Strangers on the Western Front
During World War I, Britain and France imported workers from their colonies to labor behind the front lines. The single largest group of support labor came not from imperial colonies, however, but from China. Xu Guoqi tells the remarkable story of the 140,000 Chinese men recruited for the Allied war effort.
These laborers, mostly illiterate peasants from north China, came voluntarily and worked in Europe longer than any other group. Xu explores China’s reasons for sending its citizens to help the British and French (and, later, the Americans), the backgrounds of the workers, their difficult transit to Europe-across the Pacific, through Canada, and over the Atlantic-and their experiences with the Allied armies. It was the first encounter with Westerners for most of these Chinese peasants, and Xu also considers the story from their perspective: how they understood this distant war, the racism and suspicion they faced, and their attempts to hold on to their culture so far from home.
In recovering this fascinating lost story, Xu highlights the Chinese contribution to World War I and illuminates the essential role these unsung laborers played in modern China’s search for a new national identity on the global stage.
A compelling narrative of a neglected episode in the global history of the Great War. Xu tells a new story with energy and verve, as he illuminates the nature of cultural exchange in the war zone, with broad ramifications for the future of China in the twentieth century and beyond.--Jay Winter, Yale University This is the first comprehensive study of the roughly 140,000 Chinese laborers who worked in France during the Great War. Filled with rich details and based on extensive archival research, the book adds immeasurably to the literature on the war, international migrations, racism, and cross-cultural encounters. Written clearly and with a wonderful eye for the telling anecdote, the book will establish Xu as among the foremost scholars of modern Chinese and international history.--Akira Iriye, Harvard University
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