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Chinese laborers' contribution in WWI helps shape Europe: Expert


The great contribution by Chinese laborers during World War I, largely neglected over the past century, essentially helped shape Europe, said a renowned China expert.

XinhuaUpdated: November 14, 2018

The great contribution by Chinese laborers during World War I, largely neglected over the past century, essentially helped shape Europe, said a renowned China expert.

A pedestrian views a bronze statue to commemorate Chinese workers in the First World War in Paris, France, on Sept. 20, 2018. [Photo/Xinhua]

Frances Wood, former Curator of the Chinese collections at the British Library, said the Great War could have been lost due to a grave shortage of manpower from the Allies, especially France and Britain, if the vast army of Chinese laborers did not enter Europe.

"I think we should take very seriously the comments that were made around the time they were first recruited. It was that European leaders like (Winston) Churchill were convinced that the war was going to be lost if we couldn't get more manpower," Wood told Xinhua in an interview.

"The Chinese Labor Corps supplied the manpower, kept the war machine going, and the war was eventually won. There is the Chinese completely forgotten," said Wood, co-author of book Betrayed Ally, China in the Great War published in 2016.

In 1916, China sent an army of some 140,000 laborers across half the world to Europe to repair vehicles, build roads and railways and dig trenches on the bloody western front. At least 5,000, perhaps as many as 10,000 lost their lives, some at sea during the tumultuous journey, and most were buried thousands of miles from their homes, according to Wood's book.

"(Their role was) absolutely essential. You can't have a war that is just men with guns. You've got the whole of the back administration, and I think without the Chinese Labor Corps I think it is quite likely the war would have been lost in 1916," said Wood, whose grandfather fought in the war as a member of the new Royal Air Force.

Even after the war, some Chinese laborers stayed on to clean up the war-torn battlefields, remove dead bodies and dispose of mines, and help with post-war reconstruction.

The reason the Chinese Labor Corps was largely forgotten is due to the desire to "glorify the heroes," the soldiers in the war, said Wood.

"It's a nasty, narrow consequence of wars, the glorification of a soldier, and people not thinking that war is absolutely much more complicated, war is about more than man with a gun," Wood said.

Chinese laborers weren't the only ones ignored. The entire role of China in the Great War has been largely belittled by history, Wood said.

One of the first battles of that war was fought on Chinese soil as the Japanese armed forces invaded the Chinese province of Shandong in 1914, long leased to Germany, noted Wood.

But despite China being on the winning side of the war, Shandong was handed straight to Japan at Versailles in 1918, a move so humiliating to China that it led to the eruption of the patriotic May Fourth Movement in 1919, a turning point in contemporary Chinese history.

"This was the moment when Chinese people really felt they were citizens of the world who had been badly treated, and they needed a way to strengthen themselves, to move forward, to become a modern state," Wood said.

In her opinion, these events of bitterness and humiliation were of momentous significance to China in its development as a major power and formed the background to China's sense of its place in the world.

Wood noted that while commemorating WWI, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed building a community of shared future for mankind, a perspective that treasures peace instead of confrontation.

"The First World War was pointless slaughter," Wood said, "so I think in the wake of that to discuss peace, it's terribly obvious that no country should ever lose that sort of number of young people for nothing."