High-Speed Train to Jinan

—– Slippery spaces of speed

Flying at 300kmh across the flat plain of Shandong, the high-speed train to Jinan offers an elevated view of harvests, factories and forests. The train crosses countryside and towns undergoing their second, third or fourth total reconstruction in under a hundred years. High-speed G-trains are lifted out of the landscape on elevated tracks which makes the experience different from European fast trains.

China’s walled garden is now laced with the tendrils of the national high speed railway that, as Chinese say, ‘links the south and the north’ integrating either bank of the Yangt’ze, and even the symbolic realms of lion and elephant. ‘What once took a day is now reduced to a commute of an hour and a half.’

The aggressive, 300kmh transportation and technological transformation of the Peoples’ Republic is not only a question of getting around faster. It introduces not only a new tempo but a new rhythm with its own metre. Speed reduces the old space and time distances to afterthoughts. Writers such as Innis and McLuhan and Grant have pointed to the shock of such changes from the old. But you don’t need to have previous experience of travel in China to appreciate the sense of speed. This arises through the contrast between the smooth stillness of the carriage and the a landscape scrolling past in which the mobilities below are pedestrian and agricultural equipment in rural areas, or traffic-congested streets in urban areas. Against the kinesthetic sense of the body sitting still, and the muted sound of the wheels, because of the elevated track, the eye registers the parallax of passing powerlines, roads and windrows. This combination is a prima facie experience of the new.

This contrast, sets the Fast Train to Jinan apart from the local space of everyday life on a line where the velocity is much faster. The contrast in tempos gives rise to the tentacular, tendril-like impression of these lines spanning the ground of everyday spaces and rhythms. On this train, are we ‘on’ a line, or ‘in’ this line – slipping down a linear, one dimensional, slippery space of speed?

In the same way that drawing a line creates a figure graphically, there is a figure-ground relation between the linear and territorial time-spaces.  As if from a quick sketch, we can gain an impression of this evolving character.

Innis’ political economy of Empire and Communications traces the evolution of governance through technologies such as train and telephone. The confrontation of all past and new modes of communication and transportation in China is a remarkable repertoire of not only velocity but of technologies that have temporal and spatial effects. For Innis, echoed by later authors — Virilio, Schivelbusch — speed has a binding effect on spaces, bringing far-flung regions and places ‘closer together.’ Of course, this is a virtual closing of geographical distance. The technologies extend the ‘reach’ of power and create a new topology of relationships. In the first instance this seems to be a closing of gaps between places, but it also affects the relationship between parts and whole, between place and space. The effect is to create a new figure against the ground of China understood as territory, economy and political space. This figure is not only the train, but the traveller, a mobilized citizen in counterpoint to an older, territorially-anchored citizen.

Perhaps the contrast of the space of high speed trains and travellers is most strongly marked by contrast with those who, for many reasons, refuse to acquiesce to this new infrastructure, insisting on remaining in their houses, refusing to move, contesting the terms of relocation – or perhaps more appropriately, dispossession. This time-space of dwelling, the rhythms of everyday life, is pierced by new roads, train lines, and ranks of highrise accommodations intended to ‘urbanize’ ambivalent workers and reluctant peasants. The ‘refusees’ are often forcibly removed by violently destroying their houses. They are labelled ‘dangerous’ and must plead their status as ‘good citizens’ who ‘merely want to be left a space to live’. The doubt cast on the respectability of one set of people contrasts with citizens embracing the new superimposition of rhythms and time-spaces that reorders routines giving daily life both greater reach yet rendering the new citizen rootlessness and alienated from the more sedentary pace and terms of the territorial ground.

The high-speed train to Jinan —–

Traces the linear space-time, rhythm and tempo of a new political subject. Is this still the People, or a Mobile Citizen? In the euphoria of the new, it is all too easy to miss the counterpoint.

—– Rob Shields (University of Alberta)