News / Asia

China's WW I Effort Draws New Attention

Members of the Chinese Labour Corps move munitions during World War I
Members of the Chinese Labour Corps move munitions during World War I

World War I drew in people from around the world, including 140,000 Chinese workers who served on the Western Front. A new museum exhibition in Flanders, Belgium, highlights China's role in the war. It appears the curators have had to cancel plans to take it to China.

The little known story of the 140,000 Chinese who served on the Western Front during WW I has drawn new interest in recent years.

The Toiling for War exhibition at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium, is the first to detail the pivotal Chinese involvement in the conflict.

Forgotten story

Dominiek Dendooven is the assistant curator and researcher at the museum. He helped put together the exhibition and says it is time for the world to recognize China's war effort - and how the conflict has shaped modern China.

"For decades the story of the Chinese labor cause was entirely forgotten," he said. "But in the last decade, the last five years actually, you see that all over the world people are getting an interest in it, this common history that we share."

The Chinese laborers buried the dead, dug trenches, worked in munitions factories and cleaned up the shells, grenades and bullets after the November 11, 1918 armistice.

One hundred thousand served in the British Chinese Labor Corps between 1917 and 1919, and each received a medal for his service. About 40,000 others served with the French forces, and hundreds of Chinese students served as translators.

Plan A

Originally, the Ypres museum planned to take the exhibition to China in November for five months. But Dendooven says Chinese officials did not guarantee that the exhibition would not be altered, so tour is to be canceled.

"We know the context of the story. So as just to keep the history coherent, it is one of our wishes that we have a say in how the exhibition will be organized in China," he explained.

One historical controversy is the number who died in the war. Some Chinese scholars say the number was as high as 20,000. But records kept by the British and French recruiters show just under 2,000 lost their lives, many from the flu pandemic that swept the world starting in 1919.

Many historians and academics say China's role prevented a German victory, such was the allies' manpower shortage toward the end of the war.

Costly sacrifice

For the laborers, the war was a way to make far more money than they could at home. But their sacrifice became a pivotal point in Chinese history.

After the armistice, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles saw Germany's concession ports in China handed to Japan, despite China's objections. Unhappiness over the treaty led to the May 4 protest movement, which is seen as contributing to the eventual rise of the Communist Party, which has ruled China since 1949.

Years of internal bloodshed, invasion, civil war and revolution all have close links to WW I and the resulting peace treaties.

Brilliant strategy

Xu Guoqi is a professor of history at the University of Hong Kong. His book, Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War, will be published this year. He says that sending as Chinese laborers to the front was a brilliant strategy to link China with the West.

And he underscores the link between the war and the founding of China's Communist Party. During the war, the young interpreters drew up education plans in spare moments away from the dangerous toil on the battlefields. As a result nearly two-thirds of the laborers returned home able to read. He says that effort inspired the men who went on to lead the Communist Party.

"The book status group of Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiopang and many others got involved. We literally followed the footprint of Chinese workers in Europe during the first World War," he said. "In other words, the Communist party of Deng Xiaoping and Chou En Lai and many others who became the work study students of that time, they played a very important role in Communist China. But we literally followed the footprint of this group. Mao Zedong himself payed attention to this group."

The exhibition also addresses the way the Chinese were treated once the guns fell silent.

The laborers were made scapegoats by Belgian refugees returning to their shattered homes. The Belgian government soon ordered the Chinese out of country.

Many of the Chinese laborers were recruited from the British and French concession ports in Shandong Province.

Rediscovering history

Researcher Zhang Yan from Shandong University in Weihai has been commissioned to locate relatives of those who served on the Western Front to help China rediscover an important part of its history.

He will accompany some of the relatives at a special ceremony in The Belgium Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo on Friday, September 24.

In May, he traveled to Flanders and the Western Front.

During the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate memorial to the allied war dead, he read out the names of 13 Chinese killed during a German air raid in 1918.

Zhang says the trip to Europe was very moving for him.

He says to pay respect to the Chinese dead and to let their descendants know of their relatives' fate is an important way for the Chinese to find out more about their WW I history and how it has shaped modern China.

You May Like

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land In French Port

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching 'Fortress Europe' More

Video Westgate Mall Attack Survivors Confront Painful Memories

On anniversary of terror attack, survivors discuss how they have coped with trauma they experienced that day More

New Hints That Dark Matter Exists

New evidence from International Space Station hints at existence of dark matter and dark energy More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calaisi
X
Lisa Bryant
September 19, 2014 5:04 PM
The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video CERN Accelerator Back in Business

The long upgrade of the Large Hadron Collider is over. The scientific instrument responsible for the discovery of the Higgs boson -- the so-called "God particle" -- is being brought up to speed in time for this month's 60th anniversary of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym CERN. Physicists hope the accelerator will help them uncover more secrets about the origins of the universe. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctions

A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Belgian Researchers Discover Way to Block Cancer Metastasis

Cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases, despite many new methods to combat it. Modern medicine has treatments to prevent the growth of primary tumor cells. But most cancer deaths are caused by metastasis, the stage when primary tumor cells change and move to other parts of the body. A team of Belgian scientists says it has found a way to prevent that process. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Mogadishu's Flood of Foreign Workers Leaves Somalis Out of Work

Unemployment and conflict has forced many young Somalians out of the country in search of a better life. But a newfound stability in the once-lawless nation has created hope — and jobs — which, some say, are too often being filled by foreigners. Abdulaziz Billow reports from Mogadishu.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid