Long Journey for Civilization: Stories of Chinese Laborers on the Western Front in WWI

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After years of study, Professor Xu Guoqi wrote his book. It introduces the life and work situation of 140,000 Chinese laborers who went to France during the First World War to present full and accurate historical data on their contribution to the war effort. It also probes the impact brought about by their presence in France from the perspective of the exchanges between oriental and western civilizations.

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This book tells the stories of these Chinese laborers against a backdrop of exchanges between civilizations and the struggles of the Chinese people to enter and become equal members of the international community in order to contribute to the revival of the Chinese nation and promote world peace. Their history belongs to the world.

About Author

Xu Guoqi, native of Zongyang, Anhui Province. Graduated from the Department of History of Nankai University in Tianjin, and went to study in the United States in 1991. He received a doctorate degree in history from Harvard University in 1999. Now he is Professor of History Department of University of Hong Kong. His main works include the trilogy of the international history:
China and The Great War: China’s Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalization (Cambridge University Press, 2005, English edition; Shanghai Triple Bookstore, 2008, Chinese edition);
Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008 (Harvard University Press, 2008, English edition);
Strangers in the Western Front: Chinese Workers and World War I (Harvard University Press, 2011 English edition; Shanghai People’s Press, 2014 Chinese edition Chinese Workers in World War I);
New works on trilogy of “shared history”:
Chinese and Americans: A Shared History (Harvard University Press, 2014 English edition);
Asia and the War: A Common History (to be published by Oxford University Press, UK);
About China: A Shared History (under study).

Table of Contents

Foreword / 2
I. The “Great War” and Radical Changes in China / 13
II. China’s Countermeasure: “Sending Laborers Instead of
Soldiers” / 35
III. A Long Journey / 91
IV. Strangers on the Western Front / 117
V. Glory of Blood / 167
VI. Teaching and Learning Promote Each Other: Chinese Elite
and Laborers Abroad of the ‘Great Generation’ / 199
VII. Expedition for Civilization: Chinese Laborers’ Contribution
and Role in History / 223
VIII. Whereabouts of Chinese Labour Corps in World War I / 245
Postscript / 276
Annotations / 279
Acknowledgement / 297


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Chinese Laborers and China’s Great Strategy
In my view, the fact of China sending laborers instead of soldiers is epoch-making. By doing so, China manifested its desire and capability to participate in international affairs. In 1918, the Far Eastern Review made a prediction on the Shandong peasants going Europe: “Undoubtedly, the Chinese laborers in Europe will produce far-reaching influence on world history, and may probably be the most important force in the history of European warfare. In the past, the Eastern world never provided such huge human resources for the West. The East launched countless fights against the West, forcing the latter to strike back. This, surely, influenced the way Westerners thought. The East had never fought shoulder to shoulder with us as we do, now, in European warfare.” A fairly unbiased British commander of the Chinese laborer battalion also admitted the Shandong group enjoyed a lofty position in WWI. The YMCA said in a report: “The bringing of the Orient into contact with Western civilization was one of the most remarkable phases of the world struggle.” According to the report, “The military purpose of bringing the Chinese to France was a crucial one to the Allies”…“It was to capitalize to the greatest degree the manpower made available to the Allied cause by the control of the sea and by the wide sympathy among all civilized peoples for the fight which the Allied nations were making.” The Eastern Miscellany translated an article from a foreign newspaper: “Chinese laborers going to Europe in WWI is really a miracle. Since the Orient and Occident were connected by roads, many Chinese laborers migrated only to subsist rather than get engaged in the war. If the latter comes into practice, it starts from today.”
When it comes to their most important contribution, it can be seen in their efforts to save Occidental civilization, their entering into the international community with a new attitude, and their prominent role in helping the country seek new national identity. An article in the Chinese Students Monthly, published in 1918 in America, described these Chinese going to France as “messengers of the wider world,” and predicted that after, returning to China, they would become the most powerful and effective means to publicize European civilization. Hence, we have reason to conclude: “Sending laborers instead of soldiers” was the first attempt by China to demonstrate great courage, purpose and foresight to join the international community. It was a big event for a power in the East to contribute to saving Occidental civilization. More importantly, the 140,000 Chinese labors weren’t 140,000 replacement soldiers, but 140,000 messengers, indeed.
