Chapter Eight – Passage Four
Having finished at Xi’an Coliseum, we decided to get lunch before catching our late-afternoon train out of Northlight Station and continue our westward journey. Since there was no electricity allowed in Xi’an, I was intrigued by how they would manage powering a giant city of twelve million people.
Well, it turns out all you need is steam power.
In the olden days, writers and artists often fantasized about a genre called “steampunk”— an essentially alternate timeline of history where 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery rose to prominence and we never developed electric motors. Instead, as the namesake suggests, steam is primary means of power. And to create steam, you needed a steam engine which meant you need gigantic boilers that heated water to create a heat engine.
And while I was aware of the genre, it never struck me that the basis of steampunk was actually rooted in reality. This wasn’t like writing about fantastical warp gates and other outer space figments of the imagination like orbital defense platforms and trillion-zillion ton battlecruisers. Steampunk was rooted in actual real-life technology, an imagining of what that version of history could’ve possible looked like.
And Xi’an is a very real-life manifestation of those imaginings.
“When you talk about power,” explains Kristen, “everyone’s always thinking about electric engines with is –surprise, surprise–using the movement of electrons to power an engine. But before Edison and Westinghouse pushed electrons, we pushed heat. I’m not going to bore you with the details, but to convert thermal energy into mechanical energy, you need to create heat some way. You can burn wood, boil water, or burn diesel, ethanol, or fossil fuels.”
Kristen, it turns out, actually studied mechanical engineering at some point and was, for some reason, well-versed in thermonuclear dynamics.
“Ah, here we are,” says Li. We’ve been riding in the horse-drawn carriage until now, on the way to lunch. On our way, we passed through the industrial district of Xi’an which was filled with giant factories. Smokestacks reaching high into the sky, expelling giant plumes of black clouds into the sky.
“Wow, that makes for wonderfully breathable air,” Coleman had remarked, pointing. “All doing our bit for the earth, I see.”
In the giant factories, I’d see giant mechanical shafts turning. Gears and cogs whirled away. As far as I could tell, all of the power was generated from the burning done at the base of the gigantic smokestack and then apparently distributed throughout the rest of the factory via giant turning rods and axels that whirled away, driving ever smaller roads and axels. It was a massive, well-greased machine that was mechanical through-and-through.
As we’re driving by, a bell suddenly shrilly starts ringing in one of the factories and I turn to see what the commotion is all about. A small group of Chinese men are running towards one of the driveshafts and I see smoke pouring out of one of the complicated-looking contraptions.
“Electric engines are wonderful for productivity and efficiency,” Jack says, “but that’s not what Xi’an is built for.” He gestures to the hubbub, “the challenge with mechanical energy like this, in addition to being horribly inefficient and losing a ton of energy by sheer heat loss, is that it’s fragile.“
I watch all of the Chinese youths scramble around to try to troubleshoot the problem. One of the driveshafts has malfunctioned and stopped turning. But luckily the others still spinning, their respective belts and conveyors still whirling away. If you build such an intricate but fragile cog-work system, redundancy appears to be of paramount importance.
“You’re saying that it really takes a village to keep the entire operation running smoothly,” I say.
“So you’ve deliberately set back the entire city two centuries in order to foster a greater sense of interconnectedness,” says Deepak. “It was a generation when people actually needed to cooperate or things would literally fall apart.”
“Precisely,” Jacks says. “Make no mistake, “Xi’an in so many ways is so bad. Bad for the environment. We burn a metric ton of wood to produce the same amount of electrical energy you could easy get with solar in a few days. But what we get back with this time capsule city is an age when people actually needed to rely on each other. An era when neighbors actually knew and talked to each other. Because if they didn’t, they simply wouldn’t survive.”
Our carriage slowly draws away from the factory where the Chinese men in blue coveralls are still troubleshooting the broken driveshaft and another thought suddenly occurs to me. The entire steampunk system that the CCP has constructed here in Xi’an drives another message into the 18-year-old trainees every year: Just like individual gears and cogs that the trainees were maintaining, the trainees themselves were at very least subconsciously being indoctrinated that they too were fungible and easily replaceable. In America, every schoolchild is taught that every American is unique and special. That we all have gifts and something only we can contribute to this society and world.
But in China, the message in this communist country is the opposite. Every Chinese citizen is part of something greater, to be sure. But each person, on their own, is also only a simple cog in the great machinery. Building on this metaphor, a more complicated aggregate component like a driveshaft or steam turbine may then be considered a municipality– the larger, more important ones being maybe considered the alpha cities– your Shanghais and Beijings. But the message was loud and clear– the whole is infinitely more important than any individual constituent piece.
I don’t know what CCP politburo member dreamed up this whole “everyone-18-year-old-spends-a-year-in-Xi’an-steampunk-world” system, but it’s ingenious. Implementation and execution aside –no easy feat, to be sure– just on a purely psychological brainwashing-level of the Chinese youth, it’s seriously Mensa-tier strategic thinking.
Deepak and Coleman start some debate with Kristen over the finer points around the laws of thermonuclear dynamics (a bit absurd considering their respective backgrounds) but I mentally check out and begin thinking over the situation in Xinjiang with Uyghurs. That’s the project we were brought here to help solve, after all. The crux of all of the civil unrest there lies in the fact that there’s a fundamental philosophical chasm between the Uyghurs and the rest of China. But how to bridge this divide?