Echoes of conflict

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am

Neck hairs tingle to attention as a quartet of buglers sounds the nightly Last Post at the imposing Menin Gate cenotaph, in Ypres, Belgium. As the haunting notes echo through the mausoleum - as they have done every night since the ceremony began in 1928 (with the exception of the second-world-war years) - the horror of what happened on the nearby Flanders Fields during the first world war crystallises in the imagination. Several of the 300 or so remembrance tourists present dab their eyes with tissues as they observe the ritual two minutes' silence.

Then, exiting, some stop to read again the names, ranks and regiments of the young men who paid the ultimate price but have no grave. The names of soldiers from Britain and her Commonwealth are listed on the white granite panels of the memorial; Indian names engraved on the southwest pillar, surnames from South Africa, the West Indies and other far- flung nations elsewhere.

Missing, though, are Chinese names.

It's a little-known fact that 140,000 Chinese served on the Western Front between 1917 and 1919, shoring up and digging trenches, burying the dead (Chinese labourers buried German flying ace the Red Baron), working in munitions factories and cleaning up the shells, grenades and bullets after the November 11, 1918 armistice - the day the guns fell silent. In one incident, 500 Chinese drowned on their way to the Western Front. The French ship transporting them was sunk by a German torpedo.

With the Allies facing a severe manpower shortage after three years of fighting, the French and British launched recruitment drives in their concession ports in China, most of which were in Shandong province. Many signed up in British-run Weihaiwai (Weihai), which was also known as Port Edward.

The French recruited 40,000 Chinese peasants and interpreters as a rag-tag legion of basic workers but the British formed the 100,000-strong Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) and ran it along military lines. With a promise of higher pay than their Shandong fields could ever yield - plus a guarantee they wouldn't work in danger zones - tens of thousands of Chinese peasants lined up to board crowded ships bound for Europe via the Pacific, North America (which was traversed by train) and the Atlantic.

'It was told tonight in the mess that the coolies do not know and do not question where they are going,' recorded Daryl Klein, a second lieutenant in the CLC in January 1918. 'Having been assured that they are not going into action on the Western Front, they set out lightheartedly, as men on some fine adventure, not caring about their destination so long as they are fed and clothed,' he wrote in his notes.

British and Commonwealth officers worked with the CLC through interpreters, drawn from the fledgling Republic of China's (ROC) brightest intellectuals and university academics.

Each member of the CLC was awarded a medal after the war, engraved with the profile of King George VI and their personal multidigit military number.

While serving, half their pay was given directly to their families. Even though mass illiteracy among the ranks and the use of only a few family names gave the British army's pay corps a headache - many recruits didn't even know their address - records show the money was always delivered to grateful relatives.

But the war meant more to China than being just a moneyspinner for opportunist farmers. It had political importance for the new republic, which had been founded three years before the outbreak of hostilities. The Chinese government was eager to get a foothold on the world stage.

After a confusing period of hesitation amid the chaotic swapping of leaders, Germany was finally declared an enemy of China and the pragmatic politicians, led by Li Yuanhong, signed off on their first act of foreign diplomacy, allowing their countrymen to serve in Europe. Furthermore, the Chinese believed that, once the conflict was over, the German colonial concessions seized by the Japanese at the outbreak of war would be returned to the motherland.

Seven months after the armistice, in June 1919, the global powers sat down in Versailles, France, to dismantle the German empire and redraw the world map. The ROC's fragile confidence and ambitions were dealt a humiliating blow at the meeting. Five Chinese delegates were given only two chairs at the far end of the long table - and they were forced to sit and stand opposite their five Japanese counterparts, each of whom was given a seat. Worse, Article 156 of the treaty gave Germany's Chinese interests to Japan.

This carve up of their country and lack of acknowledgement for their war effort saw the Chinese refuse to sign the treaty and sparked anger at home.

Jonathan Fenby, author of The Penguin History of Modern China (and former editor of the South China Morning Post), says the nation felt it was owed a debt of gratitude.

'So its anger was great when it found that, under a secret pact, the Allies had agreed with Japan - as the price of its alliance, which never involved it in any actual fighting - to hand over Germany's former concessions in China to the empire in Tokyo,' he says.

The Allies' deceit and the perceived weak diplomacy skills of the Chinese government led to the pivotal May Fourth Movement and protests calling for modernisation and assertiveness on the international stage. Many maintained the treaty was designed by the West to contain China - a similar accusation to those often heard in the corridors of power in Beijing and in the bellicose nationalistic state media today.

Undoubtedly, the Versailles treaty paved the way for the years of turmoil and bloodshed that lay ahead.

Now, the long-held bitterness over historical events borne out of a world locked in a war of attrition almost a century ago is being addressed in a methodical and arresting way. In April, the 'Toiling for War' exhibition at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, opened to the public - it was the world's first detailed account of the Chinese war effort.

