Neutral up until August 1917 and far from the carnage of Europe, China had a relatively quiet First World War. Its limited involvement in the conflict consisted chiefly of two episodes: the sending of Chinese labourers to France and Russia; and the 1914 battle at the German enclave of Tsingtao (Qingdao) on the Shandong Peninsula (in addition, there was political fallout over when the 1919 Treaty of Versailles awarded the former German territory to the Japanese).

In this two-part series for Lost Laowai I’ll give background on these two events and look at two books written by participants in China’s First World War. First, we turn to the story of the Chinese labourers.

Men of the Chinese Labour Corps load sacks of oats onto a lorry at Boulogne while supervised by a British officer (12 August 1917) -
Men of the Chinese Labour Corps load sacks of oats onto a lorry at Boulogne while supervised by a British officer (12 August 1917) –

Starting in 1916, China allowed around 140,000 labourers to be recruited for service in France and Belgium. The labourers were volunteers, mostly poor farmers attracted by high pay.

An even greater number (perhaps 200,000) of Chinese labourers were recruited to work in Tsarist Russia. Whereas the workers in Western Europe had contracts and were under the management of the British and French authorities, the labourers who went to Russia were hired by private companies and individuals. Conditions were terrible and only became worse as Russia descended into the chaos of revolution and civil war. According to Mark O’Neill, author of From the Tsar’s Railway to the Red Army, about 40,000 of the Chinese workers ended up in the Red Army fighting the White Army.

The unfortunately titled book With the Chinks (1919) by Daryl Klein, a Second Lieutenant in the Chinese Labour Corps, describes the recruitment, basic training, and transportation from China to France of a contingent of labourers. Of the nearly 140,000 male labourers recruited for service in France and Belgium, about 95,000 served with the British Army’s Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) performing menial non-combat tasks such as digging trenches, clearing battlefields, and carrying supplies, and occasionally doing more skilled work such as repairing tanks. The 40,000 Chinese labourers recruited by the French government worked away from the frontlines in factories and docks.

CLC recruits signed three-year contracts. Those hired by the French signed for five years but otherwise had a better deal: they enjoyed the same rights and pay as French workers, and had the right to remain in France after completing their contracts (several thousand decided to stay on).

The majority of CLC labourers were recruited from Shandong in northeastern China because the men — as well as being better suited to the cold European winters — were larger and considered stronger than their southern counterparts.

A recruitment centre was established in the British-leased port of Weihaiwei in eastern Shandong, but after a disappointing muster of 1,088 men in three months, the headquarters was moved to Tsingtao, the German enclave port captured by Japanese and British forces in late 1914. The main recruitment depot was at a large abandoned German silk factory in Tsang-kou (Cangkou) fifteen kilometres north of Tsingtao on the Shandong railway.

It is here that the author Daryl Klein arrived in late 1917 to train recruits and then accompany a contingent to France. Klein describes the processing and training of “coolies” at the Tsang-kou camp and the long journey to Europe (but does not actually cover the CLC work in Europe). Klein sailed from Tsingtao in February 1918 along with twelve other officers, 4,200 workers, five interpreters and a medical assistant.

Klein is patronising but sympathetic in his assessment of the Chinese men.

The coolie whom we trained and brought to France is a simple, jolly fellow. He is content with the very simplicities of life; he steals, but not overmuch; he is to be trusted. He is extraordinarily happy; he grins and grins; he is good to his fellow-creature.

As an example of the latter virtue, Klein describes how the men took care of each other when they first encountered rough seas and the resulting seasickness.

A handful — old sea-dogs or those fortunate ones who are not affected at sea — were assisting their brothers. They showed the sort of spirit which makes one positively love the Chinese — the Chinese of Shantung at any rate. They are wonderfully good to one another in adversity. They have warm hearts and willing hands. There was something so eternally and touchingly human about this business that whatever vestige remained in me of the conventional conception of the coolie quite disappeared. I could and can no longer associate (primarily) with the coolie the faintest idea of frigidity, of yellow skin stretched over puny bones. The red blood runs strong within them. They are the backbone of China, whose body one day shall be again politically and spiritually great.

The earliest labourers were transported to Europe via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal but this changed following the February 1917 torpedoing of the French steamship Athos. After this sinking, in which 543 Chinese labourers died, longer, safer routes were used, most often across the Pacific Ocean to Canada, by rail to Halifax, and then across the Atlantic to France.

The Chinese labourers’ transportation through Canada was done secretly, the Canadian government issuing a news blackout. The Chinese arrivals were kept at William Head Quarantine Station on Vancouver Island, then ferried to the mainland and railed to the east coast in locked train cars under armed guard. The secrecy and security were designed to bypass the exorbitant “head tax” of C$500 on Chinese emigrants, avoid any xenophobic reaction from the local Canadian populace, and stop any jittery recruits from “jumping train.”

52nd Company Chinese Labour Corps 1917 Credit: Jones Family / Jean Zamin
52nd Company Chinese Labour Corps 1917 Credit: Jones Family / Jean Zamin

Klein’s journey to France was unusual in that rather than riding the Canadian Pacific Railway, his company sailed far south from Vancouver Island and into the Atlantic through the recently opened Panama Canal.

War’s end didn’t bring a quick return passage for the Chinese labourers. There was a shortage of ships to take them home. Furthermore, their contracts (three or five years) were not yet up, and their labour was badly needed for reconstruction work. It would be September 1920 before all the CLC were repatriated. The French repatriated the last of their Chinese workers in 1922. In total about three thousand Chinese labourers in Europe died from bombing, accidents, or disease.

