Centenary of the United States joining the war.

On 6th April, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany [sentence edited in response to comment below]. This turn of events will lead to China’s eventual declaration of war. How so?

China had attempted to formally join the allies on several occasions. At the outbreak of the Great War the Chinese government offered military  to support Britain to relieve Germany of her concessions in Shandong. Britain turned this offer down, only for Japan to seize the opportunity and to take the German concessions herself.

With a vested interest in the war, Japan used her influence to block futher attempts by China to become an ally. Japan understood what the Chinese objectives were; that the desire to become an ally was a calculated political choice. Indeed, China, bound neither by alliance nor vested interests may be unique in its politically driven decision to join the war in pursuit of objectives which had nothing to do with the war itself.

China believed that by becoming an ally she would gain recognition as an equal, something denied her throughout the Century of Humiliation by the imposition of the Unequal Treaties.  The European powers, having taken their eye off the ball, were willing to engage with China on a more equal basis during the war, but Japan was resolute in the belief and pursuit of keeping China a second class state: any notion of China being seen as equal was pure anathema to the Japanese.

Having joined the war, the United States called upon China to do the same. Of all the allies, the United States had the least involvement in China, not through lack of choice, but like the Japans they were late-comers to the party. With few options, and no spheres of influence in China, the USA adopted the “Open Door Policy”.  The Policy essentially sought to secure open and equal  access to the Chinese market for all goods, regardless of their country of origin, the subtext was that the territorial integrity of China was a pre-requisite for all nations to benefit from the Chinese market.

Japan’s infamous Twenty One Demands directly challenged the Open Door Policy, and indeed, China had turned to the US for assistance when the Demands were made.

With the backing of the United States Japan could not prevent China’s eventual elevation as a formal belligerent in the war on the side of the Allies.


Liverpool’s Chinese community support Everton FC and Liverpool FC Academies to Remember

The Ensuring We Remember Campaign are proud to have supported a day of events in Liverpool on Tuesday 21 March. 15 young people from Everton FC Academy and 15 from Liverpool FC Academy were brought together by the project The Unremembered: World War One’s Army of Workers to remember the sacrifice of the Chinese Labour Corps and those buried in Liverpool.

The two teams – which usually meet as rivals on the pitch – came together to visit five Chinese Labour Corps graves at Anfield Cemetery, which is situated between the two clubs. They were met by Mr Tam from SeeYep Association, to learn about the Labour Corps and Chinese customs. At the graves, the teams laid white flowers, bowed in respect and held a reading about the Chinese Labour Corps. They then lit 30 white candles embossed with both club emblems, whilst Zilan Liao of Pagoda Arts performed a moving rendition of the Last Post on the Chinese flute.

Following the visit to the cemetery, the two Academy teams visited Chinatown where Liverpool’s Chinese community support for the day’s events continued, providing a tour of Chinatown in which team members learned about the history of the Chinese in the UK and of Chinatown in Liverpool – the oldest Chinatown in the UK, home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe.

Communities Minister, Lord Bourne, said:

“The war effort required a great many people from a great many countries, whose bravery and service was so crucial to the Allied victory.

The Chinese Labour Corps formed the largest contingent of workers recruited, but too little is known of the dangerous yet essential work they carried out on the Western Front. They came to Britain’s aid in her hour of need. So it’s right that we remember and honour the contribution of every one of the brave men who served.”

The event is part of The Unremembered: World War One’s Army of Workers, which is running for the duration of 2017 – 100 years after the Labour Corp were recruited. The Unremembered is funded by Department for Communities and Local Government and delivered by the Big Ideas Company.

Virginia Crompton, Chief Executive of Big Ideas Company, commented:

“It’s important to acknowledge the vital contribution of so many who were marginalised by society 100 years ago and should not be marginalised today in our commemoration.”

If you have any questions or would like to get involved in The Unremembered project, or receive a Resource Pack contact Sarah Giles, Big Ideas Company Engagement Manager or visit

Exhibition: A Good Reputation Endures Forever: The Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front

7th April 2017, 10:00 to 24th September 2017, 17:00,
Oriental Museum, Elvet Hill, Durham, DH1 3TH

We have been privileged to have been working with Durham University’s Oriental Museum on this historic exhibition exploring the role of the thousands of Chinese who risked their lives alongside the British armed forces during the First World War. This exhibition examines the vital role of the Chinese Labour Corps using historic photographs and objects created by the men at the front.

