'The Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front 1916-1918', courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, ©IWM, Q9862

Book launch: remembering the Chinese labourers on the Western Front

Posted on centenarynews.com on 29 March 2015
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China’s Jilin Publishing Group has released the Chinese version of a French book exploring the story of Chinese labourers during the First World War.

Professor Li Ma, of the University of the Littoral Opal Coast in Boulogne, compiled the book of essays, published in 2012, after she came across cemeteries of Chinese labourers in northern France in the early 2000s.

“When I first saw these cemeteries I felt a heavy and sad atmosphere there,” she said. “In traditional Chinese culture, the dead should return to the place they were born, that drove me to share their story with the French and Chinese people.”

The British and French forces recruited around 140,000 Chinese labourers during the First World War, mostly to account for manpower shortages at home. They provided logistical support and manual labour behind the front lines, often suffering under poor living conditions in workers camps.

The labourers were shipped home after the armistice and their contribution went largely unrecognised for decades, both in Europe and at home. Hong Kong historian, Professor Xu, proffered: “The Communist and Nationalist parties came to power in china by trashing the so-called warlord government which sent the workers to France. The Western powers’ racist attitude has played an important role in their story being forgotten.”

It is estimated that between 10,000 - 20,000 Chinese labourers died during the war, mostly from shelling, poor treatment and Spanish influenza. Members of the Chinese Labour Corps who died were classified as war casualties and were buried in French and Belgian graveyards in northern France, the largest proportion at Noyelles-sur-Mer on the Somme.

An announcement by the Chinese publishing group last week revealed that the new translation will be accompanied by 70 photos and an additional essay on the diary entries of a Chinese labourer named Sun Gan.

No English language version of the book is yet available.

Ensuring We Remember have launched a campaign to create a permanent memorial to the Chinese labourers of the First World War in London.

Image: Imperial War Museum Q9862

Posted by: Eadaoin Hegarty, Centenary News