Book Review: Strangers on the Western Front

Xu, Guoqi. Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011. viii, 336 pp. $39.95 (cloth)

By Edward Rhoads

Unlike the Second World War, China’s participation in the First World War is little known. Initially neutral, China did not declare war on Germany until mid-August 1917. Its major contribution was to send 140,000 contract workers to France to free up Allied soldiers for the battlefront. Two-thirds of the Chinese workers were recruited by the British; one-third, by the French. When the United States joined the war, also in 1917, the French assigned about 10,000 of their Chinese laborers to the Americans. For the British and Americans, the Chinese transported munitions and dug trenches; for the French, they worked in factories. When hostilities ended in November 1918, the Chinese stayed behind for close to two more years, clearing still-live ammunition and burying dead soldiers’ bodies.

The French and British recruited the workers separately. The French did so through a Chinese intermediary, the Huimin Company; the British, through their own agents. Most of the recruits were in their twenties and thirties and came from northern China. Their term of service was either three years (with the British) or five (with the French). They were apparently all men. The two sets of contracts are reproduced at the back of the book. Their experiences may profitably be compared and contrasted with those of other overseas Chinese.

The book seems to be an elaboration of a chapter in the author’s monograph, China and the Great War: China’s Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalization. It bears a similar title with another of his recent publications, Wenming de jiaorong: Huagong he diyici shijie dazhan (A fusion of civilizations: Chinese laborers and the First World War), though to what extent the work under review overlaps with its Chinese predecessor is unstated. There is yet an earlier study of the topic in Chinese, Chen Sanjing’s Huagong yu Ouzhan (Chinese laborers and the European war), but Xu Guoqi’s is the first book-length treatment in English.

A prodigious amount of research has gone into this book. The archives that the author consulted include the No. 2 Historical Archives in Nanjing, the British National Archives in Kew, the Imperial War Museum in London, the University of Leeds Library, the French Foreign Ministry Archives in Paris, the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland, the YMCA Archives in Minneapolis, and the Canadian Library and Archives in Ottawa. Contemporary periodicals in Chinese and English were another major source.

One of the interesting findings of the book is that the sending of Chinese laborers to Europe predated China’s declaration of war on Germany and that the initiative came not from the manpower-starved French and British but from the Chinese themselves, specifically from Liang Shiyi, an advisor to President Yuan Shikai, in response to Japanese intimidation. According to the author, “the Japanese Twenty-One Demands made China determined in 1915 to win a place at the eventual peace conference” (p. 14). The way to bring this about was for “workers to take the place of soldiers,” as Liang Shiyi put it. When Liang proposed the idea to the Europeans, the French accepted promptly and the British less readily. The first French-recruited workers reached Europe in August 1916; the ones recruited by the British had arrived by April 1917. As a result, China did win a place at the postwar peace conference, but, as is well known, it failed to persuade the other conferees to stop Japan from taking over the German concessions in Shandong.

If the research for the book is faultless, the same cannot be said for its content. First of all, the book leaves out two major aspects of the story of the Chinese workers on the Western front. One is “the social and everyday lives of these laborers,” with the result that much of the book focuses on how they were “managed” rather than on what they themselves did during their several years in Europe. The other is “what happened to the laborers after they returned” to China. This information should have been set forth in the introduction and not relegated to an endnote (p. 255, n. 21).

With hardly any exceptions, the workers themselves are portrayed as a faceless, anonymous mass. Even so, more might have been said about their demographic background, e.g., native place, socio-economic status, family background. Once recruited, the workers were subject to military discipline and placed into 500-men companies, each commanded by a set of Western officers. But how were the workers organized below the level of the company? What, for example, was the role of the “ganger,” or gang boss, specified in the British recruitment contract? And where, for that matter, were the workers stationed along the Western front? The book never says.

Admittedly, more Chinese worked for the British than for the French; nevertheless, the Chinese experience with the French is given short shrift. For example, how the workers recruited by the French traveled to Europe goes unmentioned, in contrast to the chapter devoted to those recruited by the British and traveling through Canada. Whereas the Chinese under British control were dealt with “like prisoners” (p. 114), “The Chinese working under the French enjoyed more freedom and they also had opportunities to work side by side with French women in the factories” (p. 147). More might have been said on this latter point.

The book contains assertions that are contradicted by the facts. Two examples will suffice. At the time the first laborers arrived in France, China was still ostensibly neutral. When the Germans lodged diplomatic protests, the author states, “the Chinese were able to deflect them with the argument that the British and French recruitments were organized by private agencies, not military agencies” (p. 34). But in fact British recruitment “was carried out by agents of the British government” (p. 28) and not by private agencies. In the conclusion, the author claims that the British and French had never been “honest” with the Chinese workers, who had been “promised … that they would not be sent to the battle zones” (p. 241). But in fact both the British and French recruitment contracts had specified only that the workers would not be “employed in military operations” (pp. 246, 251), not that they would be kept from battle zones.

There are yet other problems with the text. Fatuous generalizations: “The Chinese laborers by nature were cheerful folks” (p. 130). Factual errors: Wang Jingwei’s attempted assassination of a Manchu official was in 1910, not 1905 (p. 202); Ray Lyman Wilbur in the 1930s was the American Secretary of the Interior, not Education (p. 211). Unexplained references: “the William Head cantonment” (p. 76); “the R.E.” (p. 107); “the measures taken at Dunkirk for their safety” (p. 112); “the O.C.” [Officer in Charge?] (p. 123); and “trench art” (p. 138). Sloppy proofreading: The YMCA secretary Shi Yixuan “received a boxing scholarship [actually, a Boxer Indemnity scholarship] in 1911 to study in the United States” (p. 290, n. 22). And, throughout, inconsistent Romanization: e.g., the failure to distinguish between lu and .

Such carelessness on the part of the author and the publisher greatly weakens the scholarly value of the book.

Works Cited
Chen Sanjing, Huagong yu Ouzhan [Chinese laborers and the European war], (Taibei, 1986).
Xu Guoqi, China and the Great War: China’s Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Xu Guoqi, Wenming de jiaorong: Huagong he diyici shijie dazhan [A fusion of civilizations: Chinese laborers and the First World War], (Beijing, 2007).

Edward Rhoads is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

© 2012 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

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