Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War 
by Xu Guoqi.
Harvard, 336 pp., £26.95, February 2011, 978 0 674 04999 4
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In late 1936, two workers from the Renault car factory in the Paris suburb of Billancourt, Tchang Jaui Sau and Liou Kin Tien, travelled to Albacete to join the International Brigades. Already in their mid-forties, they were rejected for active battlefield service and sent instead to act as stretcher-bearers behind the front lines. Their 14-hour days of back-breaking, often emotionally wrenching work earned them the praise of their comrades as ‘heroes’ of the Civil War. They had originally been brought to France from rural China during the Great War to serve as trench-diggers or to fill in at factories whose regular workforce was at the front, so were used to hard manual labour. Well over a hundred thousand Chinese men were dispatched to France, but it is thanks to this pair’s involvement in Spain that their stories have been tracked down.

Tchang Jaui Sau was born in Shandong Province, the son of a peasant. He joined the Chinese army after the Republican Revolution of 1911 and served for several years. In the spring of 1917, he saw an advertisement at the Yentai harbour in Shandong and signed up as a wartime contract worker. Having passed the stringent medical administered by the Chinese and French authorities, he travelled to Hong Kong and then in several stages crossed to Europe. He was put to work in France, where for 19 months he laboured ten-hour days, moving in a tightly circumscribed circuit between his designated place of work and the camps where he and other Chinese workers were housed (a better word might be imprisoned). When the war was over, demobilised French soldiers went back to their prewar jobs and, despite the terms of their five-year contracts, the Chinese workers were made redundant and expected to go home. Unlike many of his compatriots, Tchang decided to stay on. He lived hand to mouth for several years before finding a job at the Renault factory. There, he met Liou Kin Tien, who had also arrived in France from China in 1917. They became friends, took part in the drive to unionise the factory, like many of their unionised brethren joined the Communist Party and, in 1936, went to Spain. Having been praised for his internationalism in Le Soldat de la République and Estampa, Tchang left Spain, probably in 1939, and reappeared in Yan’an, Mao Zedong’s base region, where he was written up as a ‘labour hero’ in Liberation Daily in 1944.

According to Nancy and Len Tsou in their fascinating book The Call of Spain: The Chinese Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, published in Chinese in Taiwan in 2001, Tchang and Liou were two of only ten traceable former contract workers from China who remained in Europe after the Great War and joined the International Brigades. The many thousands of other Chinese workers recruited remain anonymous; their presence is sometimes noted in studies of early Chinese Communists who travelled to France in the 1920s, but their participation in the war has been mostly overlooked.

It’s a subject of great potential interest and Xu’s Strangers on the Western Front is the only book devoted to it in English, yet it is in every way disappointing. Xu is primarily a diplomatic historian and he takes the perspective of the state as the natural viewpoint of history in general. His previous work – including a book on the Olympics – might have lent itself to that approach. Here it seems merely ideological, conflating the wartime moment of what Xu wants to call ‘internationalism’ with contemporary China’s state-led capitalist expansion over the globe and making the Chinese workers in the Great War pawns of state diplomacy. Despite Xu’s access to diaries, letters, poems and other rare sources, and his own exhaustive research into more conventional documentary sources, his account is bogged down in irrelevant editorialising, self-conscious asides and strange literary detours; most egregiously, his analytical approach erases the very workers he claims to want to rescue from historical oblivion. He construes the Chinese state’s willingness to send workers to France as part of its need to assuage the supposed psychological trauma caused by the collapse of the dynastic system in 1911 and with it Confucian civilisation itself. From this perspective, the Chinese workers are pawns in a geopolitical game, their historical role reduced to legitimising the state: ‘The labourers … were the first wave of a new Chinese participation in world affairs,’ Xu writes, ‘and as such they contributed to the creation of a new national identity.’

Xu’s purpose, it emerges, is to map out an antecedent to China’s contemporary international expansion. Even though the two historical moments have little in common, he claims that both can be seen as steps towards what he calls ‘a fusion of civilisations’. Indeed, he wants to argue that, to the extent that the Great War was the beginning of a new world order, China was in on it from the start: ‘The story of the Chinese labourers during World War One sheds important new light on the history of emigration.’ ‘After all … emigration has formed the basis of China’s own form of overseas expansion. No country in the world has supported such a long and large-scale emigration process.’

The story of these labourers may shed light on China, but to claim that it forms part of a century-long state project of emigration as overseas expansion is wrong-headed. The Chinese state’s domestic and international projects changed many times in the course of the 20th century, as did its relationship to the rest of the world. The notion that there was a continuous national project over that period is wildly inaccurate.

A simpler and more reliable way to tell the story would start with the labour shortages in France and Britain as the war entered its third year. Mobilising colonial labour was thought to be problematic, an aspect of the story Xu alludes to without discussing colonialist racism or why the recruiting of Chinese labour appeared comparatively trouble-free. Despite the urgent need, the mechanics of recruitment were tricky, because China (still neutral in the war), France and Britain needed to keep Germany from detecting the operation. Dummy corporations were set up to recruit and funnel the workers to Europe. Some were transported through the Suez Canal and around the Cape of Good Hope, but most were taken in secrecy to and across Canada, and then, confined below deck, across the Atlantic. At the end of these long journeys, the workers contracted by Britain were generally assigned to the Western Front; most of those contracted by France were set to work in munitions factories. Close to 100,000 workers served the British; some 50,000 the French.

