Master of Global Media Industries, King’s College London
Bachelor of Communications, South China University of Technology
Freelance Media Person, Cultural Influencer, Chinese Cultural Event Planner
On November 11th, I had the chance to participate in the Armistice Day Ceremony organized by the Western Front Association at Cenotaph London. Despite several days of continuous rain, the weather turned sunny on this particular day, gradually dispelling the chill of early winter. Coming out from Charing Cross station, I felt a surge of people heading towards the monument commemorating the end of World War I. Crowded streets were adorned with individuals wearing poppies, symbolizing the remembrance of international fallen soldiers.
As a Chinese, I was a little out of place in the crowd. The occasional sideways glances seemed to inquire, “Why are there Chinese people participating in Armistice Day?” This was the reason why we, as a group of Chinese representatives, gathered here — to commemorate the 140,000 Chinese labourers who participated in this most brutal war in human history. Due to China’s weakened national strength, the impact of the ‘Chinese Exclusion Act’, and various stereotypes and prejudices against Chinese people, the contributions of the Chinese Labour Corps to World War I are seldom mentioned in mainstream British society. For a long time, discussions about World War I marginalized the Chinese Labour Corps, and few representatives were advocating for them. In recent years, thanks to the tireless efforts of a group of dedicated individuals who have been collecting information and organizing activities, the stories of the Chinese Labourers’ contributions to World War I have gradually come to light. Their contributions are gradually gaining recognition and appreciation in European society.
CLC mostly consisted of farmers from northern China and also included hundreds of students serving as translators. In 1916, facing a shortage of wartime labour, the British Cabinet approved the recruitment of Chinese labourers. This marked the beginning of a tumultuous journey for China seeking international status and for ordinary individuals trying to make a living in turbulent times. Each Chinese labourer toiling on the Western European battlefield carried the expectations of a family and a struggling nation. What deeply moved me was that their journey to the West was not driven by noble reasons, but rather by a practical desire for survival, prosperity, or a chance to see the world while bringing honour to their country.
The 1918 British military report stated, “Most labourers are proficient at their work, consistently demonstrating high efficiency in railway, ordnance factories, and tank workshops.” A French officer also remarked, “They can handle any job, be it as a merchant, shoemaker, blacksmith, or engineer; they are almost indispensable.” The Chinese labourers, known for their endurance and willingness to work, engaged in the dirty and Labourious tasks that even British and French soldiers were reluctant to undertake. Despite promises from the British and French governments that they would not be sent to the frontlines, many of these commitments were cast aside once the war erupted. According to recollections from Chinese labourers, there were instances where the trenches they dug were only 50 meters away from the German forces. Sometimes, after completing the trenches, British soldiers would enter the battlefield in combat with the Germans. In a battle in Picardy, France, in 1917, when the German forces broke through the British and French Allied lines, hundreds of Chinese Labourers working at the frontline were unable to retreat in time. Armed only with shovels and hoes, they had to confront the German forces. By the time the British and French Allied forces arrived for support, most Chinese labourers had already perished. Additionally, the contracts for Chinese labourers stipulated a mandatory 10-hour workday, seven days a week. In the British military’s Chinese labour units, leaving the camp to interact with locals was strictly prohibited.
After the war, the contributions of the Chinese labourers, who played a crucial role in helping the Allies win the war, did not receive the respect and recognition they deserved. Before the war’s end, the painting “The Temple of War,” commemorating World War I, was displayed in Paris. However, due to the United States’ entry into the war in 1917, the original depiction of the Chinese Labour Corps was replaced with Americans. The hardworking and enduring nature of the Chinese labourers contributed to the Western stereotype of the Chinese as diligent but was also seen as a means of resource acquisition.