96,000 Chinese men volunteered to work for Britain in the First World War as part of the Chinese Labour Corps. They undertook essential and often dangerous work behind the lines on the western front and thousands lost their lives. Yet their contribution was barely acknowledged at the end of the war and in the years that have followed they have been largely written out of histories of the war. They have been described as the ‘forgotten of the forgotten’.

Image: WJ Hawkings Collection, courtesy of John de Lucy

Contact for more information about this event.

Report on members of the Chinese Labourer Corps hospitalised in Liverpool.

“The fact that none of them could speak English rendered the work somewhat difficult, an interpreter in the person of a Chinese corporal having to remain in the hospital during the whole of the time that any of the Chinese patients remained. As an example of the wonderful behaviour of these men and the manner in which they maintained discipline among themselves, it may be mentioned that on one occasion one of the Chinese men was discovered undergoing corporal punishment at the hands of his fellows. When inquiry was made as to the reason, the offence which he was alleged to have committed was that he had insulted the administrator, Mr. Taylor. As, however, the latter had no knowledge of the offence having been committed against him, he was able to intercede on behalf of the supposed delinquent.”

‘Liverpool’s Military Hospitals: Belmont Road Hospital part 41’,
Liverpool’s Part in the War: a special report in 76 parts,
Liverpool Courier 28 October 1919

Meridian Society Chinese Labour Corps Project Launch Event – 19th April 2017

Date: Wednesday, 19th April
Time: 2.00-6.00pm
Venue: Djam Lecture Theatre (DLT)
SOAS University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG
Entry: Free, but places must be booked in advance

On 19th April, 1917, after a three-month journey over land and sea, a thousand Chinese men
arrived in Le Havre, France, weary and bewildered. This was the first batch of the Chinese
Labour Corps, recruited by the British to provide logistical help to the Western Allies. They
would be followed by several tens of thousands, mainly from Shandong Province, thus forming one of the largest labour corps involved in the Great War.

To mark this historically significant event, exactly one hundred years later on 19th April, 2017,The Meridian Society, with SOAS China Institute as host, will be holding a film screening and talks to launch our heritage project on the Chinese Labour Corps, with the support of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The key resource is a collection of unique interviews with CLC descendants from Shandong.
Their distinctive memories have been captured on camera and at this launch, guests will be
able to view for the first time, a public screening of the documentary ‘Forgotten Faces of the
Great War’, containing oral histories by descendants both of Chinese labourers and Western CLC officers.

Alongside the screening will be talks by eminent speakers (Chaired by Lars Laaman SCI) including:
– Frances Wood, Author of Author of ‘Betrayed Ally’, former Curator of Chinese Collections at the British Library and Research Associate at SOAS China Institute;
– Dominiek Dendooven, Curator at In Flanders Fields Museum;
– Andrew Fetherston, Archivist at Commonwealth War Graves Commission and
– Zhang Yan The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

A small display of items, including photos, documents and memorabilia, will be on show.
We will also be announcing details of the Society’s year-long series of activities to commemorate the CLC.

The event will be brought to a close by a Ceremony for the Departed conducted by Representatives of the London Fo Guang Shan Temple.

We hope you will be able to join us for this special event.
Please reserve your place no later than Wednesday 22nd March by replying to The Meridian
Society at

Out of China by Professor Robert Bickers

Robert Bickers, who many will know from his excellent contribution to the Penguin (China) World War One Special Editions with Getting Stuck in For Shanghai: Putting the Kibosh on the Kaiser from the Bund: The British at Shanghai and the Great War, has written a new book, Out of China, officially published on 30 March: earlier copies will be available at the events below. 

Out of China narrates the struggle of China’s peoples across the twentieth century to roll back foreign power, and explores the explosive legacy today of the era of foreign domination. Starting in 1918 it charts the decline, fall and afterlife of the foreign enclaves that had been established in many of China’s great cities (as well as in some quite out-of-the-way backwaters). It shows how the battle to restore China’s dignity and sovereignty took place on battlefields, and in conference chambers, but also in museums and galleries, in Hollywood, in print, and on stage. Out of China is concerned with struggles over ideas, and political power, but I also draw out the human dimension, and the stories of those caught up by design or chance in this now largely vanished world. The battle for China was not over even when the last foreign colony, Macao, was handed back in 1999, and tensions over the record of foreign powers in China, and over the wider legacy and impact of the West remain live today.