The Chinese laborers made prominent contributions, first and above all, in giving the country an opportunity to join the war. Bai Jiao, in a long article entitled “Chinese Laborers in the World War,” borrowed Liang Rucheng’s words: “Working overseas is a brilliant scheme for diplomacy. After 1913, Liang Shiyi kept diplomacy in mind without highlighting it. When the European war broke out, countries joined in and formed alliances based on their respective locations and perceived benefit. Two years later, diplomatic envoys to China persuaded, indeed threatened, the Chinese authorities to fight. Amid turbulence, it was really hard to decide what to do. Besides, it was, for the better, not to make a sink-or-swim decision, because it was something related to the rise and fall of the Chinese nation and might embroil the country in misery. If China refused, it would not gain a single trophy. If China went to the battlefield overtly, its lack of vessels, necessary armament or funding would eventually weaken its combat effectiveness to zero, thus incurring blame by all. For this reason, Liang decided to stay neutral on the surface, but move secretly. Sending laborers instead of soldiers was a good choice. As for vessels, armament and funding, it was better to persuade other countries to offer this. Now the chance had come to steal profits from these places and share future fruits.” What he said was not absolutely correct. China volunteered to fight, rather than being pushed by the allies onto the battlefield. As a matter of fact, the loss of life among the Chinese laborers was the best excuse. Liang Qichao, the main driving force of Chinese belligerence, pointed out the Germans had attacked a merchant vessel carrying Chinese laborers, killing hundreds. “As a member of the international community, on the surface and with respect to liability, China shouldn’t ignore Germany’s contempt for neutral states. Otherwise, we would exclude ourselves from the international community.” He went on: “If China uses this excuse to join in, it will create a new era in the world.”
In this sense, Chinese laborers not only made great contribution to the allies, but, more importantly, they also safeguarded State interests, playing a crucial role for China going to the battlefield.


Since the early 1990s, I have been specially interested in the issues concerning the relationship between China, and Asia and the First World War. After reading relevant archives around the world and decades of hard work and thinking, I finally felt I knew enough to make my own contribution. From 2005, I launched a series of research results. In the same year, Cambridge University Press published an English hardcover edition of my China and the Great War (the English paperback edition was published in 2011). SDX Joint Publishing (Shanghai) Co., Ltd. included it into its “Library of Humanistic Classics” in 2008, and published a Chinese version. In 2011, Harvard University Press published my work Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War, whose Chinese version entitled Chinese Workers in the Great War was published by Shanghai People’s Publishing House in 2014. Upon the invitation of Oxford University Press in the summer of 2015, I completed the manuscript of Asia and the Great War: A Shared History. If everything goes well, this English version will appear at the end of 2016. As for this small book in your hands, it is a popular edition based on my English academic monographs on the First World War published over a 10-year period, thus containing the important results of my academic research. It is also a supplement to, and a revised version of, my book Chinese Laborers in France during the First World War printed by China Intercontinental Press in Beijing in 2007, with many chapters containing new contents. After over 20 years of research on the First World War, I intended to put it aside, and devote my energy to the systematic study of the subject – “What is China and Chineseness,” a long-cherished wish. However, China Intercontinental Press was anxious for me to revise Chinese Laborers in France during the First World War to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, so as to include new research results to it. It was hard to turn down such awarm-hearted offer, and, after some hesitation, I finally agreed.
