Chinese in World War I

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, an event that would trigger what we know today as World War I. One of the little known stories from the war is the role of 140,000 Chinese laborers on the Western Front.


The Chatham House recently posted an article about these forgotten laborers:

On August 24, 1916, in the middle of the battle of the Somme, a contingent of Chinese workers arrived in France to help the Allied war effort. By the time the war ended in 1918, their numbers had grown to more than 140,000. They dug trenches, unloaded military cargoes in the docks, worked in railway yards and factories, and collected corpses for burial from no man’s land. More than 2,000 paid with their lives.

The story of the Chinese at the Western Front is largely forgotten by Britain and France, both preoccupied with their own suffering, and by successive Chinese governments, which have seen the labourers as victims of colonial exploitation.

Yet, as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War approaches, scholars in Europe and China are studying their history and reassessing their role in China’s modern history. The Chinese republic’s decision to send non-combatants to the mud and barbed wire of the Western Front is now seen as a first, hesitant step away from centuries of imperial isolationism.

It was a gamble by the republican government, which had only a shaky hold on power three years after the overthrow of the Ch’ing dynasty.

The film was recently shown at Chatham  House House as part of a panel discussion on the Chinese contribution to World War I. The video an be viewed on the Chatham House site, or on YouTube.

(If you receive this post by email and cannot view the video clip, please click here.)

Fascinating stuff!

Image source: Chatham House


Mildred Cable: An Early Traveler in Northwest China

One of my favorite websites is the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, which posts short biographical sketches of famous Chinese Christians throughout history. Even though it focuses on Chinese Christians, they also include biographies of notable Western Christians.


They recently posted a biographical sketch of Mildred Cable, an OMF missionary who travelled extensively in western and northwestern China in the 1920′s:

“When the Trio asked themselves what China needed next, they felt led to leave their settled mission station for areas which were more remote and unevangelized. They were inspired by a report they heard on the absence of Christian witness for 1,000 miles along the Silk Road from Gansu province to Xinjiang province. On June 11, 1923, the Trio set out for Gansu. When they arrived in Zhangye, their first destination, they had been traveling for nine months and had covered 800 miles.”

Mildred was a prolific writer, chronicling not just her missionary work, but her travels as well.  A number of her books (co-authored by her colleague Fransesca French) are considered ‘classics’  because of their descriptions of life in western and northwestern China in the first half to the twentieth century.

These include the following:

The Gobi Desert – The adventures of three women travelling across the Gobi Desert in the 1920s

The Gobi Desert - The adventures of three women travelling across the Gobi Desert in the 1920s

Through Jade gate and Central Asia;: An account of journeys in Knsu, Tukestan and the Gobi Desert

Through Jade gate and Central Asia;: An account of journeys in Knsu, Tukestan and the Gobi Desert

For anyone interested in northwest China, both of these books are ‘must-reads.’

Image source: Scotwise

St. Matteo Ricci?


The Atlantic magazine  recently published an article about a move within the Vatican to canonize Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit missionary to China, titled Can Matteo Ricci’s beatification mend China’s rift with the Catholic Church?

“When Matteo Ricci walked the streets of Beijing more than 400 years ago, he was a celebrity. The Jesuit was the first Westerner to enter the gates of the Forbidden City. He impressed the emperor by predicting solar eclipses. He created an enormous map that gave Ming dynasty Chinese a sense of the rest of the world for the first time. He spoke and read Chinese well enough to translate Euclid.


And even though, after 13 years in China, he began to dress in the garb of an imperial scholar-official, his goal was to convert the Chinese to Catholicism, which he did with some success and considerable flair.


Now all he needs is a miracle or two. Literally.


In May, the Vatican body that overseas canonization pushed ahead the case for making Ricci, who died in 1610, a saint. The Catholic Church has collected hundreds of documents that provide evidence of his “heroic virtues” and has dubbed him a Servant of God, which puts him on the first rung of four steps toward full-fledged sainthood. In order for him to advance, Ricci’s supporters must now find evidence of popular devotion to Ricci, that prayers to him have cured fatal illnesses, or that his body hasn’t decayed in the 403 years since his death.”

The article then goes on to give a good overview of the issues that remain sticking points between the Vatican and the Chinese government, and the likely impact conferring sainthood on Matteo Ricci would have on Sino-Vatican relations.

In 2010 I wrote a post about visiting the Metteo Ricci exhibit at the Capital Museum in Beijing to commemorate the 400th year of Ricci’s death. You can read it here.

Protestant or Catholic, anyone serving in China today is standing on the shoulders of Matteo Ricci.


Further Reading on Matteo Ricci:

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, by Jonathan Spence

A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci, 1552-1610, by Po Chia-Hsia

Matteo Ricci (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia)


Note: this was originally posted on the ChinaSource Blog.

Image source:  Asia News

The Great Wall — Fact or Fantasy?

Whenever I take visitors to one of the Great Wall tourist sites outside of Beijing, I have to break the news to them that the Wall is not visible from space, nor is it one complete wall stretching from west to east. The disappointment is usually palpable.

It turns out that there are quite a few ‘facts’ that we think we know about the Great Wall, that are actually ‘fantasy.’ Watch this funny video clip from the folks at Off the Great Wall to see how one poor fellow handles his encounter with reality.

And hey, you’ll learn stuff in the process.

(if you receive this post by email and cannot see the video player, please click here to watch the clip)


And if you’d like to read up on the history of the wall, I recommend the following books and articles:

The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC – 2000 AD, by Julia Lovell

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, by Peter Hessler

David Spindler’s Great Wall (Danwei)


Related Posts:

A Tale of Two Hikes

Where Did the Wall Go? 

