In the tiny French commune of Noyellessur-Mer, facing the English Channel, a stone Chinese archway rises incongruously at a cemetery entrance. Inside, over 800 graves are marked with Chinese names, birthplaces, death-dates between 1916 and 1920, and Biblical phrases in Chinese and English.
The dead of Noyelles came from the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), a force of 100,000 Chinese who, from 1916 onward, dug many of the trenches that criss-crossed war-torn France. The British-led CLC, and another 40,000 men working for the French, carved out defences, built barricades, fixed railways, and mended telegraph wire. The Chinese Labour Corps was the creation of wily Chinese statesman Liang Shiyi (梁士诒), once the technophile Minister of Railways under the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). It was an attempt to get on what he saw as the winning side of the war and ultimately better China’s place. Germany, like the other Great Powers, held considerable concessions in China, and siding with the Allies, even if only quietly at first, would position China to reclaim those colonies at war’s end.
It was appropriate enough, then, that the majority of the laborers he negotiated to send to France were from Shandong, where the German concessions were sited. The British and French officials involved in negotiating the contracts were looking for strong Northerners, and the men were said to be often “six feet tall”, a striking height at the time.
The legal status of the laborers was somewhat dubious; as, officially, a non-belligerent China could not supply military aid to the Allies without violating its neutrality. The Germans protested against the creation of the labour corps to the Chinese government, which replied by specifying that this was a purely civilian deal, handled through a conveniently created “private company”, the Huimin Company, and if this supply of labor happened to be used for martial purposes, that was nothing to do with them. That the Huimin Company had been brought into existence by Liang Shiyi purely for this purpose was not allowed to trouble this legal fiction. The laborers themselves have left little record. Almost entirely illiterate, their histories were set down by others, whether the British offi cers who dealt with them or the educated Chinese who accompanied them as translators. Farmers and migrants from rural villages, their transition into the war was also a transition into modernity.
As they entered “the sausage machine” of processing, their traditional queues were chopped off; they were washed, fingerprinted, and given a number,not a name. In his book, Strangers on the Western Front, Guoqi Xu demonstrated why this mechanistic process was made necessary; in the book, a British offi cer is recorded saying, “The man didn’t know his own name. If you questioned him, he’d say ‘Well, I come from the Wong family village, so my name is probably Wong.’ You’d say, ‘All right, well what is your personal name?’ and he’d grin and say ‘Wong’. We’d say, ‘Well, what are you called at home?’ and he’d say ‘Well, I’m known as Number Five, or Little Dog, or Big Nose.’
But the conditions were praised by the workers, who enjoyed the food, the hot baths with soap, and the clean housing…
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