Chinese labour corps (wikipedia)

Oh, China has declared war

“Every plant is stopping crying / As if skies were crying too / Oh, China is declaring war, / Oh, China has declared war. / It is coming against us with a hundred miracles, / with pointy pagodas, / with a row of fat idols, / with Buddha’s magic belly.”
China was so far away – at least in 1917 –, it represented an insignificant “European force”, and it could not even keep order at home, therefore its entry into war was of no account according to the poet of Borsszem Jankó humour magazine. And indeed, neither pagodas, nor Buddhas were scattered from the sky above Budapest – only their tiny variants from the boxes of street vendors in front of the cafés. True though, that at the time of China’s entry into war, nobody really expected the transformation of the Isonzo power relations, or the Monarchy being shocked by the loss of its “colonies” – or more precisely, that 1-1.5 square kilometres of the Tientsin district. Looking at the events from Budapest, nothing more was at risk on August 14, 1907, when war was declared. Below we will have a look at the faith of the small Austrian-Hungarian territory, the influence of the war message on the Hungarian-Chinese and Chinese-Hungarian community and China’s participation in the war.

China did not have many disputes with the Monarchy, which, after the boxer riot, in 1901, received a tiny concession territory in Tientsin, a riverside territory unsuitable for sea transport. It was slightly transformed over the 1.5 decades before the war, the roads and buildings received became much more European, and the territory already cost money, but it did not become the source of the Monarchy’s colonial enrichment and did not make the state, with a fleet ousted to the Adriatic Sea during the war, a sea power. Germanization did not bloom in the Chinese “Habsburg land”, English was taught in the European school established by the Monarchy as well. However, the district was favoured by wealthy merchants enjoying the tax paradise of the duty-free concession zone and warlords becoming independent in the chaos after the revolution in 1911. The latter ones had several villas in the Austrian-Hungarian district; this is the reason, for example, for the fact that President Yuan Shikai, who proclaimed himself Emperor at the end of 1915, was also an Austrian citizen. However, the shame of getting into war against himself was not an option, since a few months earlier Chinese territories broke away from him one after the other, so besides having to resign, at the beginning of June 1916, he had a seizure. Therefore in August 1917he did not have to ask himself the 40-million dollar question: should he give up his citizenship or intern himself.

But what did China hope about bringing Germany and Austria-Hungary to their knees? Basically, not much, since it was not these two great powers, closed into a continent, that broke China’s gates, but its most important ally, Great Britain. And its (non-existent) independence was not threatened by Berlin, but Tokyo, with which China was also in the same league. Japan entered the war in August 1914 to “protect” China from the German influence, i.e. it occupied German concession territories and its centre, the city of Tsingtao. After the successful battles, in early 1915, Japan collected its claims against weak China too, so it was not only Manchuria that got under Japan supervision, but Japan influence settled throughout the entire Chinese economy. Thereby China had much more to settle with Japan – and therefore it was in its primary interest to have a seat at the table in Versailles for its diplomats during the discussion of peace conditions. This plan was partly successful: the Chinese delegation could participate, but – unlike Japan – not equally in rank with the great ones. Thereby territories under former German authority were eventually granted to Japan as mandated territory as well as concession. So the Chinese did not achieve their real aim with the entry into the war, which was already discussed in Hungarian press in August 1917.

Moreover, in 1917, China did not look like a state ready for expansion. In addition to the fact that eight countries enjoyed privileges in the territory of China, i.e. real sovereignty was off the table, a significant internal transformation took place as well. In 1911, an uprising broke out in Vuchang, triggered by the wave of protests against the nationalization of railways and its brutal retaliation. The imperial Qing dynasty fell, the six-year-old Puyi was resigned and the republic was proclaimed with Sun Yat-sen as its first president. The period of stability did not arrive with the revolution’s rapid and decisive victory, which is well illustrated by the fact that China had six prime ministers before the outbreak of the First World War, while in the three years from 1914 and 1917, the head of government (state secretary, president of the state council – since the position itself changed too) changed eight times. Upon the Chinese war message, the government was headed by the most powerful warlord, Tuan Chi-jui – for the fourth time already –, but around 1916-1917, the government at Beijing could not really work their will upon the – Southern – provincial warlords.