Robert Bickers will be talking about the book at the following events.

11 March: Glasgow Aye Write! 2017, Mitchell Library, 4.45-5.45 p.m.

13 March: SOAS China Institute, Russell Square, Room G3, 5.00-7.00 p.m.

27 June: Chalke Valley History Festival, afternoon.

Corfflu Llafur Tsieineaidd | Two Videos in Welsh

Erbyn hanner ffordd trwy 1916, roedd y rhagolwg o’r cyngrheiriaid colli’r rhyfel yn dod yn bosibilrwydd wirioneddol. Roedd prinder gweithlu beirniadol wedi’I rhagfynegi wrth dilyn y colliad enfawr a ddaeth o’r Brwydr y Somme. Cafodd yr argyfwng hyn ei ddatrys gan y 96,000 o wirfoddolwyr Tsieineaidd a ffurfiodd y Corfflu Llafur Tsieineaidd a rhoddodd y cymorth i Brydain yn eu awr o angen.

Helpwch ni i gadw ffydd efo dynion y Corfflu Llafur Tsieiniaidd os gwelwch yn dda.


Corfflu Llafur Tsieineaidd

Lansio ar Ddydd Gŵyl Dewi: Hanes anghofiedig y llafurwyr Tsieineaidd yn ystod y rhyfel byd cyntaf i gael ei adrodd yn gyfrwng y gymreag.

Reflections on SS Mendi Centenary Commemorations: A Chinese Perspective

Steve Lau, Chair of the Ensuring We Remember Campaign, offers personal reflections on  an SS Mendi commemoration event.


The SS Mendi was en route from South Africa to France. On board were over 800 member of the South African Native Labour Corps. At 5:00am on 21st February 1917 the SS Mendi was sailing past the Isle of Wight when the SS Darro, a Royal Mail packet-boat, ploughed into her at full speed. Catastrophic damage was caused and the SS Mendi began to sink. Although the SS Darro sustained only minor damage her Captain, Captain Harry Stump, inexplicably offered no assistance as the tragedy unfolded. SS Mendi sank in twenty minutes taking with her 616 men of the South African Native Labour Corps and 30 white crewmen.

For those of us familiar with the tragedy that befell 543 Chinese labourers aboard the SS Athos the parallels between the two events – which occurred just four days apart – are striking. It was those similarities that were at the forefront of my mind as I arrived to attend a commemoration event held at the Pyramid Centre on Portsmouth’s seafront, the first of a series of events to mark the centenary of the SS Mendi’s sinking organised by the South African High Commission.

Formal addresses were given by His Excellency, Obed Mlaba, the South African High Commissioner and Dr Andrew Murrison MP, the Prime Minister’s special representative in the centenary. Dr Murrison MP formally launched a new DCLG funded initiative, Unremembered (we have been delighted to be working very closely with the Big Ideas Company who are responsible for delivering the project). Unremembered seeks to encourage remembrance of members of the Labour Corps, in all their incarnations. More on this exciting project next week.

We were introduced to descendants of some of the victims as well as a twenty minute documentary produced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In attendance were the crew of the SAS Amatola numbering several hundred as well as invited guests and members of the South African diaspora in Britain.

Two things particularly struck me as remarkable. First, the afternoon’s events were interspersed with song and dance from an exuberant choir supported by an appreciative audience. It is hard to explain just how powerful the effect was. The singing could be described as jubilant, and yet at no point was the underlying tragedy of the event ever lost.

But something else impressed upon me even more profoundly. I’m not sure if anybody else noticed as I suspect it struck me as it did simply because it contrasted so markedly with how the story of the Chinese Labour Corps is, in my opinion, managed within the Chinese community in Britain. What struck me was how confidently the history had been claimed and presented.

It was a genuine privilege to share some moving moments with the assembled South African nationals: genuinely poignant with such a strong resonance with the SS Athos and Chinese labour. To see the history embraced by the government and people of South Africa so unambiguously highlighted how far we have yet to go in the Chinese community until we can assert our own understanding of history without feeling the need to justify that understanding, or without apprehensive expectation of being challenged or held to account.

It was also a time of reflection, particularly on what and how we remember, and once again I was challenged by the focus of the narrative of the day, and how and why the Chinese narrative anchors itself so very differently within the context of the Great War.