Port-a-potties at the Wall

Wham! Bam! Beijing!

Wham! Bam! Beijing! (2)

Outside the Wall 

Winter Wall

Fall Wall

A Great Wall Graduation

Don’t Sleep in the Shade









The Henan Famine

During my first year in China (1984), I lived in the city of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province. Before getting my assignment to teach there, I don’t think I had ever heard of the place and pre-internet, it wasn’t easy finding out information. I remember, though, stumbling across a book about the city that had been produced in the 1970′s by the Provincial Tourist Office. It featured pictures of broad (and empty) streets, squeaky clean parks, smiling people. Doctors, students, factory workers, peasants — all smiling! A true worker’s paradise!

Once there, I was able to learn a fair amount about the history of Henan. The city of Zhengzhou had been a dynastic capital 5000 years ago. The nearby city of Kaifeng had been a capital  during the Song Dynasty, 1000 years ago. A temple in the mountains to the southwest of the city was the birthplace of martial arts.

But it was hard to come by good information on Henan’s more recent history.

When I returned to the US for the summer, I set about trying to learn more. One of the key books I discovered was “Thunder Out of China,” by Theodore White. It was based on his reporting of the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s. One particular event that he also chronicled was the 1942 Famine that ravaged the province. I was horrified to read that the city I now called home had once been the center of a famine that killed 40 million people, and that during the famine, the streets were littered with dead bodies. The Zhengzhou that I lived in was by no means prosperous, but what he was chronicling was unimaginable.

I recently came across a website that cataloged 30 dramatic images of the famine in Henan. (warning: many of the photos are graphic and disturbing)


In a China that now has an abundance of food, it is good to remember that just 70 years ago this was not the case.


Two of My Favorite Things


tiananmen gate 2 (1 of 1)

I have lots of favorite things, but two that are right up there on the list are road trips and Chinese history.

Last week I found a way to combine those two loves by listening to episodes of the fantastic China History Podcast while driving across Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana.

If you are  a Chinese history buff or just want an accessible way to learn a bit more, then this podcast is for you.

It is the brainchild of Lazlo Montomery, a businessman from Southern California (not originally, as you can tell by his accent) who started it for the joy of educating people about Chinese history. What’s not to love about that?

On this last road trip, I learned about the Kaifeng Jews, and knocked off the 10-part series on the History of Hong Kong. Trust me…it’s more interesting than you think it might be.

For my next road trip, I’ve got the 8-part History of the Cultural Revolution cued up.

You can listen to the podcasts directly from the website, or subscribe in iTunes.

I would love to have listened to these on our drive to Alaska in June, but Chinese history is NOT one of my sister’s and mom’s favorite things, so they put the kabash on that idea from the get-go.


Peking University in 1921

This year marks the 115th anniversary of the founding of Peking University, one of China’s top universities. Today it is affectionately known as “Bei Da,” short for Beijing Daxue (Beijing University).

Such is the esteem in which this university is held among Chinese that when I recently introduced a Chinese friend to a bunch of other Chinese at a gathering in Minnesota and she told them (upon their asking, of course) that she was an alum and now a professor at BEI DA, they all swooned!

To commemorate the founding, Peking University News recently published a special edition, titled “”Yenching University, 1021: A Peking Perspective.” (It was originally called Yenching University).

This is what the campus looked like in 1921:


Here are some interesting excerpts from a booklet about the university published in 1921:

JOHN KELMAN, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, in China in 1921.

“Peking University will have no rival in the whole Republic. Its influence will be most powerful in connection with the present intellectual movement among students, and it will stand for all that promises a great future for the magnificent national genius of China.”

HARRY EMERSON FOSDICK, First Presbyterian Church, New York, who visited China in 1921.

“The biggest need of China is a thoroughly trained Christian leadership developed from its own sons.”   “Never before in my life have I seen a more strategic opportunity than the one before Peking University.”

Over the ever-narrowing Pacific, the traveler from Vancouver in fourteen days reaches Shanghai, and in thirty-four hours a train with modern equipment carries him from Shanghai to Peking. In normal times fourteen days will bring him from Peking to London via Mukden, Harbin, Chita, Moscow, and Berlin.

Its Aim. The University has been founded by Christian leaders of the West to furnish the best quality of intellectual and religious leadership for China. The hope of China lies in the training of a new type of young manhood and womanhood who have the education and the character to bring about a better political and social order in China and who can lead their people to share in a similar task for the world.

I find the openness with which the university acknowledges its Christian heritage to be quite interesting.


The Genius that was China

I am currently teaching a course on Chinese history and culture at Taylor University in Indiana. In my class this morning I had the students watch episode 1 of a fantastic (but old — 1990) TV series called “The Genius that was China.”

Here is the description of the series, from the Hulu Plus site:

China in the 13th century was the richest, most powerful, most technologically advanced civilization on earth. NOVA looks at how China achieved what it did, and what in Chinese politics, culture and economy kept it from doing more. 

The full episode is also available on YouTube:

If you are interested in learning about some of the scientific and technological inventions and innovations of ancient China, I highly recommend this series.

When I teach Chinese history, my focus is on connection points between China’s past and the present. In re-watching this series to prepare for this class, I was reminded of the key role it played in shaping my understanding of China.

The other episodes are:

The Genius that was China, Part II: Clash of Empires (YouTube)

The Genius that was China, Part III: Threat from Japan (YouTube)

The Genius that was China: Will the Dragon Rise Again? (Hulu Plus)

Click on those links and prepare to be educated.