I was willing to spend valuable time writing this book also because the Chinese people still lack understanding of the First World War and the Chinese laborers who had a role in it. In my humble opinion, both are of extreme important significance for China and its people. China’s participation in the First World War also constitutes an important chapter in the history of world civilization. My book China and the Great War probes the long course of the Chinese people’s struggle for internationalization and new national identity from the perspective of World War I, and analyzes how the international community responded to China’s active participation in the reconstruction of international order and the Chinese nation’s self-renewal. In the lengthy interview with the magazine West Lake in 2009, I even stated: “Without the First World War, there would be no May 4th Movement.” On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the Chinese should have a soberer, objective understanding of the war. First of all, let’s review the history of the First World War. Under the Chinese calendar, 1914 was the Year of the Tiger, as well as being the third year of the Republic of China. This was when the “Great War” broke out (after another world war erupted over two decades later, the earlier conflict became known as the First World War).
In the beginning, it was defined as a “civilized war” by the warring parties. There is such inscription carved on the Inter-Allied Victory Medal awarded to the soldiers after the war: “Fight for Human Civilization, 1914-1919.” A Western scholar pointed out that, “The First World War didn’t only concern gains and losses on the battlefield or even economically. For the British people, it was a war defending the order of the British Empire.” Similarly, the Germans regarded it as the “Holy War of the German Nation.” Therefore, “for the Germans, it was a war for changing the world, while, for the British, it was a war defending the world order. The Germans fought for the future, the British for tradition.” The famous American scholar Henry James wrote on August 5, 1914, “The outbreak of the First World War might plunge civilization into the abyss of blood and darkness, and will break our illusion that the world will become better.”
An American official also wrote shortly after the end of the war: “When the world war is truly recorded and the victory objectively evaluated, we will find that no country is worthy of the title of a civilized victor.” Whatever one’s viewpoint, the First World War had far-reaching impact in human history, a cruel test of blood and fire to Western civilization. Moreover, in a wide sense, the First World War was far more important than the Second World War. This is not only because the latter was a continuation of the former; more importantly, until today, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of World War I, we still lack real understanding of its significance for China, with its influence and consequences still being debated.
In fact, scarcely had an armistice been declared than a debate on the significance and impact of the war began in the East and West. German scholar Oswald Spengler declared that the First World War marked the decline of the West, which is well understood. Chinese political thinker Liang Qichao (1873-1929) said in his work Thoughts during European Travel written at the end of 1918 that the result of World War I showed the oriental spirit and civilization still had certain advantages. He remarked: “Europeans had a dream that science is omnipotent, but now they claim that they have been bankrupted due to science. This is a key reason for the recent change in thinking.” He even warned the Chinese people affectionately, “Our lovely youth! Stand at attention! Step forward! Several billion people on the opposite coast of the ocean are worrying about the bankruptcy of material civilization, and crying for help desperately. They are waiting for your enlightenment. Our three sages and many predecessors in paradise are eagerly expecting you to complete their undertakings and blessing you with their spirit.” In his opinion, World War I almost destroyed human civilization, and the social Darwinism promoted in the West bears the blame. In addition to Liang Qichao, other Chinese like Liang Shuming and Gu Hongming were also major generals in the camp emphasizing the advantages of oriental civilization.
There were so many Chinese and foreigners advocating the supremacy of oriental civilization that American philosopher John Dewey mentioned in his review of British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s book The Problem of China in 1923, “China tends to become an angel of light to show up the darkness of Western civilization. Chinese virtues are made a whip of scorpions with which to lash the backs of complacent Westerners.” It should be noted, however, that it was not the case at that time of everyone lining up on the side of the Eastern or Western civilization and comparing their advantages and disadvantages. Some very rational Chinese called for a clear understanding of the First World War as a watershed of human civilization, and that Chinese should take the opportunity to find a suitable path for their nation’s own development instead of sticking to the dispute over the relative advantages of Eastern and Western civilizations. For instance, a Chinese article published in the Morning Post in 1918, saying, “With the ending of the Great War, 19th Century civilization also comes to a conclusion, but 20th Century civilization just sprouts the refrom. In other words, the world enters a new era from the old… Therefore, to adapt to the trend of the times, the Chinese people must seek a guiding principle for education, and the principle mustn’t go against the new trend of the world, or we will be eliminated. The Chinese must be very clear about this.”
