China and the Great War: A symposium – Imperial War Museum London

Event: Wednesday 4 May 2016 at the Imperial War Museum London

9.15 Anne Witchard (University of Westminster)

Coffee and Introduction

Anne Witchard is Senior Lecturer in the Dept. of English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster. She recently published England’s Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War (Penguin 2015)

9.45 Paul J Bailey (University of Durham)

‘From “Coolie” to “Transnational Agent”: Contemporary Chinese Discourses on Chinese Contract Workers in WW1 France’


During World War One nearly 150,000 Chinese labourers were recruited by the British and French governments to carry out war-related work near the western front and throughout France. For a long time the role played by these workers was largely forgotten in both western and Chinese historiography, the result of an overtly Eurocentric approach to World War One in the former case, and the tendency in the latter case to view the recruitment as simply another example of China’s exploitation by nefarious western imperialism. The talk will analyse the reasons why in recent years the World War One Chinese workers have been ‘rediscovered’ in official and academic Chinese discourse, suggesting that their contribution to the allied victory is now celebrated and valorised as an example of China’s positive engagement with the world and commitment to world peace. In a wider context, such valorisation also dovetails with contemporary discourse in China that describes Chinese labour export since the 1990s very much in terms of a selfless contribution to ‘civilised’ and modern development. This grandiose and often overblown rhetoric concerning the active and beneficial nature of China’s historical and contemporary global interactions represents the flip-side to China’s other ubiquitous view of its historical interaction with the West that emphasises ‘national humiliation’ (guochi). The talk concludes that amidst the contemporary celebration of the World War One Chinese workers significant aspects of the episode are overlooked, in particular how it represented a significant change in Chinese official attitudes towards overseas Chinese labour, and why it constitutes an important chapter in modern China’s labour history.

Paul Bailey is Professor of Modern Chinese History at University of Durham

10.30 Mariusz Gasior (Imperial War Museum)

The Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front 1916-1918: A photographic presentation’

For the last three years Mariusz Gasior has been responsible for cataloguing the IWM’s main First World War photographic collections – so called Q Series – part of which is the material held by the museum relating to Britain’s Chinese Labour Corps.

11.15 Coffee

11.30 Xu Guoqi (Hong Kong University)

The Great War and the Question of “what is China”‘


This paper examines the following questions: how did Chinese seize the moment of the Great War to address the question “what is China” by seeking to join the family of nations as an equal member? How did the major powers provide different answers with their secret treaties and their decisions to block China’s dream at the post-war peace conference? And how did Chinese try to seek answers to question “what was China” through so-called “third civilization?”

Xu Guoqi, currently professor of history at the Hong Kong University, received his PhD in history from Harvard University. He is author of the following recent books: Asia and the Great War: a Shared History (Oxford University Press, forthcoming); Chinese and Americans: a Shared History (Harvard University Press, 2014); Strangers at the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War (Harvard University Press, 2011); Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008 (Harvard University Press, 2008), China and the Great War (Cambridge University Press, 2005). He is now working on a bookWhat is China: a shared and transnational history.

12.30-1.15 Lunch provided with film screening from Steve Lau and Ensuring We Remember– the National Campaign for a Permanent Memorial to the Chinese Labour Corps of the First World War.

1.15 Elisabeth Forster (University of Oxford China Centre)

‘Roundabout implications of WWI: The role of newspapers in the making of the New Culture Movement’


The year 1919 in China was not only the year of the Treaty of Versailles. It was also the year of the protests against it (May Fourth) and the invention of the idea that there was a ‘New Culture Movement’ in China. The latter led to the popularisation of important ideas, among them Marxism and the rise of ‘plain language’ (baihua), a precursor of the modern Chinese language. This paper argues that the cultural side of this (i.e. the New Culture Movement) only happened because unexpected side effects of newspaper coverage connected it to the politics of the year (May Fourth, Versailles).

Newspapers had, in early 1919, reported about academic debates at the prestigious Beijing University in a way that made one group of academics around the scholars Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu appear as if they were victims of the Chinese government. These academics had endorsed ideas like Marxism and ‘plain language’. When students demonstrated against the Treaty of Versailles starting from 4 May 1919, these students were depicted by newspapers as government victims too. The academics at Beijing University were therefore soon identified with the May Fourth demonstrations, although they did not have more to do with the protests than other academic groups. Much to the surprise of contemporaries, not least of the newspapers themselves, these academics and their ideas soon became popular among a May Fourth-sympathetic public, and China’s culture turned towards Marxism and ‘plain language’.

This shows how much coincidence was involved in making the particular brand of modernity that we find in China today. It also argues against an understanding of New Culture and May Fourth which claims that the two were linked through Confucian notions about the connectedness of culture and politics, or that the advocates of Marxism and ‘plain language’ were also key figures in the protests of May Fourth against Versailles.

Elisabeth Forster is Departmental Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at Oxford University’s China Centre. She has published ‘From Academic Nitpicking to a “New Culture Movement”: How Newspapers Turned Academic Debates into the Center of “May Fourth”‘, Frontiers of History in China, vol. 9, no. 4, 2014: 534-557, (Together with Jan Knoerich), ‘Cross-Taiwan Strait Relations in an Era of Technological Change: Introduction’, in Paul Irwin Crookes and Jan Knoerich (eds.), Cross-Taiwan Strait Relations in an Era of Technological Change: Security, Economic and Cultural Dimensions(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2015) and ‘The buzzword “New Culture Movement”: Intellectual Marketing Strategies in China in 1919’, Modern Asian Studies (forthcoming).

