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The Oblivion Role of China in the First World War


In this article an attempt is made to study the role of China’s participation in the World War-I and to view how the Chinese faced a sustained humiliation before, during and even after the termination of the war despite the fact that they were on the victorious side. This article contends that the current strength of China’s capability may have its origin from this experience and the lessons they learned from their bitter experiences of the WW-I.


The current year (2014) marks the 100th year since the start of the First World War (1914-1918). While all the countries (U.S., France, now Russia, Britain to mention few) which then took part in this historic war remember this event with nostalgia and pride, countries like British India and China didn’t and do not do so despite the fact that they had made yeoman services and sacrifices in the successful conclusion of the war. However, we should not take India into account since, at that time, India had not gained independence from colonialism. The author is puzzled at the stony silence in China about their phenomenal contribution made. This article seeks to find out the truth behind such a selective amnesia on the part of the Chinese government and to answer the question why it did not celebrate the Centenary of the First World War. This article also seeks to find out the principal factors and motivations for the then Chinese government to send the Chinese legion for such assignments. In that pursuit lays the crux of this article. It is my humble opinion that it is worth taking note of the contribution of the Chinese in the First World War which is forgotten in the later years of the of the 20th as well as the 21st centuries.


Unlike today, China was not strong in the beginning of the 20th century, especially around 1910s and 1920s. The parts of Asia that were already divided by geography into small and weak states consisted of detached islands which were easy prey to colonial countries which had superior weaponry to keep them under control. The subordination of China which was one of the richest and valuable prize was made possible with the weakening of the imperial rule in that country. Inside China, there were social contradictions, internal feudalism, corruption, etc which had weakened the country. Further, there were numerous revolts by the local Chinese against the then rulers of China. There were many clans and factions with different ideologies. This was one of the reasons for Britain defeating China in the first of the Opium Wars (1841-42).

It was learnt that China at that time was anti-foreign and anti-Christian in their perspectives and did not want to mingle with the outside world. In contrary, this xenophobic attitude of China was totally opposite to that of Japan which has no such inhibitions and was a modernized country then. This gave Japan an advantage over China in the later years. In other words, there was no unity and the concept of nationalism was unknown in China. All external powers had their share of possessions in China at different places. However, complete colonization of China, unlike in India, was not possible due to the larger, geographical size of China. The much touted Boxer Rebellion which broke out in 1900 was an outward sign of inward ferment in China. In October 1911, the long-delayed Chinese Revolution began, and in 1912 the six-year old boy-emperor abdicated. Sun Yat-sen was elected President by a revolutionary provisional assembly at Nanking on December 30, 1911. This Revolution of 1911 overthrew the Empire of Qing Dynasty also called Manchu Dynasty (1644-1911), bringing two thousand years of Chinese feudal monarchy to an end. This brought out a new outlook for Chinese nationalism and the result was China’s participation in the First World War. In that process one will come to know later how this participation has brought a transformation in the Chinese ideology from feudalism to socialism.

China’s Participation and Wisdom

Even though the First World War started in the year 1914, it is to be noted that the Chinese participation came much later in 1916, on the eve of the Battle of Somme. Initially, there were reports that there was willingness from the Chinese side to contribute to the World War-I by sending Chinese soldiers. This was summarily rejected by the western powers perhaps because of their apprehension that such a force might prove to be more of a problem than a remedy. Thus China then agreed to send only manual workers as volunteers and the offer was accepted by the western powers. In fact, Britain had initially refused to accept and went down to turn down even the Chinese offer of providing manual labor. Nevertheless, the catastrophic losses on the Battle of Somme led France to change her mind. As time passed, western officers realized that Chinese laborers had high levels of technical skills which they exploited to their advantage.