A wonderful experience, so warmly and generously shared by the South African community that I can not but feel I have found something of a point of hope and aspiration of what might be.

SS Athos Centenary

Launched at precisely 12:27 on February 17th we mark the centenary down to the minute when tragedy struck the SS Athos. The Athos was a French vessel, and was carrying 100 passengers, 850 Senegalese Tirailleurs who boarded at Djibouti and 950 Chinese labourers who had been recruited by the French (Travailleurs Chinois) who boarded the Athos at Hong Kong.

Although this group of Chinese workers were not members of the Chinese Labour Corps, the events surrounding the Athos have huge implications for the men of the CLC who were to follow. Passage from China to France would be rerouted from travelling west to Europe, and would take the safer but longer route east, via Canada, was adopted.

Review: Tricks on the Dead

After reading many reviews on Tricks on the Dead, all of which were positive, we were keen to watch the first UK screening of this docudrama. What wasn’t clear in any of the publicity was that the screening had been organised by the Meridian Society, so we’d like to both thank and congratulate the Meridian Society for their efforts.

Tricks on the Dead is the first feature length examination of the use of Chinese labour in the Great War from an international perspective. In structure it takes three strands, each of which is presented in a particular style.

  1. Through re-enactments that rely on the diaries of labourers and officers, and to a lesser extent official records, we are presented with the story through personal narratives. Voiceover narration of diary entries are used to add detail and a real sense of hearing the voices of those men.
  2. Through a fly-on-the-wall documentary style we follow the efforts of  postgraduate student, Zhang Yan, from Shandong University as he seeks to trace descendants of labourers back in China, and then his efforts to fulfil his promise to one family to locate the grave of their ancestor.
  3. Through on-screen contributions by  Gregory James (author of the encyclopaedic The Chinese Labour Corps 1916-1920) and Professor Xu Guoqi  (author of Strangers on the Western Front and China and the Great War) we are provided with analysis of the events from genuine experts in the field.

Producer and Director Jordan Paterson achieves something quite remarkable in the way these three elements are woven together into the final product.  The cinematography of the re-enactments is compelling and through them we are provided with the historical timeline; taken back and forth through the clever use of historical photographs, film footage and narration, seamlessly linking the three elements together.  The end result is a powerful presentation of the story which is far greater than the sum of its parts.

That Tricks on the Dead is a superb piece of storytelling is evidenced by the various international awards it has received. But beyond artistic merit and very high production values there is perhaps an even more impressive achievement in Tricks on the Dead, and that is to present contested history in such a way that the both Western and Chinese perspectives are respected and accommodated. To this end the contributions of Gregory James and Xu Guoqi are so cleverly interwoven that we are left with a single narrative.

The cohesive and internally consistent presentation is, however, uncomfortable viewing at times, from a Belgian farmer’s musings on which nationalities were in Belgium during the war in which he concludes there were never any Chinese, to the photograph of a public flogging of a member of the Chinese Labour Corps at William Head.  The prejudicial views of the British towards the Chinese are presented without pulling any punches, but contained by giving voice to the more enlightened attitudes of some officers.

Bravo Tricks on the Dead, Bravo!

Trick on the Dead will be screened as part of A Good Reputation Endures Forever exhibition at Durham University’s Oriental Museum, and we are planning a number of screenings across the UK over the coming year.

Exhibition: A Good Reputation Endures Forever: The Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front

7 April 2017 – 24 September 2017
Durham University’s Oriental Museum, Elvet Hill, Durham, DH1 3TH

We have been working very closely with Durham University’s Oriental Museum since late 2014 to make this exhibition perhaps the most important exhibition there has ever been on the Chinese Labour Corps.  We’re currently working on publicity, the information below is taken from the museum’s website.

An exhibition exploring the role of the thousands of Chinese who risked their lives alongside the British armed forces during the First World War.

96,000 Chinese men volunteered to work for Britain in the First World War as part of the Chinese Labour Corps. They undertook essential and often dangerous work behind the lines on the western front and thousands lost their lives. Yet their contribution was barely acknowledged at the end of the war and in the years that have followed they have been largely written out of histories of the war. They have been described as the ‘forgotten of the forgotten’.

This exhibition examines the vital role of the Chinese Labour Corps using historic photographs and objects created by the men at the front.

Image: WJ Hawkings Collection, courtesy of John de Lucy



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