After the First World War, the Indian Rabindranath Tagore launched the severest and most influential criticism on Western civilization in Asia. He won Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the first Asian winner of this honor, so his remarks were naturally more influential. In 1921, he wrote: “Those who live away from the East, have now got to recognize that Europe has completely lost her former moral prestige in Asia. She is no longer regarded as the champion throughout the world of fair dealing and the exponent of high principle, but rather as an upholder of Western racial supremacy, and the exploiter of those outside her own borders.” In his letter to French writer Romain Rolland, also a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, after the war, he observed: “There is hardly a corner in the vast continent of Asia where men have come to feel any love for Europe.” For Tagore’s part, “the poison that civilized Europe pushed down the gullet of such a great country like China has severely impaired its own forever,” and “the torch of European civilization was not meant for showing light, but to set fire.”
A huge challenge to Western civilization, World War I gave rise to a great debate between Eastern and Western civilizations and also had an important impact on the reorganization and layout of the world civilization map. It was regarded as a “heaven-sent opportunity” by Japan. By virtue of the war, Japan rose to be a world power, and became one of the top five powers in the world at the Paris Peace Conference. However, among the Japanese people who struck it rich due to foreign affairs and the war economy, many harbored doubts and a strong sense of loss after the war. Despite Japan’s strength, the Western powers still sniffed at the “racial equality” proposal made by Japan at Paris Peace Conference, and denied it. In regard to racial ranking, Japan, like other Asian countries, couldn’t assume equal footing with the white nations. Moreover, Japan had made its way forward by following Germany’s military mode; however, the latter’s defeat and the post-war tendency of anti-militarism permeating the world made large numbers of Japanese people wonder if Japan had selected a wrong founding pattern fundamentally, and whether its policy of “departure from Asia for Europe” pursued since the Meiji Restoration was wise or not. This was also the case with America, a rising power via the First World War. It was also full of misgivings about the impact and aftermath of the war. After joining the war under the slogan of “war for democracy,” Americans found the post-war world order was not what they had expected.President Woodrow Wilson was once regarded as savior bringing hope to the world. Even French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau sighed that, “God gave only ten commandments to mankind, but this man provided a ‘14-point’ new world order blueprint.” Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, claimed that Wilson was the “No. 1 Good Man” in the world. Tagore gave him a personally-signed book. At the post-war Paris Peace Conference, Wilson, with soaring ambition, vowed to establish a new world order dominated by the United States as well as an international alliance for eternal peace. However, Americans abandoned Wilson and his international vision, and Congress refused to approve the Treaty of Versailles and even forbade the United States to join the international alliance the president had founded.
It can be said that all people with lofty ideas, scholars and politicians under the sun were puzzled, pondering what impact the recent conflict would have on humankind, and discussing whether it meant the decline of the West, the bankruptcy of science or a new opportunity for human advancement. Philosopher John Dewey initially had high expectations. In an interview in August 1917, he said: “We are fighting for democracy. Because of this great war, the world dies, but long live the world! A great civilization has disappeared, replaced by a completely new society and civilization.” Although he declared that he didn’t know what the post-war new world would be like, it was obvious he was looking forward to a new world order despite some unease. However, he was ultimately disappointed with the new postwar world order, and plunged into confusion. Did that mean even Mr. Dewey had begun to doubt the benefits of science and Western civilization? During the May Fourth Movement, he came to China and stayed for over two years. He was also deemed as the personal incarnation of “science” and “democracy,” two popular slogans in China at that time. Due to his great influence, Dewey was even called the “American Confucius” or “second Confucius” by Cai Yuanpei and others.
