Fujian Navy Yard: a witness to China-France exchanges

At the mouth of the Minjiang River in southeast China's Fujian province, the water flows calmly without ripples

Fujian Navy Yard: a witness to China-France exchanges
Photo shows a French slotting machine. (Photo provided by the Museum of Foochow Arsenal 1866)

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

By Liu Xiaoyu, People's Daily

Nestled by the Luoxing Pagoda along the river bank, the Fujian Navy Yard, also known as Foochow Arsenal, stands as a precious industrial and cultural heritage site founded 158 years ago and a witness to China-France exchanges that have spanned over 100 years.

On May 5, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Paris for a state visit to France. On the same day, a signed article by President Xi titled "Carrying Forward the Spirit that Guided the Establishment of China-France Diplomatic Relations, Working Together for Global Peace and Development" was published in French media Le Figaro. Xi said, "Over 150 years ago, French nationals helped China found its Fujian Navy Yard and the Fujian Naval Academy."

Transformed from a former shipbuilding warehouse of the Foochow Arsenal, the Museum of Foochow Arsenal 1866, has now become a "treasure trove" preserving the memories of the shipyard.

On the right side of an exhibition hall on the first floor of the museum stands a French machine that is almost 160 years old, discolored to a deep black over the passage of time.

"It's a slotting machine, also known as a vertical shaper, which is used for cutting machine beds. Therefore, it is considered the 'mother machine' of modern industry," said Chen Yue, president of the Mawei shipyard culture research association.

The memory of the slotting machine's return to the Foochow Arsenal from Sanming city of Fujian province five years ago is still fresh in Chen's mind.

"Marked with French inscriptions 'J.DUCOMMUN &CIE' and 'MULHOUSE 1867,' the slotting machine was likely one of the first French machines imported by the Foochow Arsenal, a testament to the century-long history of China-France exchanges," Chen told People's Daily.

Chen has been dedicated to modern naval history for decades, with a particular emphasis on the Foochow Arsenal's history.

"In 1866, driven by the dream of national rejuvenation, the Chinese people established the Foochow Arsenal in Mawei, Fuzhou. They built shipyards, constructed warships, manufactured aircraft, established schools, attracted talent, and developed the navy. The Foochow Arsenal has become a frontier for China's exploration of national rejuvenation in modern times," Chen explained.

The Foochow Arsenal, carrying the mission to bring about a change in modern China, accomplished several groundbreaking milestones in the Chinese history.

It established China's first naval academy, nurtured the country's first modernized naval fleet, and created the first large-scale shipbuilding industrial base of modern China.

It constructed China's first domestically built armored steel warship and manufactured the country's first shipboard steam engine and first biplane trainer for naval aviation.

Besides, the Foochow Arsenal also cultivated a large number of modern talents in fields such as science and technology, military affairs, diplomacy, education, and social sciences, including figures like Yan Fu, Zhan Tianyou, Gao Lu, Wei Han, Luo Fenglu, Chen Jitong, Deng Shichang, and Sa Zhenbing. They made prominent contributions to China's modernization efforts.

René Viénet, a French scholar of modern Chinese history, called the Foochow Arsenal an "oil field" of French historical memory. Viénet, in his eighties, has been dedicated to studying the history of China-France exchanges, particularly the history of the Foochow Arsenal.

"Many 'firsts' in the history of China-France exchanges were born here: the first sophisticated modern school in China, the first Chinese school where classes were taught in French, and the completion of the first Chinese translation of the French novel The Lady of the Camellias," Viénet said.

"The first superintendent of the Foochow Arsenal Prosper Marie Giquel was also French. He assisted Zuo Zongtang in establishing the Foochow Arsenal in Mawei, introducing modern machinery and engineering personnel from France. The old slotting machine was an example" Viénet noted.

"Xi's forward thinking ensured the protection of this invaluable historical and cultural heritage for us," said Xie Zuomin, former general manager of Fujian Shipbuilding Industry Group Company Limited.

In April 1997, then deputy secretary of the CPC Fujian Provincial Committee Xi Jinping inspected the Mawei Shipyard, which originated from the Foochow Arsenal.

At that time, plans were underway to construct a riverside avenue that would pass through the Mawei Shipyard. The construction would affect production and more importantly, may cause damage to the century-old remains. Upon learning about this, Xi suggested using an elevated bridge to minimize the impact on the shipyard.

In 2016, the Mawei Shipyard was relocated to Culu Island of Fuzhou, embarking on a path of high-quality development. At the same time, its original site has been fully protected and transformed into a cultural area.

Stepping into the cultural area, historical imprints of China-France exchanges come into view. The steam engine workshop, which was built in 1867 and designed by French engineers, adopts the truss structure of modern industrial workshops and is the birthplace of China's first practical steam engine. Upstairs, the painting and design institute specializing in ship drawing and design showcases a typical French decorative style. Dozens of modern ship designers have emerged from there.

The enduring bond between the Chinese and French people, originating from the Foochow Arsenal, has withstood the passage of time and remains strong today.

In 2014, Laurent Fabius, then French foreign minister, and Marie-France Marchand-Baylet, president of the Groupe Depeche Foundation, visited the Museum of Foochow Arsenal 1866 and the steam engine workshop. Fabius presented a statue of Giquel to the Fuzhou municipal government in recognition of Giquel's contributions to France-China exchanges. The Museum of Foochow Arsenal 1866 collected and exhibited the statue.

At the end of 2023, China's first folding progressive multidimensional experience play "The Glory Belongs to Foochow Arsenal" was officially performed in a former maintenance workshop of the Foochow Arsenal. Viénet visited China once again to watch the play. This time, he brought to China two pieces of good news: the complete compilation of Giquel's diary and the translation of Giquel's memoir in cooperation with a Chinese scholar.

"We are preparing to establish a 'Friends of Giquel' non-governmental association, aiming to connect with the descendants of French nationals who worked for the arsenal and Chinese students who studied in France, to carry on the century-long history of China-France exchanges and promote cooperation in the new era," said Wei Hui, the great-grandson of Wei Han, one of the first Chinese students of the Fujian Naval Academy to study in France. His proposal has been supported by many departments.

Today, construction is in full swing on the eastern side of the Foochow Arsenal cultural area. A wide underpass has been put into use, reconnecting the arsenal that was once divided by an elevated bridge into two parts.

"With a focus on heritage preservation and cultural exhibitions of shipbuilding relics, the Foochow Arsenal cultural area will continue to develop a cluster of modern industrial museums, telling the story of exchanges between China and other countries to the whole world," said Liu Jiangyuan, director of the management committee of Fujian shipyard culture.

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