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Over its lifespan of a century and a half, the rise and fall of Mawei Shipyard in Fujian Province was closely linked to the history of China. Also called Fuzhou Shipyard, it was first built in 1866 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
In the early 1860s, after suffering defeat in the first Opium War (1840) which resulted in not only humiliation, but forced treaties and economic compensation to British forces, the Qing government recognized the power of warships and decided to build their own modern naval vessels. In those days, China lacked almost any industry while England’s Industrial Revolution was in full force. The Qing hired Captain Prosper Giquel and a team of French industrial professionals to use their techniques. After signing a contract that made him chief supervisor of the project, Giquel brought carpenters, blacksmiths, and locksmiths from France to Mawei. Although the new land was strange to the young tradesmen, the salary paid by the Qing was fairly high compared to their earnings back home. Giquel’s salary was set at 1,000 tael of silver - dozens of times higher than even the highest-ranking Qing officials. Even the normal foreign technicians earned over 200 tael per month. The contract lasted several decades, and when it was finally completed, the Frenchmen went home with fortunes large enough to purchase property and stock.
“The first group of workers sees only a river lacking any foreign machines or tools,” wrote Giquel in his diary. “The only small house in the field becomes the forge. The two furnaces are fired up right away. We use Chinese iron hammers to begin our work. The first nail is born here.” In 1874, Mawei Shipyard was finally completed, and its 40 hectares made it the largest in the Far East. In the three decades that followed, Mawei manufactured 40 warships, 70 percent of domestic production. It was responsible for building China’s first naval fleet: the Fujian Navy. However, with the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Mawei Shipyard was deserted in 1907.
The 1911 revolution overthrew China’s last feudal regime. Against such a chaotic social background, few could even ponder the ship-building industry, so Mawei locals began making a living by selling scrap iron. In 1950, when the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) reached the shipyard, grass and weeds completely covered it. Only a single vintage marine engine workshop remained along with a dock filled with mud hearkening to the shipyard’s glorious past.
Soon thereafter, the shipyard restarted production, but hardly at the levels of its past. “We have digressed from a national ship-building team to a local team,” laments Lin Yingrao, a senior engineer. The modest French-style building, once an engine workshop, was the only surviving evidence of the factory’s salad days. When he welcomes visitors, Lin takes them to look at the architecture. “Strolling through this workplace is like walking through 145 years of history of Chinese industry,” Lin often exclaims. A century earlier, Mawei also founded an engineering school in the upstairs rooms, where blueprints were drawn and China’s first-ever shipbuilding engineers were trained.
Today, Mawei Shipyard is nowhere near the largest in the Far East, possessing only three slipways and one decade-old dock. Various machines, incised iron plates, tubes, iron chains, and sections of ship bodies are piled around the construction site. Hanging in the air are some heavy iron plates and ship segments hung on cranes. Harsh noises of polishing and hammering fill the air. Most workers cannot be seen because they squeeze into narrow cracks or tubes. Many older vessels are refurbished by the diligent tradesmen clad in oil and iron-mould stained overalls. Their painstaking efforts have injected new vitality into the ancient shipyard. Although it no longer enjoys such a lofty reputation, time-honored Mawei Shipyard, as the first of its kind in China, is now regarded as an irreplaceable link to the past.