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Building Mao's Railways

Jamie Monson, Author

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China's Ivory Carving of Chengdu-Kunming to United Nations - the Beginning of the research on Chengdu-Kunming Railway

When People’s Republic China replaced Taiwan and entered the United Nations as one of the permanent member states of the Security Council, two gifts were given by the PRC’s government to the United Nations: a handmade tapestry with the pattern of the Great Wall, and a large ivory sculpture of the Chengdu-Kunming Railway. The importance of Great Wall to China is well-known, but many people, even native Chinese ask, why Chengdu-Kunming Railway?
Chengdu-Kunming Railway starts in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuang province, and ends in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. The line is 705 miles long and there are 122 stops in total along the railway besides Chengdu and Kunming. It is one of the main lines of Chinese railway, stretching across the southwest territory of China1. The railway was built between 1958 and 1970 as a part of the Third Line Defense Construction, in the background of the deteriorating of USSR-China relationship and the pressure the U.S. posed on China at the east sea2.
Why choose Chengdu-Kungming Railway among so many railways in China for the sculpture? According to the crafter Wang Suwen, the Chinese premier as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time Zhou Eilai thought that the sculpture as a national gift should reflect the “structure achievement of socialism”3. It was known for the most difficult terrain it was built on; according to a former railway soldier we work with, over 1000 Tiedao Bing (Railway soldiers, a division of the people’s military who were commended to build the railway during Mao’s time) sacrificed their lives to the construction of Chengdu-Kunming Railway. Chairman Mao held the philosophy that human kinds will succeed fighting against the natural power. The sculpture exactly showed the ideology at the time: on the most difficult terrain, people under the great governance of socialism succeeded building the “impossible” railway. If you look closer at the sculpture, you’ll see people singing and dancing along the railway, an achievement not only of the Tiedao Bing but also of the people and the government.

A command was given to Wang Suwen and his co-working artists to build a sculpture of the Chengdu-Kunming Railway as a gift to the UN when China made its place in the UN. The sculpture was made from eight elephant tusks and weighs over 300 kilograms4. It is said that it took 400 people one year to carve the sculpture. When it was finished, the government admired it and considered as a piece of work that can demonstrate China’s position in the world and China’s artistic achievement. The sculpture as a gift was also adored by the United Nations. Although in the 1990s the protestation of the world ivory protection organization caused a period of pause, the ivory sculpture has been exhibited at the New York headquarter of the United Nations since it was given to the UN5. Recently, the sculpture was off the exhibition for maintenance. It will be back at the headquarter in some time.

Our journey of Kunming-Railway starts here. To know more about the sculpture and how it was carved, please read the reference article“Wang Xuwen: I want to maintain the glorious ivory carving”. To learn more about the research on Chengdu-Kunming Railway and its “brother” Tanzania-Zambia Railway, which was also built by the same division of Tiedao Bing, please read the following posts; more pictures, videos, interview transcripts from the fieldtrip along the Chengdu-Kunming railway will be posted.


[1] “Chengdu-Kunming Railway”, China

[2] “The Construction of the Third Defense: Mao’s Decision”, Ifeng,

[3] See Reference Article

[4] “China Presents Ivory Carving to United Nations”, United Nations
Press Release, 07 October 1974

[5] See Reference Article

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