Jonathan Spence
The Search for Modern China

Although there was no historical precedent for China's taking an active role in global events far from its shores, it fell to Duan to inaugurate a new era of overseas involvement. He and his advisers were intrigued by the possibilities of joining France and Britain in their fight against Germany, arguing that if Germany were defeated, then the strategically important German concession areas in Shandong province around Qingdao could be reclaimed by China. Duan was further pressured toward an anti-German declaration from two directions. One was from the United States, which in early 1917 was preparing to enter the war in response to German submarine attacks against neutral shipping in the Atlantic; the other was from the Japanese, who had abandoned various attempts to encourage separatist regimes in Manchuria, Mongolia, and southern China, and had decided to try to bribe Duan Qirui's regime into recognizing Japan's standing in north China at Germany's expense.

China's military strength was trivial compared to that of the European belligerents or of the United States, which had entered the war on the side of Britain and France in April 1917, but China had one crucial resource that the Allies lacked—namely, manpower. The slaughter in the European battlefields had been terrible: the British and French had lost over 600,000 men at the Battle of the Somme alone in 1916, and the following year the British lost 250,000 more at the Battle of Ypres. In constant need of new men for the front, the Allies realized that if Chinese laborers could be used on the docks and on construction projects in Western Europe, it would free more European males for active combat.

Pursuing this harsh but accurate line of reasoning, the British and French had begun to negotiate with the Chinese as early as the summer of 1916. Well before the Chinese declaration of war, the result was the establishment of a processing plant for Chinese laborers in Shandong province, near the British naval base of Weihaiwei, with a second one added later at the port of Qingdao. Sarcastically referred to by the British as their 'sausage machine,' the processing system worked swiftly and smoothly. There were tens of thousands of Chinese volunteers, driven by the poverty of the region and China's political uncertainties, and lured by the generosity of the wages offered by the British. Each volunteer received an embarkation fee of 20 Chinese dollars, followed by l0 dollars a month to be paid over to his family in China; the volunteers were provided with clothing and meals as well. The Chinese were given medical examinations and checked specifically for trachoma (a contagious viral disease of the eyelids, especially common in Shandong), tuberculosis, and venereal disease. If accepted—and about 100,000 made it through the screening—they were issued dog tags with serial numbers, which were sealed with metal rivets on bands around their wrists. Then they were sprayed from head to foot with disinfectant and urged to remove their queues, which many had chosen to keep despite the revolution in 1911.

An initial boatload of Chinese laborers, traveling across the Indian ocean and through the Suez Canal in 1916 on contract to the French government, had been sunk by German submarines in the Mediterranean; 543 Chinese lives were lost. New recruits were thereafter shipped over the Pacific to Canada, across Canada by train, and then reshipped in fleets accompanied by antisubmarine patrols for the final journey across the Atlantic. Although their employment had been protested by many French and British, particularly by labor-union members, the Chinese were soon at work, most of them in northern France. They were given such tasks as unloading military cargoes at the docks, building barracks and hospitals, digging trenches, and handling ammunition in the railway marshaling yards. They worked ten-hour days, seven days a week, with some time off allowed at the traditional Chinese festivals. The Chinese laborers remained nonbelligerents even after China's declaration of war, since there was no way Duan's regime could finance an army in Europe.

The presence of so many Chinese men in France—54,000 by late 1917, 96,000 by late 1918—brought both dangers and opportunities. Some of their camps were bombed by German planes or shelled, and on occasion they retaliated for their dead comrades by killing German prisoners of war. Some Chinese were blown up by unexploded mines or shells when cleaning battlefields or digging trenches. Many fell ill from the strange diet and the intense damp and cold, and on occasion they mutinied against their French and British employers or ransacked local restaurants in search of food. Sample sentences from a Chinese phrase book prepared by the British army for use by its staff in the camps hint at the levels of irritation or discrimination the Chinese labor corps experienced: 'I want eight men to go over there quickly.' 'Why don't you eat this food?' 'The inside of this tent is not very clean.' 'You must have a bath tomorrow.' 'This latrine is reserved for Europeans and is not available to Chinese.'

The most significant response to the bleak conditions came from representatives of the YMCA, who saw here a major opportunity for service. They focused especially on recreational activities and on problems of public education among the Chinese, designing special vocabularies and teaching techniques to spread literacy among the workers. Astonishingly, with the aid of such educated Chinese staff, as many as 50,000 letters a month were mailed from France to China, where they were read and reread aloud to the villagers. Brief, simple in vocabulary, and censored for military secrets by the Allies, these letters are nevertheless important signs of the growing literacy becoming possible for Chinese workers. One surviving letter ran as follows:
For the inspection of my elder brother. I have come many ten thousand li since I saw you. I am doing well and you need not have anxiety about me. I am earning three francs per day, but as living is expensive I cannot send many home yet. As to my quarrelling with you, that day at Yaowan, before I left, forget it! I did unworthily. Please take care of our parents and when I return in three or five years, I will bring enough money to help support them the rest of their days.
The Chinese contribution to the war was not without its cost. In addition to the 543 lost at sea, almost 2,000 Chinese workers died in France and Flanders, and were laid to rest in a number of special cemeteries. There the long lines of gravestones, each neatly incised with the characters of their Chinese names and the serial numbers given to them by their Western employers, still bear mute testimony to China's first involvement in such a global conflict. More complex was the legacy of the tens of thousands of workers when they returned to China, literate and wise in the ways of the world, often with a decent balance of cash stored up safely with their families. They would be in a position to play a new kind of active role in Chinese politics, as some Chinese socialists observed.

After the armistice of November 11, 1918, ended the war with Germany's defeat, anticipation in China ran high. There were triumphant parades in Peking, and an exuberant crowd demolished the memorial that the Qing had been forced to raise in honor of the Germans killed by the Boxers. The Peking government was now headed by yet another Beiyang-faction president and premier; Duan Qirui had resigned in October 1918, but before doing so had used the huge Japanese loans to enhance his own military power and had continued to build a network of secret deals with the Japanese. The Chinese delegation to the postwar treaty negotiations at Versailles, sixty-two members strong, was headed by five capable diplomats who had never been fully briefed on what to expect. They were greeted at Versailles by the shattering announcement of the chief Japanese delegate that early in 1917, in return for Japanese naval assistance against the Germans, Great Britain, France, and Italy had signed a secret treaty ensuring 'support [of] Japan's claims in regard to the disposal of Germany's rights in Shandong' after the war.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.