In May, academics and historians from China and Europe attended a conference held jointly in France and Belgium to discuss the subject - a follow up from a mini-summit in Shandong in 2008.

Later that month, the first official Chinese remembrance tourists attended the Menin Gate Last Post ceremony. Researcher Zhang Yan - who is compiling records on those who served - read out under the arch the names of 13 Chinese labourers killed on the outskirts of Ypres by a German air raid in 1918.

Zhang has a hard task. Records are scant as many official documents were destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Only one personal, detailed account by a Chinese national who served in the trenches is known to exist.

Gu Xingqing was an interpreter. Written in the late 1930s in his native Shanghai, his memoirs draw comparisons with the then current Japanese invasion and the horrors he witnessed in Flanders two decades previously. He called on his countrymen to show the same resilience they had shown on the Western Front - and to match the bravery against the Japanese army that he witnessed in British and French soldiers when they charged to their deaths across no man's land.

Gu's compelling autobiography was translated from Chinese into Dutch by the Ypres museum for the exhibition. There are plans for an English version.

The Weihai Municipal Archives bureau has published a bilingual pictorial account of the sons of Shandong heading off to war and relatives of some of the labourers are set to make an appearance at the Belgian pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo on Friday.

Xu Guoqi, a professor of history at the University of Hong Kong, is an expert on the subject. In his seminal book, Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War, which is to be published this year, he claims the sending of the 'Chinese labourers as soldiers' - Xu argues the mainland's involvement was a military one because the labourers were an integral part of the war effort - was 'a brilliant strategy to link China with the West'. And, he argues, China rescued Britain, France and Belgium from German domination as the Allies staved off a shortfall of human resources with their Chinese recruits. He is keen to underscore the link between the war and the founding of the Communist Party and the revolution of 1949.

'Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping travelled to France with the Works Studies Group in 1919 and were greatly inspired by the labourers, as was Mao Zedong,' he says.

Thanks to CLC interpreters, who drew up education timetables in between bouts of dangerous toil on the battlefields, nearly two-thirds of the labourers who returned home did so able to read.

Gregory James, of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, is producing the first known record of all the Chinese war dead buried in British and Commonwealth graves. His Roll of Honour of the CLC; a work in progress is a thick, red-bound volume of names and grave locations and was an integral part of the exhibition.

The big push to recognise China's first-world-war role on home soil, however, has stalled. The exhibition was due to go on display at Beijing's Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution in the autumn and then on show in Shandong. But the exhibit's curators, Western academics and Chinese government heritage officials are in dispute over who should write history. And, with the retelling of Chinese history spawning a booming, multimillion-dollar industry, the egos of the first world war and China experts have clashed, as they accuse each other of cashing in on the dead.

It's August 15 AND Dominiek Dendooven, assistant curator and researcher at the In Flanders Fields Museum, is touring his Chinese exposition on the final day of its five months in Ypres, pointing out the numerous artefacts that illustrate the story of China and 'the Great War'.

'It's the right moment to tell the story of the Chinese labourers. For decades, their story was forgotten but in the last few years, people all over the world have become interested in it,' he says.

This is partly due to the rise of China economically and the West rediscovering the country, he says, adding: 'But it's mainly the desire to explore the common history we share.'

A black-and-white film on loan from the Imperial War Museum in London flickers on a screen in the 'Trip to Europe' section of the museum. Grainy scenes show young Chinese labourers dressed in work overalls and straw hats disembarking from ships with kit bags, nervously giggling, smiling and joshing with each other for the camera with an air of innocent wonder.

Among the artefacts is Chinese trench art - spent brass artillery shell casings elegantly engraved with Chinese landscape scenes and characters.

War poets such as Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and John McCrae were not the only ones moved to words as they lay among the dead and dying, cowering in the mud with the rats. The Chinese wrote poems and verses on their objets d'art, expressing their homesickness or affection for a loved one.

A slew of Chinese officials visited the exhibition and the artefacts were to be carefully boxed up and slapped with 'Fragile' warnings and a forwarding Beijing address. But as history perpetually proves, even the best-laid plans can be suddenly scuppered.

Dendooven and the other Belgian curators want to maintain control over the exhibition in China, to ensure their historical records are not airbrushed out, exaggerated, used for propaganda, or other- wise misrepresented.

'We are concerned the Chinese will change some facts and use this exhibition in their own way,' he says. 'We have to be sure this will not happen before we let it go to China.'

Philip Vanhaelemeersch, co-curator of the exhibition, says: 'I am working on translations of two more eyewitness accounts of the war. One by a teacher from Zibo [in Shandong], who studied the French elementary education system while working in France, and another by an illiterate labourer. All these materials were provided to me by the Weihai Municipal Archives on the understanding that they help save the story of the CLC not only from oblivion, but also from mythification.'

