, Volume 70, Number 3

Helen Fitzwilliam, documentary filmmaker. Her short film about the Chinese labourers in France is available below

Watch the short film here & read the Mandarin translation here

Chinese riveters at work at the Tank Corps central workshops. Photo: Imperial War Museum

On August 24, 1916, in the middle of the battle of the Somme, a contingent of Chinese workers arrived in France to help the Allied war effort. By the time the war ended in 1918, their numbers had grown to more than 140,000. They dug trenches, unloaded military cargoes in the docks, worked in railway yards and factories, and collected corpses for burial from no man’s land. More than 2,000 paid with their lives.

The story of the Chinese at the Western Front is largely forgotten by Britain and France, both preoccupied with their own suffering, and by successive Chinese governments, which have seen the labourers as victims of colonial exploitation.

Yet, as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War approaches, scholars in Europe and China are studying their history and reassessing their role in China’s modern history. The Chinese republic’s decision to send non-combatants to the mud and barbed wire of the Western Front is now seen as a first, hesitant step away from centuries of imperial isolationism.

It was a gamble by the republican government, which had only a shaky hold on power three years after the overthrow of the Ch’ing dynasty.

‘The main motivation was to help China join the Western-dominated world as an equal member and recover lost national sovereignty rights,’ Xu Guoqi, professor of history at Hong Kong University, told me. ‘Sending workers to France was part of this grand strategy.’

China was weak, facing external threats and with no experience of an active role in a foreign conflict. By contributing labour, China would win a seat at the peace conference and thus – it hoped – force the Japanese armed forces to withdraw from Shandong province, which they had seized from Germany at the start of the war.

The workers were volunteers, mainly farmers lured by the offer of better pay. One hundred thousand workers formed the Chinese Labour Corps under British military regulations, while 40,000 were employed in France to work in factories and on farms and were able to have more contact with the local people.

Though volunteers, those who worked for the British Army had unknowingly committed themselves to three years of military discipline and were segregated in camps under armed guard. Punishments included beatings, prison sentences for strikers and fines for insubordination.

A Chinese phrase book prepared by the British Army suggests what conditions were like for the workers: ‘Less talk, more work’; ‘Why don’t you eat this food?’; ‘This is a bad business’.

A Belgian parish priest in Flanders, Father John Van Welleghen, kept a diary throughout the war and his entries reflect the sympathetic attitude of the local people towards victims of the British Army’s harsh methods: ‘I passed by the camp and saw three of them tied with arms outstretched on the wire of the perimeter fence. One of them also had his legs tied. It can’t have been pleasant in this wintery weather. Today it has been freezing hard.’

The labourers’ contract stated that they would work several miles behind the front line, out of range of enemy fire. But this was not always possible and in any case German bombers still found them, as described in this account by Gu Xingqing, a member of the Chinese Labour Corps. ‘At that moment we wanted to escape, away from the danger, but the iron gate of our camp remained tightly closed. I heard explosions of bombs falling down. The earth trembled. We were scared to death but there was nowhere we could go. All we could do was to wait patiently for the ghost of death to descend.’

Britain originally refused to accept the Chinese offer of manual labour, but changed its mind after catastrophic losses on the Somme proved the need for more manpower. As time passed, officers understood that the labourers had much-needed technical skills. By the end of the war the Tank Corps depot at Auchy-les-Hesdin was serviced almost exclusively by Chinese.

Elsewhere, and particularly in the French sector, surprising developments were taking place. Along with the mainly illiterate peasants came a few hundred ambitious Chinese students to act as interpreters, keen to discover new ideas and European culture. They found themselves interacting with a class of Chinese they had not encountered before. In Chinese society of the time, an educated person destined for a white-collar career would have no contact with the illiterate masses. Yet the war threw them together, and with lasting consequences, according to Dominiek Dendooven, a senior curator at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres.

‘Many of the intellectuals saw their contact with the workers as some kind of giant social laboratory experiment where new educational techniques could be tried out,’ he said.

One of the students, James Yen, devised a simplified vocabulary in order to teach the workers how to read and write in Mandarin, laying the groundwork for educational methods that were widely used on his return to China. Another, Sun Gan, set up a school for girls in rural Shandong.

At the same time, to their surprise, these teachers learnt something from the workers, according to Li Ma, of the University of the Littoral Opal Coast in Boulogne, who has edited a volume of essays on the Chinese workers in France.

She believes that living and working side by side in the factories of France sowed the seeds of a social conscience in the elite. ‘France was a bridge between Chinese intellectuals and workers,’ she told me in an interview in Boulogne. ‘The intellectuals finally understood and recorded the real misery and poverty of their people and it influenced their political orientation.’