In With the Chinks Klein and his fellow officers express confidence that the coolies would not only acquit themselves well (which they did) but that they would return home as a positive modernising influence for the country. This did not transpire. They did not become the hoped-for reforming force once home in China. The majority settled back into the conservative rhythms of rural life, their youth and low social status restraints on any modernising impulses they may have felt.

The labourers did, though, have an important indirect effect. Chinese intellectuals (both those who were studying in France and others who went there to help the CLC) were deeply affected by their contact with the workers. These intellectuals, through a variety of organisations such as the YMCA, provided services for the labourers – writing letters home, teaching literary classes, and giving lectures to educate the men about the wide world beyond China. This was a meeting between two classes of Chinese which would normally not have taken place in China. In France they were simply fellow Chinese in a strange land in difficult times. Some of these intellectuals went back to China with a mission to educate the masses, the Yale-educated James Yen, for example, who in the following years devoted himself to mass literacy and rural reconstruction campaigns.

With the Chinks is in the public domain. You can read it online or download an ebook file for free from

Anyone wanting to learn more about the CLC should read Mark O’Neill’s short but excellent The Chinese Labour Corps (Penguin Special, 2014).


  1. Good to see respect being paid to these long neglected workers! For more detail, see Xu Guoqi’s “Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War,” published by Harvard U Press in 2011.

  2. Thanks for a refreshingly accurate short historical account of China’s involvement in the Great War. There would be one point, however, which is somewhat underplayed, namely that “China had a relatively quiet First World War”. The war had direct and tumultuous consequences on China from 1914 through to 1919 and the Treaty of Versailles settlement referred to.

    China did in fact make a number of efforts to join the Allies well before declaring war against Germany and her allies. The first of these came in a proposal to support Britain to take Tchingtao (Qingdao) from the Germans. Britain declined, Japan seized the opportunity for herself and occupied the former German Concession effectively until the end of the Second World War. China made two more offers of troops, both declined, and China’s entry into the war blocked by Japan who did not want China to be treated as an equal. Meanwhile, with the European powers otherwise engaged, Japan made an audacious attempt to effectively turn China into a vassal state through the now infamous Twenty One Demands. Avoiding the worst of the demands, China agrees to the majority of those demands to appease Japan. The offer of labourers came as a counterweight against Japan’s actions and is seen as a backdoor to securing the right to assert Qingdao be returned to Chinese sovereignty after the war. With the transportation of labourers underway, the Athos incident you refer to provides the pretext for declaring war, which by now China is being encouraged to do by the USA, effectively over-ruling Japan. However, the newly reinstated democratic Chinese government is split over the issue. Sun Yatsen heads south and sets up government in Guangzhou, whilst a clique of warlords rule in Beijing and is known as the Beifang Government. The Beifang Government is the one foreign powers recognise, although ultimately Sun Yatsen’s Guomingdang Party will take power back by 1928.

    I am sure you will cover the complexities of The Paris Peace Conference and reaction to the Treaty of Versailles in your second instalment so will not go on to discuss that. However, I hope you will agree that China’s military involvement in the conflict may have been limited, but the war, the position adopted by Japan because of the opportunities the war offered, and the political ramification these things had on the Chinese government means the First World War wasn’t that quiet for China.

  3. Nikolai, Charles, and Steve, thanks for the comments.

    Charles, nice book recommendation there. The University of Harvard Press puts out some really excellent works on the region, and their hardcovers are affordable (by the usual rip-off standards of academic presses) though I wish they were less greedy with their Kindle books ($40 for the hardcover and $38 for the Kindle).

    Steve, I think the accuracy of my “relatively quiet First World War” comment depends on what we’re talking about exactly – i.e. direct involvement during the war years rather than indirect and post-war consequences – and what comparisons are made. Relative to the Second World War, then yep, “quiet” and likewise the Cold War conflicts of Korea and Vietnam. If we’re comparing China’s involvement in WWI with that of other nations, then once again, relatively quiet. But, WWI was – as you point out – immensely important for China; you can draw a simple trajectory from it to 1949 and by extension to the current era. Important and interesting, not to mention underreported, which is why I chose to write about it and make it my first Lost Laowai contribution.

    “I am sure you will cover the complexities of The Paris Peace Conference and reaction to the Treaty of Versailles in your second instalment so will not go on to discuss that.”
    Feel free to discuss that pivotal story in the comments, or why not write an article on it for Lost Laowai because I won’t be covering it. I know it’s an obvious choice (along with the Chinese Labour Corp and the Battle of Tsingtao) but I thought those “complexities” you mentioned might make for heavy reading for a general blog like this. Also, my take on it is slightly non-mainstream so it would require an extra level of explanation.

    BTW, I clicked on “Charles Lau” and see it links to a website dedicated to the Chinese labourers and the campaign to build a memorial for them. Great stuff! Where will the memorial be erected?
    Good luck with the campaign.

  4. Hi All;

    I find it strange that No-One here even mentioned the Private Publication way back in November 1982 in Paperback by; Michael Summerskill.
    Titled: “China on the Western Front.” Britain’s Chinese Work Force in the First World War.
    *********This was Published before the Internet Age; and is simply about China and the Chinese Being
    Systematically; Betrayed!************
    Or; the Massive “Brick”; Of A Novel by:
    Gregory James: The Chinese Labour Corps 1916-1920.
    OR Indeed the Very Provocatively Titled 21st Century Publication.
    “Betrayed Ally”: ‘China in the Great War’. By: Christopher Arnander and Frances Wood.
    Also; the Award-Winning Feature Film: “Tricks On The Dead!” By: RareEarth Productions. In 2013.

Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