Dendooven has asked Chinese officials for guarantees that the exhibition won't be misrepresented.

'The Chinese have yet to agree to our quality control,' he says. 'We are still negotiating with them and believe it is important the exhibition goes on display there. But changes to the historical records we have compiled are a worry. We know this story better than anyone.'

Dendooven also wants assurances that all the exhibits - including the footage from the Imperial War Museum and trench art on loan from private collectors - will be returned.

'Everything is now [up to the Chinese] State Administration of Cultural Heritage and we are waiting for their green light,' he says. 'In July, the Chinese side spoke about running the exhibition between November and March. But I still haven't heard anything from them, and, if I haven't heard anything from them by the end of this month, I'll return all the items to their owners.'

One part of the story causing disagreement is the number of Chinese dead. Several Chinese historical texts put the number between 20,000 and 50,000 but this is strongly disputed by European historians.

James puts the number killed as a direct result of being involved in the conflict at just under 2,000, many of whom died from exhaustion and the Spanish Flu pandemic that swept the labourers' tented cities in 1919. Most are buried in British war cemeteries scattered across the Western Front, including the dedicated Chinese cemetery in Noyelles-sur-Mer, in France.

'How could 50,000 - or 30,000, or 20,000, depending on the Chinese source - get killed and no one notice? The embarkation figures on the records of the return ships give the lie to such absurd figures,' James says. 'The Chinese figures are imaginary and based on the assumption that no records were kept in Europe, or what were, had not survived.

'In 1993, the files were opened and the truth became clear. That hasn't stopped the Chinese persisting in their nonsensical claims.'

Peiqi Mao, a professor of history at Beijing's Renmin University - who attended the May conference - says concerns the exhibition will be manipulated are unfounded.

'The process of China becoming a country that's equal to the rest of the world is a very important one,' he says. 'This research and recognition of Chinese workers going to Europe to help with the war effort is part of this process. It is important the exhibition does come to China. If the attitude of the [Western] curators is positive, I don't think there will be a problem.'

But the controversy does not end there. Not all Chinese academics are happy with the way the West has approached the sensitive subject.

Xu claims the story of the Chinese labourers is being commercialised for profit.

'I visited the Belgian exhibition,' he says. 'The Belgian side did not have anything to offer [from the war]. Belgium is trying to commercialise it. Of course, it is a good idea for them to commemorate the Chinese contribution to the war but I think they are trying to cash in on this for tourism purposes and to gain better relations with China.'

Xu claims Belgium still harbours guilt about the way it treated the Chinese after the armistice.

'I find Mr Xu's comments about us cashing in strange and am shocked by them,' says Dendooven, who says he has shared all his research findings with his Chinese peers. 'We are a not-for-profit museum. But he's right about how the Chinese were treated by locals after the armistice.'

Returning refugees to the Flemish medieval market town of Ypres and other Flanders' communities came home to a shattered, lunar-like landscape populated by thousands of 'strange Chinese', he says, pointing out black-and-white pictures of the decimated scenes.

'There were no buildings or trees. There were ruins and dead bodies everywhere,' he says. 'The locals then came across this strange army of men, who were equally in shock.'

There was a clash of cultures during the months of anarchy after the armistice. The Chinese were singled out for blame. Many were accused of criminal offences and became scapegoats.

'It's a fact the Chinese were not treated well and this has to do with the nature of war,' he says.

The Brussels government soon ordered the Chinese out of Belgium. Most had returned home by 1920, although 3,000 stayed in France.

Yes, agrees Dendooven, the exhibition is about recognising and shedding light on the Chinese who served in France and Belgium but it also serves as a programme of truth and reconciliation for the people of Flanders Fields.

'One of the purposes of this exhibition is to set right the local population's wartime image of the Chinese,' he says. 'It's about time, after nearly 100 years, to correct this, and make known other facts about the contribution of Chinese in the war.'

Chinese officials reviewing the planned exhibition say they don't wish to discuss the matter, offering only the formulaic reply that the matter is being dealt with by the 'relevant authorities'.

'I can't prevent the [Chinese] authorities, provincial or national, taking advantage of the renewed interest in this forgotten part of our mutual history, but we do want a say in quality control,' Dendooven says. 'I think it's a good idea to use our shared history in order to work together. We ought to learn from the past. I think we owe a debt to the Chinese labourers and this feeling is shared by others.'

Dendooven pauses by a plan showing who sat where when the Treaty of Versailles was drawn up. He taps the glass to show where the humbled Chinese stood and the satisfied Japanese sat.

Does he think the engravers should be recalled to the Menin Gate and other cenotaphs to inscribe the names of the missing Chinese alongside those of the unburied 409,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers?

Dendooven makes a shrug with outstretched arms that says: 'Of course!'

'But this work about China and the Great War has only just started. There's much more to be done.'

Additional research by Rebecca Valli