As for the workers, seeing trade unions operating in French factories put them in touch with anarchist and communist ideas.

When the workers returned to China, in the grip of instability under the warlords, there was little chance to use their experience of industry and politics. But Professor Li Ma says they played an important role in the labour movement where this was possible, in Guangzhou and Shanghai.

What is not in doubt is that the docile slaves most of the Allies expected became mutinous as disputes about their conditions of employment broke out.

Father Van Welleghen’s diary relates: ‘At some of the camps the Chinese are starting to get quite rebellious. Yesterday they stabbed an English officer … Today 30 of them at Busseboom refused to work. They just lay on the ground waiting to be hit.’

After the Armistice, conditions for the surviving Chinese left them even worse off. The labourers were killed by unexploded shells and grenades when clearing the battlefields of unburied corpses, or died in the Spanish flu epidemic that engulfed Europe.

In those lawless times, people returning to their devastated homes didn’t want foreigners around and blamed them for crimes, real or imagined. Many Chinese were abandoned by their officers and were left to find their own food and shelter. The Allies were in no hurry to repatriate them. In some places anarchy ruled.

Father Van Welleghan reflects views about the Chinese at that time: ‘They’ve escaped from their camps and roam the countryside armed with rifles and grenades that they easily found abandoned on the battlefields.’

If the Chinese workers felt forsaken, a far bigger betrayal was awaiting them. Expectations for the peace talks at Versailles were high as China found itself on the winning side of a major international conflict for the first time. But China was treated as a thirdrank nation, given only two seats while Japan had five. It gained nothing from the Versailles Peace Treaty.  In Shandong province, the German concessions occupied by the Japanese army were handed to Tokyo under secret wartime agreements despite hopes that Woodrow Wilson, the US president, would insist on their return to Chinese sovereignty.

The workers – 85 per cent of whom were from Shandong – were incensed. To the Chinese, Shandong enjoys near sacred status as the birthplace of Confucius, and securing its return was one the main reasons they had been sent half way round the world to a foreign war.

News of the fate of Shandong triggered uproar in Paris. Chinese students and activists surrounded the Hôtel Lutetia where their diplomats were staying. Gu Xingqing, who recorded being locked in a British labour camp during a German air raid, wrote that one of the workers sent a Chinese delegate a revolver and a bullet to use on himself if he signed the treaty. In the end the Chinese diplomats refused to sign, the only country at the conference to do so.

In Beijing on May 4, 1919, thousands of students protested against the humiliated government. The protests coalesced into what became known as the May 4th Movement. Agitating for reform and a new national identity, it was a catalyst for the revolution that followed.

The Chinese wartime workers in France opened up links between China and Europe, with some 2,000 staying on after the war to create new lives – often married to French women – and to create a vibrant Chinese community in Paris; a community that Zhou En Lai and Deng Xiaoping would have been able to tap into when they went to France to study in the 1920s.

Professor Xu, the Hong Kong historian who is author of a forthcoming book ‘Asia and the Great War’, says it is time to reassess the role of the workers.

Their story has been neglected in East and West, though for different reasons. ‘The Communist and Nationalist parties came to power in China by trashing the so-called warlord government which sent the workers to France,’ he said. ‘The Western powers’ racist attitude has played an important role in their story being forgotten.’

Stating a view now being heard in Beijing, he says: ‘Both Chinese and Western people have to learn from the story. These farmers whom the Westerners called coolies are an important part of the making of modern China. As for the West, its refusal to accommodate China’s cry for justice and fair treatment was a big mistake.’

China’s 20th century debut on the world stage resulted in bitter disappointment with the West and prompted a search for other sources of inspiration that led in time to the triumph of the Communist Party.

As Professor Xu puts it, ‘What happened in Paris in 1919 explains why China became a socialist country and why it is still is a socialist country today, at least in theory.’

There are 10 military cemeteries in France and Belgium where Chinese labourers are buried. Visitors are often surprised to see Chinese characters on the tomb stones.

One such surprised visitor was Professor Li Ma, who knew nothing of the fate of her countrymen on the Western Front until she came to live in northern France. ‘When I first saw these cemeteries I felt a heavy and sad atmosphere there,’ she said.

‘In traditional Chinese culture, the dead should return to the place they were born. That drove me to share their story with the French and Chinese people. I felt that if I did not work on this subject, the ghosts of the Chinese workers would somehow come and find me. Subconsciously it was source of great pressure on me.’

Now other Chinese seem to be coming to the same conclusion.