A corner of a foreign field that is forever China
Adaped from an article in The Economist
|The young Chinese republic—founded three years before the outbreak of war—gained little from its status as an ally. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles handed over control of Germany’s colonial possessions in China to Japan.|
China’s humbling at Versailles had dramatic effects back home, triggering student protests that morphed into a modernising movement which contributed to the growth of the Communist Party.|
Nearly 100,000 Chinese labourers served near the front lines in Flanders, together with a few hundred Chinese students recruited as interpreters. Most were volunteers, poor farmers from coastal provinces attracted by high pay and contracts promising (falsely) that they would be kept away from the fighting.
Neutrals until China declared war on Germany in 1917, they became part of a nominally civilian “Chinese Labour Corps”, but in fact endured military discipline under British officers.
The Chinese lived in camps behind the front lines but death found them anyway. Two thousand are buried in Belgium and northern France, killed in bombardments and air raids or by disease. Their gravestones, neatly incised with Chinese names, can still be seen in the immaculate war cemeteries that dot the Flemish landscape.
The story ended bitterly for survivors, too. The Chinese were blamed for many crimes in the lawless months after the Armistice. Hundreds died in the influenza that swept post-war Europe. The last were shipped home in 1920, kicked out by Belgium’s government.
A handful of decorated shell cases, finely engraved with dragons, flowers and inscriptions, are almost the only artefacts they left behind. One of several displayed at the “In Flanders Fields” museum in Ypres bears a lovingly carved poem. It is about homesickness.