Chinese workers in the Great War

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was pleased on Saturday to return to the Société littéraire de Liverpool (founded in the 1890s, and still meeting regularly) to talk about my research on the role of Chinese workers in France during the First World War. I will be interested to see how much this aspect of the conflict – ‘ce qui fut, après les exécutions des soldats du Chemin des Dames, le second fait inavouable de la guerre 1914-1918’, according to Michel Cournot – will be evident in the commemorations of the centenary of the war that begin next year.[1] I first came across accounts of these workers via my research on Victor Segalen – although they were not discussed in detail in much of the previous scholarship on Segalen, the poet’s last trip to China in 1917, shortly before his death in 1919, was to serve as the doctor for one of the French recruitment missions. Over 140,000 Chinese volunteers were employed by the French and British to dig trenches, carry ammunition, serve as medical auxiliaries and perform all manner of manual duties at the Front. When the conflict was over, a number of stayed on to clear mines, bury corpses and contribute to the task of rebuilding France. About 3,000 remained in France, with many settling in the vicinity of the Gare de Lyon in Paris and working in the car factories the numbers of which grew rapidly in interwar France. The Chinese community in the capital is now concentrated in the thirteenth arrondissement, but a plaque in the îlot Chalon is a reminder that this site remains an important lieu de mémoire for the Chinese community in France. The lives of these early workers are beginning to attract the attention they deserve, and Gregor Benton has described how several of them joined the international brigades in the Spanish Civil War.[2] Travel stories that reveal the complex itineraries by which diasporic communities evolve…

After decades of silence, the slim 1939 volume Les Travailleurs chinois et la Grande Guerre  by Pên-chung Wu has recently been supplemented by two substantial studies, Strangers on the Western Front by Xu Guoqui (2011), and Les Travailleurs chinois en France dans la Première Guerre mondiale, a collection of essays gathered by Li Ma.[3] These new histories are recounting processes of recruitment, the journeys to France, working conditions and the hostility with which the Chinese were often met in France. These stories linked, inevitably, in part to language, not least because the workers’ access to interpreters was often wholly inadequate. Some officers were Chinese speakers, and translation services were offered by groups such as the YMCA. But the cultural isolation of the workers was often accentuated by their linguistic exclusion, and it is clear that the lack of interpreters led to orders being misunderstood and was linked on occasion to miscarriages of justice. An eloquent historical example of the importance of understanding the role of languages in the field of war.

AnfieldTo talk about the Chinese Labour Corps in Liverpool has an additional dimension worthy of note. In Anfield cemetery are the CWGC graves of five Chinese workers who died in the city in 1918 and 1919 – KUO CH’ING SHAN (died 06/06/1917), SUN CHEN SHENG (died 03/09/1917), FAN CHUAN SHENG (died 25/01/1918), KUO TE HSIANG (died 06/07/1918) and LAN FUNE SHENG (died 09/08/1918). Little is known about these men’s lives or the manner of their deaths, but their presence on Merseyside is a reminder of the global impact of the First World War and of the entangled personal itineraries of those involved in the conflict.


[1]              See Michel Cournot, ‘Victor Segalen, poète de la Chine’, Le Monde, 1 January 1999.

[2]              See Gregor Benton, Chinese Migrants and Internationalism: Forgotten Histories, 1917-1945 (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

[3]              See Pên-chung Wu, Les Travailleurs chinois et la Grande Guerre  (Paris: Pédone, 1939), Xu Guoqui, Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), and Li Ma (ed.), Les Travailleurs chinois en France dans la Première Guerre mondiale (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2012).


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