Recommendation: Penguin’s World War I China Specials


This series of nine short books is fantastic. I bought them quite some time ago — they were released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I — but I have finally caught up. If you have any interest in learning about China, then I would highly recommend these books. Each of them was informative, engaging, sometimes entertaining, and frequently brutally honest.

China’s part in the First World War is largely unknown. For those in the West, at least, the role the Chinese played (not to mention their earlier and more recent history, too) has so often been viewed as peripheral to that of the UK, USA, France, Germany, Russia and so forth. Often, it’s not mentioned at all in the history books. Frankly, this is a travesty — as these books make clear, China’s contribution to the Allies’ war efforts was considerable.

Mark O’Neill’s two books in the series, in particular, highlight the efforts and contributions to meeting labour needs for trench-digging and so forth:

“some 135,000 Chinese men… were sent to France and Belgium between 1916 and 1922 to help the Allied war effort. They loaded cargoes, dug trenches, filled sandbags, repaired tanks and artillery; they laid railway lines, repaired roads, built ports and aerodromes; they removed animal carcasses and ammunition from the battlefield, collected the bodies of the dead and built the graves to bury them.”

The author also describes the terrible conditions under which the Chinese Labor Corps worked. O’Neill also explains how this story has gone largely untold — a combination of racism and the fact that the Allies’ kept much of it secret (China was officially neutral for much of the war, and therefore had to maintain deniability, given Germany’s involvement in China as an Imperial power).

Robert Bickers, Jonathan Fenby, Paul French and Frances Wood focused primarily on events in China itself, especially Shanghai and Tsingtao. Distant from the main conflicts of the war, however a focus of imperial occupation and activities in general, life in China was somewhat strange and tense: both sides had concessions in China, often in the same cities. In Picnics Prohibited, for example, Frances Wood explains how the diplomatic corps navigated this delicate atmosphere (most of them were friends and acquaintances, at least), and includes some amusing observations from diaries and missives. In The Badlands, Paul French discusses the seedier side of Shanghai, and how the criminal underbelly of the city handled the changing realities of the war (in many ways, this book serves as a taster for his most recent full-length book, City of Devils); and in Bloody Saturday, the author describes the events of a deadly bombing raid against the city.

At the same time, Japan spent much of the war attempting to realize its long-held ambition of increasing its holding in mainland China. Part of China’s frequent attempts to join the war effort on the side of the Allies was because it “needed the help of the Western powers to deal with Japan and regain the former German concessions in Shandong that Japan had taken over.” (O’Neill)

Japan was able to manipulate the Allies’ desire to end the war properly to further its interesting in China. As French explains in Betrayal in Paris, the story of China’s efforts during peace negotiations was tragic. China really was the forgotten partner. The Chinese and other Southeast Asian delegations worked tirelessly to get the Allies (especially the UK and France) to keep to their promises: for example, “Ho Chi Minh… worked as a pastry chef while arguing the case for an independent Indochina by night.” (French)

Unfortunately, multiple secret deals had been cut during the war and before the meetings in Paris. Not just between nations, but certain lobbies exerted considerable influence on the negotiators — for example, the Shanghai Opium Combine, who tried to keep the opium trade alive in Shanghai.

Ann Witchard’s England’s Yellow Peril was a particularly interesting and painful read: in many ways, it highlights the British at their worst, as well as the ease with which national narratives can be manipulated by the media (something of which we are currently getting another painful reminder, today). The hypocrisy surrounding opium, in particular, is utterly shameful.

With recurring threads, these books often refer to each other in theme, if not necessarily in name. Each book is satisfying on its own, but reading them all will give you a fantastic, near-complete picture of the time. It is also an excellent way to sample these historians’ work. The slim size of the books is also laudable: in a time when history books seem to only be getting longer, the concision of these books is welcome. Each of them exhibits a preciseness and authorial restraint that often is lacking in this field.

I can’t recommend this series highly enough. A must read for anyone interested in China and World War I.


The Penguin China Specials (World War I):

(Penguin has published a number of other China Specials, however because they are not specifically tied to the First World War, I will save those for another post.)

One thought on “Recommendation: Penguin’s World War I China Specials

  1. Also recommend Barbara Tuchman’s “Stilwell and the American Experience in China”, if you’re interested in more about him. (Tuchman’s “China Notes” are also excellent, if a little dated.)


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