Abstract: The Making of the Civil Engineer in China: Railroad Companies, Technology, and Knowledge Transfer in the Early Twentieth Century

Elisabeth Koll


This paper explores the emergence of railroad engineering as a profession in the context of the business and institutional development of railroad companies in early twentieth-century China. It is argued that the acute shortage of trained professionals from railroad accountants and surveyors to mechanical engineers hampered the development of Chinese railroad companies as efficient business institutions operating under semi-colonial managerial arrangements. Disputes with Chinese government officials about the choice of teaching language, differing attitudes to field training, and the desire to protect specific national economic interests by securing the supply chain created multinational competition for control over Chinese engineering education. The paper discusses the challenges in knowledge production and cross-cultural transfer, the impact of Western railroad management on Chinese railroad companies, their growth after 1911 as part of the national industrialization effort, and the intense competition for Chinese engineering talent, as well as issues of social status and professional identity in a society modernizing its education and infrastructure systems at the same time.