Five Foot Road


Five Foot Road


As China embarks upon its much heralded One Belt One Road economic pursuit, I am reminded that this is a case of history repeating itself, a re-awakening of the same spirit of entrepreneurship that drove China’s opening of the ‘interior’ with the building of the Five Foot Road (or ‘Wuchidao’) in 3BC.

It also reminds us in the 21st century of the importance of roads as a mainstay of economic and cultural development. Today we are immune to roads and see them purely as a means of getting from point A to point B, or in our urban cities as scars upon the natural landscape. This however does a disservice to the road, for without it, the trade and industry that we benefit from, would not exist.

The Romans are credited with developing a road system that allowed its empire to flourish. Roman roads were a vital part of the development of the Roman state, from about 500 BC through the expansion during the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. Roman roads enabled the Romans to move armies and trade goods and to communicate. The Roman road system spanned more than 400,000 km of roads, including over 80,500 km of paved roads. When Rome reached the height of its power, no fewer than 29 great military highways radiated from the city. Hills were cut through and deep ravines filled in. At one point, the Roman Empire was divided into 113 provinces traversed by 372 great road links. In Gaul alone, 21,000 km of road are said to have been improved, and in Britain at least 4,000 km. There were footpaths on each side of the road.

The Romans became adept at constructing roads, which they called viae. They were intended for carrying material from one location to another. It was permitted to walk or pass and drive cattle, vehicles, or traffic of any description along the path. The viae differed from the many other smaller or rougher roads, bridle-paths, drifts, and tracks. To make the roads the Romans used stones, broken stones mixed with cement and sand, cement mixed with broken tiles, curving stones – so the water could drain, and on the top they used tightly packed paving stones.

It is ironic that whilst we tackle with the problems of illegal parking and overcrowded city centres clogged with cars, Roman law and tradition forbade the use of vehicles in urban areas, except in certain cases. Married women and government officials on business could ride. The Lex Iulia Municipalis restricted commercial carts to night-time access to the city within the walls and within a mile outside the walls.

China’s Five Foot Road

The road was designed as a causeway designed for foot traffic and was known as the ‘Five Foot Road’ (or ‘Wuchidao’) because in many places it was five feet wide, restricted by mountain passes and cliff faces. It was built in 3BC and was a remarkable feat of engineering that rivaled the great road networks built by the Romans in Europe. The road encompassed many hanging galleries (wooden walkways banged into sheer cliffs) through otherwise impassable gorges. The Five Foot Road opened (for trade) for the first time the vast and rugged Yunnan-Guizhou Tableland. The same route remains in use today and remarkably remained as a footpath until 1938, after which a motor road replaced it.

A fascinating book called The Five Foot Road retraces the journey undertaken by George Ernest Morrison, an Australian, who in 1894 ‘walked’ from China to Burma. In reality he traveled from Shanghai to Chongqing by boat following the Yangtze River; from Chongqing he indeed walked, rode on ponies or mules or sedan chairs the rest of the way across China – some 2,414 kilometers to Burma. As Burma was then under British rule he was allowed to sail down the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay and then by train to Rangoon where he completed this epic journey – his book was entitled ‘An Australian in China’.

Five Foot Road is written by Angus McDonald another Australian who happened to chance upon the writings of Morrison in September 1992, just a little over one year before the 100th anniversary of Morrison’s epic journey. His decision to recreate the journey as a celebration was a simple quest – to compare the China of today (1994) to the China as described by Morrison in 1894. China in that time having endured two revolutions, two civil wars, an invasion and the madness of the Cultural Revolution. One hundred years however is not long in the history of a country that has 3,000 years of continuous history – a rich history filled with culture that McDonald was keen to see what, if any, had survived.

In Search of a Vanished China

The books were written 100 years apart and seek to show the differences and remaining similarities between Morrison’s colonial privilege and McDonald’s egalitarian approach. Morrison was a son of the British Empire and his ‘walk’ was accompanied by porters and ‘rests’ at colonial mansions and missionaries that were part of the ‘foreign dominance’ of China at that time. Access to the interior of China (forbidden for centuries) was as a result of the Treaty of Tien-tsin signed in June 1858 as part of the end of the Second Opium War (1856-1860); this was an unequal treaty that opened more Chinese Ports to foreigners and allowed them access to the interior (ostensibly to harvest opium) under the guise of Christian missionary work.

One striking commonality in Mcdonald’s book is the sentiment of Chinese people “intent on a Chinese future, not a foreign past”. Mcdonald starts his book in Shanghai as Morrison did; he travels to Wuhan by ship as Morrison did and reminisces of the might of the Yangtze River; when Morrison left Shanghai in 1894, six weeks earlier and 600 miles away in Hunan Province a small baby by the name of Mao Zedong was screaming for attention. When McDonald arrived in Wuhan it was a city that in 1911 saw the end of the Qing dynasty and the forced lowering of the Union Flag that presaged the end of the foreign concessions all over China within the next twenty years. It is also the place where in 1966 Mao Zedong plunged into the waters of the Yangtze as hundreds of ecstatic youngsters cheered him on; it was a demonstration that he could tame the mighty river (although he did choose to float with the tide for most of his historic crossing)!

The book then copies as much as it can the route taken by Morrison in 1894. The 1993 journey is similar but not identical; one major difference is that Morrison traveled in winter and McDonald in the Autumn; one hundred years has elapsed and of course changes have occurred; communist period factories have replaced Imperial gardens; city gates that protected the walled cities of the Middle Kingdom have given way to bus stations and office blocks; the deeper into the interior McDonald travels he is however surprised by the similarities that exist; he is astounded to find a temple that Morrison photographed in 1894 still standing in 1993 albeit now part of an industrial compound. Perhaps more relevant than McDonald’s comparison of China between 1993 and 1894 is a present day reader’s comparison of China in 2016 and 1994; a period of only 23 years that has probably seen more tangible change in China than the century compared in this book. In McDonald’s book he visits cities that numbered only hundreds of thousands in their number but which today number millions; there is a rustic charm to McDonald’s version of a modern China still coming to terms with its place in the world as opposed to today’s China that strides with confidence over domestic and international affairs. In reading The Five Foot Road one is less aware of the comparison of China’s past as it is to how far and how fast China has emerged since 1993, let alone 1894.

Modern China has grown at a ferocious pace; the memory of war, invasion and the Cultural Revolution are confined to a painful history. The present government’s economic initiative is called One Belt One Road and pays remarkable homage to the history of China and its historic trade along the old silk road, part of which (Dali or Tali as named in 1894) form part of the Southern Silk Road reaching down into Burma and was traveled by both Morrison and McDonald.

The opening of The Five Foot Road in 3BC saw an economic boom in China as it allowed trade to reach the furthest parts of the Middle Kingdom; in much the same way the roadways of the Roman Empire allowed European trade to flourish and, in time, meet with the Silk Road. China is a country looking forward, since The Five Foot Road in 3BC to One Belt One Road in 2014; the growth of China continues its economic and cultural development.
Author: Mark Peaker, CEO & Co-founder of 3812 Gallery. Pictures courtesy of Mark Peaker.


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