he building of China’s first major railway line, which connected Beijing in the North (then capital of the Empire) to Hankow in the South (today Wuhan), was led by Belgian and French engineers. The Chinese administration and the statesman Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) appointed the Belgian company Société d’Etude de chemins de fer en Chine for its experience of installing railroads across Europe.
Construction took place between 1898 and 1905: a record-breaking 1,214 km of tracks were laid in less than seven years. By 1908, just three years after its completion, the line was so profitable that the state-owned Imperial Chinese Railway decided to immediately purchase the loan.
- Map of the Beijing to Guangzhou railway via Hankow. After Pékin-Hankou, la Grande épopée 1898-1905.
The railway’s second stretch, from Hankow to Guangzhou (Canton, Southern China), was finished between the two world wars. First granted to an American company (China Development Co.) in 1898, almost all of whose shares were purchased by Belgian King Leopold II (r. 1865-1909), the project quickly became embroiled in political issues. Because of this interference, Chinese authorities suspended the attribution of the concession until the fall of the Empire in 1911, when the new government chose a consortium backed by French, British, American and German funds. Endless rounds of negotiations and difficulties encountered during the Republican era slowed down construction for many years, and the entire railroad, from Beijing in the North to Guanzhou in the South, was not completed until 1936.
- Chinese railway share bonds, 1930. Tissot Museum Collection.
China had long resisted Western modernization, fearing the foreign powers’ ambition of becoming increasingly involved in its internal affairs and because relying on them had never been a good idea. The coming of the train, in particular, was perceived as a major threat; it was very dangerous indeed, as it could facilitate the intrusion of foreign troops, which had been very greedy since the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860).
- Mixed-traffic locomotive operating on the Canton–Hankow Railway line, Will’s cigarette collectibles, 1920s. Tissot Museum Collection.
Moreover, the Iron Horse could disturb the peace of the Dragon: its construction might disrupt the fengshui principles (forces contained in a natural environment), destroy sacred places and provoke the anger of Heaven followed by unknown disasters raining down on the country. However, weary of the Westerners’ insistence, and fully aware that they needed this new technology, the Chinese court finally relented and let the railway in during the last decades of the 19th century.
While trade was already well developed across the country – a dense web of rivers and canals had enabled people and goods to circulate for centuries – the railroads would help to boost transportation, communication and the economy. Sadly, and as foreseen, the train’s arrival also hastened the decline of the Chinese Empire, wreaking havoc and sparking the rise of socio-political movements.
- Mixed-traffic steam engine operating on the Beijing–Hankow Railway line. Constructed by the Belgian St. Léonard Limited company. Early 20th century. Tissot Museum Collection.
Along with the railways, which quickly grew into a busy network, other innovations arrived. New metal architecture was introduced to build bridges, tunnels and stations, as well as steam engines, machines, wagons, all sorts of mechanics and related tools. One of the most important innovations linked to rail travel was the measurement of time. Clocks and watches were essential to establish timetables ensuring that trains could follow precise schedules and to speed up the operation rate while preventing accidents. This was even more important since, from the time it was built in 1898, the Beijing–Hankow line consisted of a single track that was not doubled until the People’s Republic was founded in 1949.
- Tissot’s Chronometer advertisement, 1931. Tissot Museum Collection.
European timepieces had already entered the Empire a long time before the railroad’s arrival. The story goes that a Jesuit finally found a way to get access to the Ming court (1368–1644) thanks to the art of watchmaking. After his many requests for an audience had been rejected, Father Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) hit on the clever idea of offering the Emperor clocks. This ploy opened wide the doors of the palace, as the Son of Heaven, who had been won over by the gifts, was obliged to call on his services to wind and maintain them. The eunuchs, who were subsequently trained to operate the mechanisms, trembled at the thought of a malfunction and therefore strove to ensure that the learned European remained with them, like a form of life insurance. In this way, the Jesuits obtained access to the apex of the Empire.
Needless to say, when talking about clocks, the Swiss are always in the picture. China was no exception. A first Director Horlogii, the Jesuit Franz Ludwig Stadlin (1658-1740) from Zug, arrived in Beijing in 1707. Until his death 33 years later, he created astonishing pieces for the great pleasure of the Imperial court. The first mechanical pieces made for China – ornate clocks, objects, automata, music boxes and watches with complications – were the prerogative of the elite. Those that followed at a later stage were more varied to meet demand from a broader clientele.
In the 19th century, clocks and watches already accounted for a significant share of China’s imports from the West. The Swiss, like many other Westerners, saw the opening up of the vast Empire as an unexpected opportunity. However, it was not until the 20th century that the Tissot watch company, in turn, would reach out to the Chinese market.
- The Tissot family house and assembly shop in Le Locle, second half of the 19th century. Tissot Museum Collection.
Tissot was founded in 1853 in Le Locle, near Neuchâtel. Nestled in the Swiss Jura Mountains, the Maison began as an assembly shop in the family home. Local specialised workers would make the different movements’ components at home and bring them to the shop to create a complete watch, which was sold under one brand name, a guarantee of quality. The same year, Tissot began exporting worldwide, first to the United States, then Imperial Russia.