2.00 Laura Spinney

Did the Spanish flu start in China?’


The Spanish flu (1918-1920) killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, but its origins are wreathed in mystery. We know only that it didn’t start in Spain, but that Spain took the blame because, being neutral in the Great War, it didn’t censor its newspapers and so was the first country in Europe to publicly report cases within its borders. There are three current theories of where the pandemic began, corresponding to origins in France, the US and China. A Chinese origin was first proposed in the years immediately following the pandemic, but has recently enjoyed a revival. I will present the three theories, laying out the historical and scientific case for each. Finally I will describe new scientific research involving “molecular clocks”, that indicates that one of the three theories is far more likely than the other two.

Laura Spinney is a science journalist and author. Her writing on science has appeared in Nature, The Economist, The Guardian and National Geographic, among others. She is the author of two novels, an oral history of a European city and an upcoming “biography” of the Spanish flu, to be published by Jonathan Cape in the spring of 2017. Born in the UK, she currently lives in Paris.

2.45 Tea

3.00 Xiaolu Guo



Xiaolu Guo contributed an essay ‘Coolies’ for Goodbye to All That, a series of radio broadcasts co-commissioned by 14-18 Now-WW1 Centenary Arts Commissions the official cultural programme for the First World War Centenary commemorations hosted within the Imperial War Museums. Taking Robert Graves’ phrase as the starting point, Guo contemplates the role of Chinese ‘coolies’ on the battlefields of the First World War.

Novelist and film-maker, Xiaolu Guo studied at the Beijing Film Academy and received her MA from the National Film School in London. Her novels have been translated into more than 26 languages.Her novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers (2008) was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and in 2013 she was named as one of Granta‘s Best of Young British Novelists, a list drawn up once a decade. Her award-winning films include, She, a Chinese and Once Upon a Time Proletarian. Her latest novel is I Am China. Guo currently lives in London and was a guest of the DAAD Artists in Residence in Berlin in 2012 and a Writer in Residence of the Literaturhaus Zurichand the PWG Foundation in Zurich in 2015.

3.30 Gregory James

Towards a determination of the extent of the Chinese casualties in Allied service during the First World War


An issue often discussed in the literature is that of how many Chinese died in Allied service during the First World War. Estimates vary between 2,000 (approximately the number of Chinese Labour Corps graves in Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in northern Europe) and an unsubstantiated 34,000 “dead or missing” CLC labourers, in a recent Chinese article. Even during the conflict, the Central Powers diffused propagandist rumours of hefty losses among the labourers; already in February 1918, for example, they alleged 13,000 fatalities: “The wildness of the story is almost without parallel,” harrumphed the North-China Herald in response.

The CWGC graves certainly do not represent the total number of CLC deaths, and recent research has unearthed the names of several labourers known to have died in service but who have no memorial. Moreover, the total Chinese sacrifice has also to take account of personnel in the Chinese Porter Corps, the Royal Navy, the Mercantile Marine and Inland Water Transport, as well as in French units, in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The recent availability of previously inaccessible records has allowed a tentative establishment of evidence-based statistics of the extent of the Chinese casualties in Allied service during the war.

Gregory James, a graduate of the Universities of Edinburgh (MA) and Exeter (PhD), and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, is a former Senior Lecturer in the University of Exeter. He also held academic posts in China, India and Iran, and now lives in retirement in Hong Kong. His monograph on the creation, management and operation of the Chinese Labour Corps (The Chinese Labour Corps (1916–1920); Hong Kong, 2013) is the leading reference on the topic.

4.15 Daniel York Loh

‘the forgotten of the forgotten’


Daniel York Loh will discuss his new play, forgotten of the forgotten based on the untold and hidden stories of the World War One Chinese Labour Corps who worked behind the lines assisting the allied war effort. Produced by Gemma Lloyd and developed at Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Daniel York Loh is a writer, actor and filmmaker who, along with Jennifer Lim, is co-artistic director of Moongate Productions. As an actor his theatre work includes the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court and National Theatre as well as in the feature films Rogue Trader and The Beach. Most recently he was in Welcome Home, Captain Fox! at the Donmar Warehouse and in the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of The Inspector Chen Mysteries. He is a graduate of both the Royal Court’s Studio playwrights’ group and the Orange Tree writers’ collective. His first full-length stage play The Fu Manchu Complex was produced by Moongate at the Ovalhouse in 2013 and he has had several short plays staged at venues such as The Bush, Theatre Royal Stratford East, the Orange Tree and the Royal Court. His short film, Mercutio’s Dreaming: The Killing of a Chinese Actor, was nominated for four awards at the World Independent Music & Film Festival and he recently wrote the script for another short film, Dream Of Emerald Hill, produced by Moongate, which is currently playing at international film festivals. With composer Craig Adams he recently won the 2016 Perfect Pitch award to create an original musical theatre piece based on events around the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockle picker disaster.

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