TheFirst World War was also of great significance to China even though few people realized it at the time. In a broad sense, it could be regarded as having originated in 1895 and ended in 1919. During this period, various kinds of ideological trends, oriental or Western, were tried in China as if replicating the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BCE). The republic, democracy, Dewey’s philosophy, Russell’s philosophy and various schools of thought debuted in China. As British writer Charles Dickens described in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” A new generation began to emerge. The First World War marked an important historical turning point in Chinese and Western civilization. In 1912, advanced Chinese overthrew the monarchy and founded the Republic of China. The New Culture Movement, new ideological trends and nationalism raged like a storm. Since the Opium War, the Chinese had become fed up with the old system in which might is deemed right. The Chinese eagerly expected the old international order would be replaced by a new one established on the basis of equality, justice and national self-determination; they strove to participate in the wider international community and become a member of equal standing with others therein. The outbreak of World War I marked a strong attack on the old order that had been so unfair to the Chinese, and they struggled to take advantage of the opportunity to rebuild civilization and revitalize the country.
The years from 2014 to 2018 form the 100th anniversary of the First World War. The global debate on the world order, the rise and fall of the Eastern and Western civilizations and science and machinery, however, still continues without any conclusion. People today are still debating and doubting, failing to come to any agreement. In fact, after the great trial of two world wars, Western civilization still holds an advantage, and science and machinery play an even more important role in life, advocated and pursued by the whole world. Earth-shaking changes have taken place in China since World War I: when the war broke out, China was a poor, weak disunited country, partitioned by other powers at will; but today, China has become the world’s second largest economy and largest trading nation with growing international status. Other powers can no longer behave arrogantly towards China. However, the confusing problems widely discussed by our ancestors during the period of the May Fourth Movement still exist, such as “What is China and Chineseness,” the status of Chinese civilization in the international arena and what kind of national identity does China really need?
Currently, Chinese leaders are vigorously promoting realization of the “Chinese dream” and implementation of the grand program of “Chinese nation’s great rejuvenation,” mirroring the ideals of the May Fourth Movement. A century has passed. It is a good moment to ask what significance the First World Warbrought to China. In fact, this is a long-neglected topic that needs to be urgently reviewed now. First, the whole world, including China, has paid little attention to the interrelationship and the influence imposed by the First World War on China. Second, the passage of 100 years makes no difference to its influence on today’s Asia. Especially when we try to understand why Sino-Japanese relations are always so problematic, we are particularly impressed by the impact of the war. Third, the war greatly influenced China’s national development, foreign policy and national or international consciousness. Fourth, the Chinese are still seeking a new national identity suited to national conditions and the country’s corresponding international status. It is undoubtedly extremely important for China and the world to understand the impact of the war in this regard. Perhaps a correct understanding of the World War I history is the key to solving many current problems.
The year 2015 was the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, and also the 100th anniversary of China’s creative proposal of “sending laborers instead of soldiers” to the Western front in World War I, thus linking its fate with the outcome of that conflict. On the occasion of worldwide reflection on the legacy of World War I and commemorating the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, perhaps we should ponder the following questions: was the Second World War a continuation of the first? Was the aftermath of World War I a direct contributor to the outbreak of World War II and should their far-reaching impact on human civilization be considered together or separately? We also need to consider what constitutes the Second World War and whether its duration varies between different countries.For China, at least, one cannot understand the Second World War without gaining a proper understanding of the first. Yet, we still lack real understanding of the global significance of the so-called “great war,” and its impact and consequences are still being debated.
When reviewing the impact of World War II on Sino-Japanese relations and the historical development of the two countries, perhaps we should put the two wars together to make an analysis. We should even take them as one to be reviewed together with the First Sino-Japanese War in the late 19th Century. In other words, the Second World War might be taken as merely a heightened part of the 50-year Sino-Japanese war from 1895 to 1945. Only from this point of view can we have a more thorough insight into the modern process of China and Japan, and get more profound understanding. One of the poems of the Tang Dynasty’s Du Fu reads, in part: “When reaching the great peak, we behold all mountains in a single glance.” Perhaps if seeing the World War II from the perspective of the 50-year Sino-Japanese war, lots of specious views may become clear.