On the strength of its success, in 1907 the workshop was transformed into a factory in the hills of Le Locle, where it still stands today. Growth of production allowed the company to look further afield and China was extremely appealing. According to Tissot’s archives, an agent was already selling Tissot watches in Shanghai in 1920, soon followed by others. The Chinese soon realized that Swiss craftsmanship in this area was truly unique.
- New Tissot factory built in Le Locle, 1907. Tissot Museum Collection.
In the first decades of the 20th century, watchmakers grew concerned about a new phenomenon. The development of electricity and its increasing use in every area of daily life began affecting the watches’ mechanisms. The influence of magnetic fields on the movements was a serious issue that needed to be addressed, especially since reliability was a key selling point. This issue led Tissot to invest in research, collaborate with physics’ laboratories and even buy a chrono-electromagnet to conduct its own experiments.
- Tissot chrono-electromagnet purchased for experiments. Tissot Museum Collection.
In the 1930s, the company was ready to launch the first “non-magnetic” wristwatch. Tissot became a pioneer by replacing the steel in the regulating organs with other, non-magnetic materials. This functioned so well that it was gradually applied to the whole collection. Consequently, the specificity of these new models were promoted in various advertising campaigns in Switzerland, all around the world and in China as well. This decisive innovation was probably one reason why Chinese officials chose Tissot when looking for a reliable supplier for their railway services.
- Tissot Antimagnetic advertisement campaign, 1930s. Tissot Museum Collection.
- Tissot Antimagnetic advertisement campaign for the Chinese market, 1930s. Tissot Museum Collection.
During the same period and after overcoming many obstacles, the last section of the Beijing-Guangzhou railway, via Hankow, was finished. The British had already built the third stretch from Guangzhou to Kowloon (Hong Kong) between 1903 and 1911. This important axis is still one of the main means of transportation through China today. It had several names over time, from Pe-Han, Kin-Han, Lu-Han, as it was called at first because of both termini, Peking (Pe, Kin or Lu for Lugouqiao, south-west of Beijing where the train left) and Hankow (Han), before becoming Ping-Han in 1928.
As previously mentioned, the administration in charge of the railroad company had always been seeking good-quality timekeepers to manage the traffic properly. Among all the options available on the Chinese market at the time, the Ping-Han Railway chose Tissot. In 1935, management ordered five thousand pieces from the Le Locle factory in Switzerland – a whole month’s work for 150 full-time watchmakers. The client must have been content with the result because he ordered nine hundred more a year later.
- Tissot Ping-Han railway watch, 1937. Tissot Museum Collection, E00012395.
The timekeeper produced for the Ping-Han railway is a typical railroad worker’s watch with a round shape and an open face. It was intended to be kept in a pocket, close at hand to ensure that trains ran on time across the whole network. A chain loop attachment was generally provided with the watch, allowing it to be hung safely to clothes. The “German silver” case contains a 43mm caliber of B quality. Maintenance is easy as the mechanism can be completely dismantled to be regularly cleaned, the lubricant changed and any of the components potentially replaced.
- Caliber 43. Tissot Catalogue n°9 des montres de précision, Clients catalogue, 1934. Tissot Museum Collection.
This specific model is sturdy; it is protected against dust, resists drastic swings in temperature or humidity and proudly displays its brand new antimagnetic properties (as written in French on the dial, “ANTIMAGNETIQUE”). The dial has a clear view of 24 hours, with black Arabic numerals painted on a white enameled ground enhanced by a pair of “Breguet hands” resembling a hollow apple or a crescent moon. A seconds dial is located at 6 o’clock. Last but not least, the back of the case features an intaglio engraving of a steam engine going full speed ahead.
- Tissot Ping-Han railway watch, 1937. Tissot Museum Collection, E00012395.
It is interesting to note that a pocket watch was chosen instead of a wristwatch (available from Tissot since 1907). This fact clearly reveals that, during the 1930s, this model still had all the qualities expected from a reliable tool for rail workers. As though confirming this, Tissot supplied other railroad companies with utilitarian timepieces of the same type. Some examples made for the Serbian or Swiss railways can also be found in the museum’s collection.
- Tissot Serbian railway watch, 1926. Tissot Museum Collection, E00016583.
Moreover, Tissot was very interested in this new means of transportation from a very early period on, as their “voyageurs” (international roving traders) would also use trains to travel around for business. By 1909, the Maison already owned share bonds of major companies, mentioned as “Oriental” and “Russian” railways in the books. The Ping-Han Railway undoubtedly chose Tissot not only because of its growing reputation on Chinese territory, but also its experience in the same field. And by the time the final order arrived in China from Switzerland, the train line had been completed all the way to Guangzhou with the possibility of reaching Hong Kong straight from there.
- Tissot Finest Swiss Craftmanship Since 1853, Clients catalogue, 1952. Tissot Museum Collection.
The story of the Ping-Han Railway is fascinating in more ways than one. Its construction and the vicissitudes of its development trace a whole chapter in modern China history. This episode also reflects the East and West’s discovery from a technological point of view. Today China boasts one of the world’s most extensive and efficient high-speed railway networks. Its engineering skills make the country one of the greatest competitors in this field.
China was an important discovery for Tissot as well. In 2023, the Maison is celebrating its 170th anniversary, including a 103-year presence in the country. The story of the Ping-Han railway watch had such an impact that it was reissued for the Chinese market in 1998. Let’s hope this beautiful relationship will lead to future creations.