Xu forces his account of the journey into a dramatic mode to which it is ill-suited. Wishing to make the labourers into heroes of a 20th-century epic, he succeeds only in trivialising their experiences. In his more sober passages he makes it clear that the way they were treated by their French and British bosses mixed racism, harsh discipline and distrust sown by the language barrier and a shortage of interpreters. By the time American interpreters – missionaries, for the most part – appeared on the scene, the damage had been done. Curiously, Xu ignores the fact that most of those who ended up in France were peasants, for whom the discipline of a factory or a shift at the front was entirely alien. The unavailability of rice, and the unfamiliar weather conditions and forms of behaviour presented challenges too, but the new forms of discipline were the principal difficulty. This isn’t enough for Xu, who wants to see the men’s experience in terms of a much wider cultural misunderstanding. He does a better job giving a sense of how each side saw the other: usually with mutual suspicion, although sometimes with surprising sympathy. The best passages in the book document the way Chinese labourers transformed battlefield detritus into art objects, often engraved in meticulous detail, or their attempts to find entertainment and romance on their few days off among a devastated and wary population. But what with his inflated prose and the silence of the sources, it is hard to know what the labourers thought of their role in the war. Xu wants them to be pioneers of a new type of nationalism, though this is far from evident.

In his tiresome insistence on the ‘fusion of civilisations’, Xu neglects all the ways the issue of civilisation was raised and left unsettled by the Great War, in China as in Europe. The war, as countless historians have argued, marked the beginning of a deep global divide – most obviously, between capitalism and Communism – and a realignment of forces in Europe and beyond. The very meaning of liberalism – whether it was to remain statist or become more populist; whether it would mutate into fascism or remain dominated by finance and monopoly capital in nominally democratic states – was forced onto every domestic agenda by the growing strength of proletariats in Europe and elsewhere. This was as true in China as it was in Europe.

In December 1918, the journalist and political philosopher Liang Qichao set off from China for the Paris Peace Conference, along with several other intellectuals and public figures. Determined to report on the discussion, which he believed would work to the advantage of the unstable Chinese state, Liang was both disappointed by China’s failure to get what it hoped for from the Conference and shocked at the fragility of the European civilisation that he had proposed as an antidote to China’s weakness. For the first time he understood that it was this civilisation that had led to the slaughter, the massive deprivation and the unimaginable destruction he’d witnessed in the course of his travels. In his letters to his friends back home and in his diary he complained of the lack of basic necessities, of the disease and dirt, of the state of despair and disrepair. Revolutionary unrest was evident everywhere; the Russian Revolution was a topic of vigorous debate. As he saw it, a confrontation between what he understood to be ‘the state of capital and the state of labour’ was all but inevitable. Previously a staunch proponent of a form of statist liberalism, Liang now turned against it. Only a reinvigorated and reimagined Chinese culture could save a world gone wrong.

The Versailles Treaty marked a historical conjuncture for China. Any hope that it would recover the territory it had lost to Germany was dashed, while the refusal to include in the treaty a clause affirming the racial equality of peoples confirmed that the Western world embraced an explicit principle of racial difference and cultural hierarchy. One result was the May Fourth Movement, a major anti-imperialist uprising commemorating the day in 1919 on which students and workers poured onto the streets of Beijing. In its inauguration of the masses as political agent and the urban street as a political space, the May Fourth Movement created a new form of politics in China that couldn’t be appropriated by the state or its chosen elites, but was instead animated by cross-class alliances and collective action. The movement radicalised a restive population and converted a good number of former liberals to every kind of left-wing ideology, from anarchism to syndicalism; others turned against Europe and the West in a search for an as yet undiscovered foundation for a new global order, less tainted by the recent bloodletting masquerading as ‘civilisation’. After 1919, many right-leaning Japanese and Chinese intellectuals and politicians adopted a Japanese-led ‘pan-Asianism’, which claimed to rediscover in contemporary Japan ‘Asian values’ that could counter the materialist civilisation of the West and, more practically, provide the intellectual underpinning for Japan’s imperial expansion into Korea, Manchuria and eventually China. For those disillusioned by the war, Bolshevism came to seem increasingly attractive: Communist Parties rose across China, Korea, Japan and Manchuria. Although it remains hard to see the experience of the contract workers as evidence for it, war no doubt inspired a good deal of cultural introspection and political handwringing in a number of Asian countries, many but not all of them colonies of the West, and was responsible for large-scale transformations.

The war also presented an opportunity for a weak and inchoate Chinese national government to ally itself with some of its imperialist occupiers – Britain, France, Japan and the United States – in the hope of regaining sovereignty over lost territory and obtaining a seat at the international diplomatic table. The attempt failed: German-held Shandong Province was allotted to Japan by the Western powers, and the Chinese delegation to the Peace Conference refused to sign the final document. The frustrated ambitions of the early 20th-century Chinese nation remain a difficult issue for many contemporary Chinese historians: they can only attract more attention now that China appears to be in a position to achieve some global ambitions.

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