A similar situation unfolded in post-World War II Britain. After the outbreak of the war, the British government needed a large number of merchant sailors to transport food and weapons, leading to the recruitment of 20,000 Chinese sailors in 1940. However, their wages were only half of what British sailors received. After the war, around 2,000 retired Chinese sailors remained in Liverpool. However, with severe post-war unemployment and inflation in Britain, Chinese and local sailors faced intense competition. Shipping companies, eager to rid themselves of Chinese workers, reduced wages and reclaimed war risk bonuses, making it difficult for them to survive. On October 19, 1945, the British Home Office decided to act, “forcibly repatriating unwanted Chinese sailors.” Some were even arrested while buying milk for their daughters on the street, without the chance to bid farewell to their families before being deported. These Chinese sailors, known for their diligence and affordability, were expelled after being exploited.
Diligence and affordability have perhaps been a double-edged label for underdeveloped countries and regions since the beginning of the 18th and 19th centuries, during the Age of Discovery and the Industrial Revolution. Countries that did not achieve capital accumulation through colonization could only engage in resource exchange with colonizers through labour-intensive industries. In a conversation with a British mobile phone retailer, he proudly mentioned his frequent trips to Shenzhen, China, to purchase phone components. He found factories there to process and assemble the components. He told me about the significantly lower cost of producing imitation Apple phones compared to the genuine ones, allowing him to make a substantial profit. However, shortly afterwards, he expressed a sense of “sympathy” for the exploited workers and criticized the harsh working conditions. Intrigued, I asked him, “Have you ever considered the fundamental reasons behind the cheap labour and poor working conditions in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia?” He began analyzing the government, corporate exploitation of workers, and the work ethic of Asians. I couldn’t help but interject, “Have you never thought that it might be due to the original accumulation of capital obtained through colonization by Western capitalist countries? This drove progress in industrial and technological revolutions, leaving formerly colonized countries unable to compete in the post-colonial era, forcing them to rely on cheap labour and natural resources for development in the age of economic globalization. While you profit from the cheap labour and resources in China, seeking benefits, you then shift the blame to the government and corporations, claiming that the thinking pattern of hardworking Chinese people is rigid. Don’t you find this hypocritical?”
Standing at the site of the memorial ceremony, I was deeply moved. On this day, I witnessed over fifty Chinese representatives organised by the Meridian Society laying wreaths in tribute to the Chinese Labour Corps. Proudly, they reclaimed their rightful recognition—even if covered in mud, they are still heroes, still “hidden dragons.” At some point, diligence became stigmatised, discriminated against, and even used as a weapon for political attacks. As Chinese, we might have, to some extent, felt displeasure with phrases like “you work very hard,” associating them with the stereotypical image of low-level labourers. Nobody prefers to be labelled in this way. However, it was this group of labourers who earned China its victorious position in World War I and gained a little confidence to refuse to sign the Treaty of Versailles in Paris, rejecting the transfer of German privileges in Shandong.
They achieved all this through their quality of enduring hardship. Today, more and more people are learning about the Chinese Labour Corps. Our memory and respect for them are the best comfort to their spirits, as well as a modest effort to advocate for fair media exposure and treatment for the Chinese community.
About the author
Weien Zong graduated from King’s College London with a background of 5 years of media and documentary education and work experience. She has extensive media experience, interning at Guangdong Radio and Television Station, NetEase Games, the United Nations Youth Leadership Development Program, and with independent documentary filmmakers. Currently, she is dedicated to creating original videos of Chinese traditional culture and medicine on major social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, Xiaohongshu, and Bilibili. Additionally, she organizes offline Chinese cultural events to promote traditional Chinese culture and wisdom.
11月11日，我有幸参与了由Western Front Association组织在Cenotaph London举行的Armistice Day Ceremony战停战纪念仪式。连续多日阴雨绵绵却在这天阳光明媚，初冬的寒意在暖阳之下逐渐消散。从Charling Cross出站后，便感受到一股涌向一战停战纪念碑的人流。人头攒动的街道上，人们胸前佩戴着象征国际纪念阵亡将士的罂粟花标志。作为一个中国人，我在人群中显得有些格格不入。周围时不时投来的斜视仿佛在疑惑： “一战停战纪念日为何有中国人在凑热闹？”