This was well established on August 24, 1916, in the middle of the battle of the Somme when a contingent of Chinese workers arrived in France to help in the Allied war effort. By the time the war ended in 1918, their number 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. As far as the Chinese causalities were concerned, there were more than 2,000 who laid their lives in the process. Although the victorious powers have not forgotten the first-world war, unfortunately the story of the contribution of made by the Chinese at the Western Front is largely forgotten by Britain and France. They are preoccupied with their own suffering and rarely with the suffering and sacrifices of the Chinese. Fortunately, in the Centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, scholars in Europe and China are studying their record and reassessing their role in China’s modern history. The Chinese Republic’s decision to send non-combatants to the mud and barbed wires of the Western Front is now seen as a first, hesitant step away from centuries of imperial isolationism. The Chinese were reportedly so efficient that by the end of the war, the Tank Corps depot at Auchy-les-Hesdin was serviced almost exclusively by the Chinese.

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 partner and recover the lost national sovereignty rights, ‘Sending workers to France was part of this grand strategy. China was weak, facing external threats and had no previous experience of an active role in a foreign conflict. By contributing labor, China could win a seat at the Peace Conference and thus hoped to force the Japanese armed forces to withdraw from Shandong province, which they had seized from Germany at the start of the First World 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.

Hardships for Chinese Volunteers

When Chinese government dispatched its workers to France, there were hardly any people who thought that they would be subjected to utmost embarrassment in the days to come. Though volunteers, those who worked for the British Army had, unknown to themselves, committed to three years of military discipline and were segregated in camps under armed guard. The plight of the Chinese was very hard as they were subjected to various kinds of punishments which included beating, prison sentence for strikers and fines for insubordination. This is aptly described in a Chinese phrase book prepared by the British Army which suggests what the conditions were like for the workers: ‘Less talk, more work’; ‘Why don’t you eat this food?’; ‘This is a bad business’.

In the sort of personal testimony, Father John Van Welleghen, a Belgian parish priest in Flanders, 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.

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. 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, much 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 which was in the grip of instability under the warlords, there was little chance for them to use their experience of industry or politics. But Professor Li Ma says they played an important role in the labour movement where this was possible, in the places of Guangzhou and Shanghai. What is not in doubt is that those taken as docile slaves by most of the Allies 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 were worse . The labourers were killed by unexploded shells and grenades while clearing the battlefields for 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 third rate power and 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 over to Tokyo under secret wartime agreements despite hopes that Woodrow Wilson, the US President, would insist on their return to Chinese sovereignty.

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

Conclusions: Significant Contributions and constant humiliation

According to Professor Xu, the Hong Kong historian who is author of a forthcoming book ‘Asia and the Great War’, it is time to reassess the role of the workers and said that the Communist and Nationalist parties came to power in China by trashing the so-called warlord government which sent the workers to France.’ He further said that the story of these workers has been neglected in East and West, though for different reasons and the western power’s racist attitude has played an important role in their story being forgotten. Stating a view now being heard in Beijing, he says: ‘Both the Chinese and Western people have to learn from the story. These farmers who are called ‘coolies’ by Westerners 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. So, as a human being, one should not forget the valuable services and sacrifices they had rendered on to the modern China which if not celebrated openly ought to be celebrated within our hearts at least. The author is of the opinion that no matter whether they were workers or soldiers, contribution is a contribution and the Chinese must feel proud of their participation in the WW-I because for the simple reason that never deserted the war camps in spite of tremendous humiliation they faced on various occasions. The Chinese by such a persistent attitude had learnt mainly the soft power rather than hard power from the experiences of WW-I which they had successfully employed locally to the development of the China’s literacy rate.

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.’ It is significant to note that there are 10 military cemeteries in France and Belgium where Chinese labourers are buried. This is the one telling evidence of Chinese immense contributions to the war efforts at the cost of their supreme sacrifices. These cemeteries would not have been built, had the Chinese not come up in their contributions with higher and good standards. This is one of the reasons to show that how Chinese can win the hearts and minds of the world people meritoriously by their characters and hard work. 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. However, given this background of colonial exploitation, humiliation and the injustice meted out to the Chinese Republic during the war and in the post-war Treaty, it is not surprising that the Chinese government whether intentionally or accidentally would not celebrate the Centenary of World War-I even though the then Chinese workers had learnt lot of things like nationalism, technologies from the First World War.

(The writer, Dr.G.Thanga Rajesh, is Research Officer, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email:

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