, examining the complex role of wooden sailboat shipping in inter-regional trade.

Though “modernization transformation” has been manifested in different ways across different countries and regions, this transition has generally been described as a singular linear historical trajectory. In the case of the Yangtze River basin, the modern transformation is commonly depicted as the replacement of traditional wooden ships with modern steamships, accompanied by the emergence of modern shipping companies. Such representations tend to oversimplify the intricate nature of historical reality. Moreover, they fail to capture the personal experiences and self-expression of the countless boatmen who played a vital role in the shipping industry. 

The book presents a more complex historical landscape. In reality, traditional wooden sailboat shipping in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River was not completely replaced by the arrival of modern steamships. Undoubtedly, steamships, as a highly efficient and advanced modern transportation technology, eroded the development space for traditional wooden sailboat shipping and led to industrial decline. They gave rise to modern transportation and business models. However, the survival and persistence of an economic industry is not solely dependent on efficiency and technology; the degree of alignment with societal demands is a more fundamental factor.

From the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) to the period of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931–45), China’s historical transformation varied in pace. Specifically, the transformation was faster in the mainstream area of the Yangtze River. This region saw a higher rate of emergence and adoption  of new technologies. In contrast, the transformation was slower in the tributaries and secondary tributaries. 

Along the mainstream, there was a higher volume of goods transported, a demand for greater efficiency, and a mature modern business environment. Modern steamship navigation became predominant, while traditional wooden sailboat shipping gradually declined and was eventually largely replaced. In tributaries like the Xiang River and Lianshui River with smaller cargo handling capacity, goods were more dispersed. In these areas, traditional business networks continued to dominate, and traditional wooden sailboat shipping continued to maintain a significant presence.

The shipping system in the Yangtze River basin is not a monolithic structure but rather a multi-level, multi-regional ecological system. Within this system, every shipping technology and business model can find its suitable place and continually evolve within the broader societal framework. 

He Bi is a research fellow from the Research Center for World Politics at East China Normal University.