Did you know that the longest railway line in China was built by Belgians?
It took more than seven years, from 1898 to 1905, to build the railway linking the north and south of China. The project, one of the most beautiful engineering works of the time, planned to build 1,200 kilometres of railway across the Middle Kingdom, between Beijing and Hankou, with a three-kilometre bridge across the Huang He, the Yellow River.
In 1896, Baron de Vinck, Belgium's minister in Beijing, had begun talks to obtain the concession for a railway line, while Émile Francqui, who had been appointed consul in Hankou, then Shanghai, continued negotiations with the local authorities.
It was during the summer of 1898 that Jean Jadot, the engineer-controller of the Société d'Études de Chemins de Fer en Chine, who had already built a Belgian railway in Lower Egypt, began the construction of the monumental railway line. The construction site was colossal; in addition to laying hundreds of kilometres of rails, it also involved drilling tunnels and building a hundred bridges, including the one spanning the Yellow River.
This achievement was a great showcase for Belgian expertise in the Far East. After nearly eight years of painstaking work, the 1,214 kilometres of railway were completed, enabling the first rail traffic in China. The railway was inaugurated with great pomp on 12 November 1905, in the presence of Empress Tzu-Hsi, and around 120,000 workers who had been involved in its construction.