KWAN Man Bun

Tianjin ?? is one of the four Chinese municipalities that reports directly to the State Department. It is important for its role as the economic center of China. It is the third largest city in China after Shanghai and Beijing (which it is linked to by a new high-speed rail), and serves as the gateway to the capital city, 120 km away. It is a port city and an economic powerhouse.

Tianjin, China’s third largest city, is one of China’s four province-level municipalities (the others being Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing). It is a relatively young city by Chinese standards. The city received its current name (which translates literally as “ford of heaven”) from the Ming emperor Zhu Di (r. 1403–1424), who marched through the area with his army on his way south to dethrone his nephew in 1400 CE. To commemorate that auspicious event, Zhu created a walled garrison next to a settlement called Zhigu in 1404, bestowing on the new walled city the name Tianjin. Located at the confluence of the many navigable rivers of the North China Plain, the Grand Canal, and the Haihe, which drains into the Bohai Gulf (an arm of the Yellow Sea), the city’s commerce began to prosper.

Tax collectors soon followed, joined by the Changlu commissioner and his sprawling bureaucracy, who supervised the production, collection, transportation, and distribution of salt as a state monopoly and were responsible for the collection of the gabelle (salt tax), a major source of revenue for the central government behind land tax. Wealthy salt merchants were joined by traders importing goods from central and south China through a vibrant coastal junk trade, as well as by native bankers specializing in long distance remittance banking.

Recognizing Tianjin’s economic importance, the city was promoted in 1725 from a guard station to a department and became the seat of Tianjin Prefecture in 1731. By the nineteenth century, if not earlier, the city served as the economic center of north China (as opposed to Beijing’s cultural and political centrality), with a commercial hinterland that stretched from the coastal plain over the Taihang Mountains and into the steppes beyond.

The arrival of foreign imperialism altered Tianjin’s developmental path. In the aftermath of the Second Opium War (1858–1860), the city was declared a treaty port, and foreign concessions were established. The city suffered xenophobic incidents such as the Tianjin Massacre in 1870, during which foreigner missionaries and residents were killed, and the Boxer movement in 1900 which resulted in the occupation of the city by the Allied Expeditionary Force until 1902.

In the aftermath of the destruction, Chinese reformers began to promote industrial development and modernization, stimulating Tianjin’s early industrialization, led by the Beiyang arsenal, the telegraph service, and flour and cotton-spinning mills, and followed by heavy industries such as the Kailuan Mining Administration and Yongli Chemical Industries. Before the Second World War, the city was the country’s third largest industrial center (after Shanghai and Wuhan) and the largest in north China, while serving as the provincial capital for Hebei Province.

Under Beijing’s shadow, after 1949, the role of Tianjin changed yet again. State investment largely bypassed Tianjin, while the city served the capital as a transportation hub with railroad and ocean links. The post-Mao economic reforms created an even larger gap between the city and growth centers such as Shanghai, Canton, and Shenzhen.

The 2006 master plan for the city finally made it the core of the Bohai economic region. With the construction of a high-speed rail link between Tianjin and Beijing, Tianjin and the capital are becoming one, supported by a ring of cities to form a circum-Bohai economic region. In 2008, the central government authorized Tianjin as the site for new land use and financial policies. Utilizing the new high-speed rail, it served as a venue of soccer events for the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the newly created Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium, and has become a host city for many international conferences. A new exchange for over-the-counter (OTC) trading of equity securities and corporate bonds, together with direct access to the Hong Kong stock market, ensured that the city would reclaim its place as the economic center of north China, while Beijing would continue as the political and cultural center of the country.

The First China-born Olympic Medalist

Eric Liddell—the runner portrayed in Chariots of Fire—who refused for religious reasons to run on a Sunday, was the first Olympic gold medalist born in China.

Liddell, known in China as Lee Airui, was the son of Scottish missionaries and grew up in Tianjin, a city southeast of Beijing. At in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Liddell, a devout Christian, found himself unable to participate in the preliminary heats for his own event, the 100-meter race. Instead, he made a last minute switch to the 400-meter contest. He not only won the race but set a new world record, and became a symbol of personal faith as well as athletic brilliance.

Returning to China, he became a coach at the Xinxue School in Tianjin, a mission school that is now Tianjin’s Middle School #17. During World War II he was imprisoned by the Japanese in north China. He died there, in the land where he was born, and today a plaque in Tianjin commemorates the home of Lee Airui, China’s first Olympic medalist.

Source: Fan Hong, et al.. (2008). China gold: China’s quest for global power and Olympic glory. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Further Reading

Kirk, M. (Ed.). (2009). China by numbers 2009. Hong Kong: China Economic Review Publishing.

Kwan Man Bun. (2001). The salt merchants of Tianjin. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Rolgaski, R. (2004). Hygienic modernity: Meanings of health and disease in treaty port China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tianjinshi defangzhi bianxiu weiyuanhui comp. (1996). Tianjin tongzhi. Tianjin: Tianjin shehui kexueyuan chubanshe.

Source: Kwan, Man Bun (2009). Tianjin. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2274–2276. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Tianjin (Ti?nj?n ??)|Ti?nj?n ?? (Tianjin)

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