From the broad perspective of international history, the origin of World War II varied from region to region. As for Europe, it originated from 1939, yet for the United States, it only began with the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when the Americans became an important ally of the Chinese. But for the Chinese or the Japanese, World War II was actually a 15-year conflict if we date it from the September 18 Incident in 1931, or an eight-year war from the Lugou Bridge Incident on July 7, 1937. However, in another sense it was a 50-year struggle dating from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 that established the status of Japan as a power in East Asia and allowed it to embark on the establishment of a colonial Western-style empire. It was victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 that led to Japan seizing Taiwan and turning it into a colony, and also laid a solid foundation for its colonization of the Korean Peninsula completed in 1910.
The importance of World War I to the Chinese people is also reflected in such a phenomenon: when lots of critics, scholars and politicians around the world discuss China, especially Sino-Japanese relations, they like to make a comparison usingWorld War I. At the Davos Forum held in Switzerland in January 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told an influential audience drawn from around the world that the current competition between China and Japan was similar to that between Germany and Britain prior to World War I. This implied that the differences between China and Japan might go beyond their close trade relations, with China playing the role of Germany. The Chinese certainly wouldn’t like to be compared to Germany in World War I. At the press conference to mark the “two sessions” in Beijing in March 2014, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that 2014 was not 1914, still less 1894, and Japan should rather learn from Germany after World War II than focus on the pre-WWI Germany. In answer to a Japanese reporter’s question about the deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations, he warned there was no room for compromise on the two issues of principle – history and territory. It seems that the diplomatic tensions between China and Japan have already been playing out in diplomacy around the globe, and everyone knows of the hostile relationship between the two countries. However, not everyone can realize that the relationship between the two countries during the First World War was even worse, which was largely caused by both the prewar and postwar situations. Therefore, current Sino-Japanese relations can be apprehended only within the historical context of the First World War. To understand the significance of the latter for today’s relations, we must be aware of what happened long ago. Moreover, we need to further review the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 because this set the scene for China and Japan to successively join World War I later.
To make clear the correlation between China and World War I and even the world, nothing is more convincing than explaining it from the perspective of the participation of Chinese laborers in World War I. The First World War was fought across Europe, bringing Western civilization to the verge of destruction. A total of 140,000 Chinese farmers were sent to France under an arrangement between the Chinese, French and British governments. This is an important chapter in the long story of East-West relations in the history of human civilization. Although these Chinese farmers, mostly illiterate, went to France mainly to make a living, they helped save Western civilization by working hard and even sacrificing their lives. After direct contact with Western civilization, their outlook on life, the world and China was changed. As a result, they made significant contributions for the Chinese nation to gradually enter the international community and for China to seek a new national identity.
However, it seems this special group has been forgotten by both Chinese and foreign academic circles for a long time. It has been removed from the historical memory of the Western world, and few Chinese people know about this group nor their magnificent achievements. This event has been buried in the dust of history. Chinese laborers are seldom mentioned in Chinese history books, studies of world history focused on military affairs and the history of exchanges between Chinese and foreign civilizations. On the gravestones of numerous Chinese laborers who died during the First World War are carved one of the four following phrases: “Advancing Bravely,” “Working with Might and Main,” “Living on in Spirit,” “Leaving a Good Name for Posterity.” Although they advanced bravely and fought with might and main on Western frontier, whether in the combat zone or in the rear, they didn’t live on in spirit or leave a good name for posterity, but were totally forgotten. Few people in their motherland remembered this special group nor praise their fine deeds. Systematic research hasn’t yet been undertaken by academic circlesin China or abroad, and the recognition of relevant governments on the contributions of these Chinese laborers was slow in coming. As early as 1925, the Beiyang Government of China asked France to set up a memorial monument for these Chinese laborers and provide survivor pensions and separation allowances for them; however, the French failed to do so for a long time on the pretext of fund shortages.
