- Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War
In Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War, Xu Guoqi provides the first comprehensive history of the roughly 140,000 Chinese laborers who worked in France during the First World War. Xu has two interrelated aims in writing this important but neglected chapter of the Great War. First Xu reveals that the exigencies of war and political pressures led both European and Chinese governments to cover up the role played by the Chinese workforce, predominantly young illiterate peasants from Shandong province. The British government, for instance, hushed up media reports on the use of Chinese laborers to placate British labor, which feared that Chinese laborers would undercut their jobs and wages in the postwar period. China, too, minimized its role in the "laborers as soldiers" program, because it was technically a neutral nation until 1917. To redress the lack of recognition accorded to the laborers, the author highlights their experiences, sacrifices, and contributions while arguing that their labor "greatly strengthened the Allies' front and support industries" (p. 229). Xu's second, and more ambitious, goal is to demonstrate how the laborers' experience abroad shaped their own national identity and that of Chinese elites. Building on William C. Kirby's positive appraisal of Chinese diplomacy during the Republican era (The China Quarterly, June 1997, p. 436) and his own work, China and the Great War: China's Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalization (2005), Xu adopts the concept of "progressive internationalization," defined as the promotion of China's interests in the world arena. China's elites and government initiated the "laborers as soldiers" program and contributed to the war in an effort to join the postwar peace process, regain territory lost to Japan, and gain international acceptance.
Facing severe labor shortages after the devastating Battle of the Somme, French and British military authorities competed against one another to recruit Chinese labor, with Britain coming out ahead because of its greater tonnage capacity. (More than 94,000 Chinese men arrived in France under British auspices [p. 49].) Its late entry into the war and scramble to find sufficient manpower led the American Expeditionary Forces to borrow more than 11,500 Chinese laborers from France. At the heart of the book, in chapters 2-7, Xu uses a wide array of archival records and private collections to document the difficult transit to Europe, laborers' work experience and daily lives in [End Page 462] France, as well as the treatment and racial/racist perceptions of the French, British, and American officers toward the Chinese laborers.
In chapter 3, Xu reveals the "hidden history"—the transcontinental voyage that more than 84,000 laborers took between March 1917 and March 1918 from the eastern coast of Canada to Vancouver before awaiting shipment across the Atlantic. In compliance with British government requests to maintain the secrecy of the transport program, Canadian officials censored the press from reporting the passage, spied on Chinese communities in Canada, and prohibited Chinese from leaving the trains. Echoing conditions on the transpacific shipping route to Canada, the four-thousand-mile train trip forced the Chinese to be "herded like so much cattle in cars, forbidden to leave the train and guarded like criminals" (p. 79). Chapter 4 documents the dangerous work undertaken by the Chinese laborers. British military supervisors often disregarded contractual terms and forced the laborers to dig trenches near the front. The author estimates that some three thousand laborers lost their lives in France, many from shelling and bombardment. By contrast, French military authorities, who Xu suggests were more humane than their British or American counterparts, allowed the Chinese to work in munitions factories, road construction, hauling, and transport outside the danger zones. But even the French began to assign Chinese workers to military zones once China joined the war in 1917.
A unifying theme of these chapters is the lack of recognition for the Chinese sacrifices and heroism. Perhaps the most telling...