It was not until 1998 that the French government set up a memorial monument in the Chinatown in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. On the monument is written: “Commemorating the Chinese laborers and soldiers who sacrificed their lives for France duringWorld War I.” Considering that the French people had almost forgotten this splendid chapter in the history of Sino-French exchanges, French film director d’Olivier Guiton shot a documentary film titled 140,000 Chinois pour la Grande Guerre, lasting for nearly one hour, to introduce the Chinese laborers and their historical contributions, and also cover their offspringwho settled down in France. Through their stories, we can know how those Chinese laborers and their families became integrated into the French society. Only by seeing this documentary film did most ordinary French people get to know of the prominent contributions this group had made to French history. In the autumn of 2008, under the careful planning and organization of the Weihai Archives Bureau, scholars from various countries gathered in Weihai, the place of departure for many France-bound Chinese laborers, to discuss the history of these Chinese laborers. To support the holding of the First International Academic Conference on Chinese Workers in the First World War, Weihai Archives Bureau also launched a picture exhibition. In 2009, China Central Television shot a six-part documentary entitled Chinese Labour Corps, introducing the life and deeds of the Chinese laborers. Nevertheless, to this day, most people are still not very clear of the reasons behind the event and what actually happened, and what effective contribution, if any, did they make to the war effort. Equally, few understand what role they might have played in helping Chinese nation seek a new identity or gain a place in the international community? And, what position did they occupy in the history of exchanges between China and the West?
This book aims to introduce how these Chinese laborers contributed to the saving of Eastern and Western civilizations through their hard work, in the process writing a new chapter for all those who care for the process of human civilization. These Chinese laborers, though ordinary in China, created an immortal legend in the history of human civilization. Their lives were undoubtedly closely related to the future of China and the world. In the eyes of many, the 140,000 Chinese laborers arriving in France were just coolies. In Europe, they suffered intensely, but spared no efforts to bring meaning to their sacrifice. Perhaps the main purpose was simply to make a living however, in a broad sense, they were doing it for China and the world at large. Although they didn’t cherish any ambition to create history, they pioneered the way for succeeding generations of China to enter the international community and make history. Because of their existence and their epic experience, Chinese diplomats could claim justice for China from the international community. Thanks to the continuous replenishment of Chinese laborers, Britain and France could gain some relief from worries over lack of human resources. During World War I, China was lucky. Despite the poverty and weakness, as well as many internal and external problems, there were still foresighted people putting forward the strategy of “sending laborers instead of soldiers,” and hard-working farmers who bore hardships without complaint. They combined to compose a brilliant chapter of exchanges between China and the West during World War I so that Europe could see the performance of Chinese laborers and the world could understand the endurance and wisdom of the inexorable Chinese nation, summed up by the saying, “Your bodies and names will perish, but the river will flow on forever.”
This book will detail their hard work and strength as well as their romance – wearing a Swiss watch, sunglasses, a gentleman’s hat and army uniforms of various countries, acquiring a French girlfriend, and even standing up to American soldiers who bullied them. WWI Chinese laborers and even Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and other CPC leaders, who went to study in Europe, were pioneers, but their stories are still of far-reaching significance. We can probe China’s international history and Chinese civilians’ participation and contributions in the course of their country’s internationalization through the experience and stories of the Chinese laborers inWorld War I. Moreover, through their association and close contacts with the peoples in other parts of the world and Chinese elites, this book analyzes the status of Chinese people in the international community and tries to answer the question – “What is China and Chineseness,” a question jointly discussed by the Chinese and the peoples of other countries in the past century.
In summary, this book tells the stories of these Chinese laborers against a backdrop of exchanges between civilizations and the struggles of the Chinese people to enter and become equal members of the international community in order to contribute to the revival of the Chinese nation and promote world peace. Their history belongs to the world. Today, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War with the peoples of other countries. The fact that China Intercontinental Press is publishing this book is of great significance. We hope to remind people of these Chinese laborers and cherish the history created by them. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the First World War, I hope this book will reveal a distinguished aspect of Chinese history to all readers, helping them understand the Chinese history during World War I and especially WWI’s impact on modern China. If this book can inspire readers to think deeply and answer the questions – “What is China and Chineseness” as discussed ever since the May 4th Movement in 1919 – this author will feel deeply honored.

Long Journey for Civilization: Stories of Chinese Laborers on the Western Front in WWI