The state of war did not shake the citizens who stuck in the opponent country. The diplomats in Tianjin and the members of the Austrian and Hungarian colony returned home safely already in the autumn: this was reported by Budapesti Hírlap on December 18. The more than fifty Hungarian sailors, whose ship had stuck in Tsingtao, were not that lucky. They were interned, together with the German, but by their own accounts, they were kept well and could move relatively freely. However, they only arrived home in 1920. Not many Chinese were stuck in Hungary either: Az Est already wrote about Chinese in Budapest, believed by many to be Russian spies, at the beginning of the war. But they did not work for the Tsar, they rather carved soapstone sculptures and tried to sell it to the citizens of Pest, hungry for cheap exoticism, at busy places of the city. Their number was not much more than that of the sailors at Tsingtao, where Jiu, the giant circus wrestler also counted only as one. An order of magnitude higher number of them could live in Vienna – besides statue hawkers, Az Est reported on manicurists as well – “at some manicure shops in Vienna, one can often see Chinese employees recently, because Chinese are well-versed in this profession” – but missed the Chinese middle class, the intellectuals.

However, Chinese working class did not appear in Vienna, but rather in France and England. However, it did not depend on the war message – though Az Est mentions it, China mostly sent clay soldiers only to the region of Ypres. However, in the war-bleeding Europe, to compensate the terrible labour shortage, the recruitment of Chinese workers already started in 1916: at first the French government concluded a framework agreement of fifty thousand in May, and shortly after the British also began recruiting. The British promised 20 yuan upon contracting and 10 yuan a month for the family that remained at home. However, the arrival of the Chinese worker division was not shouted from housetops: the people, who arrived after three months from the Pacific Ocean-Canada-Atlantic Ocean route, were transported by train in the greatest secrecy, in cattle trains. The first contingent appeared on the old continent in January 1917.

The fact that on the western front and its hinterland Chinese hands help the struggle of the Entente was communicated to the Hungarian readers in August-September 1917 at the latest. Az Est demonstrated the extent of the Entente’s offensive in Flanders among others by writing that “thousands of Chinese, Maori and Egyptian worked on the roads for weeks”, then reported on the following – at the first hearing, strange – incident: the Bulgarian army captured Chinese captives in Macedonia, on the Balkan front. As it turned out, they were not armed soldiers, but members of the worker division. Tens of thousands helped with the land works of the front, the building of logistic lines, the production of war factories. Though according to Az Est even French women did a better job than the Chinese, or at least it reported in the summer of 1918 based on the French paper entitled La Victoire that women who had to take up work due to the war are almost at complete exhaustion, but they admirably stood work that even Chinese workers were put off by. Then based on another French paper, Le Temps, Az Est also reported that China sent “a real worker army” to France, their number reaching 150 thousand and „are loved a lot, because they are quiet, modest and work a lot.” The paper drew a pretty accurate picture, even with the unreliability of the news and rumours from across the front: a total of about 140 thousand Chinese grabbed spades and hoes, hammers and sickles, and sometimes screw wrench to repair cars. But this figure already includes Chinese with British ties as well, moreover, their number was higher, around a hundred thousand. Though they also performed their task in France, since British unions effectively protested against “import Chinese” taking their job. Since they were there, there were war victims too – around two thousand people pursuant to the official records –, but the least of them died in the fighting: most Chinese victims were taken by the Spanish flu in 1918. Just like Hungarian sailors, Chinese workers also returned home only around 1920.

Since Hungary and China waged war, the post-war relationship between the two countries also had to be settled in the Trianon Peace Treaty. This was included in Articles 97-101 of the Treaty: the Hungarian government resigned from the concession area rights and its – non-diplomatic – properties as well as the claims for damages related to the internment.


A flandriai offenzíva nagy kudarccal indult meg = Az Est, 1917. augusztus 4.
Kína hadat üzen a Monarchiának = Az Est, 1917. augusztus 8.
A kínai házalókat internálják = Az Est, 1917. augusztus 8.
Miért állott Kína az entente mellé? = Az Est, 1917. augusztus 9.
Hadba szállnak a mandarinok = Borsszem Jankó, 1917. augusztus Kedden reggel kezdődőit a hadiállapotunk Kínával = Az Est, 1917. augusztus 19.
Kínai hadifoglyok a macedóniai fronton = Az Est, 1917. szeptember 14.
Hazatérés Kínából = Budapesti Hírlap, 1917. december 18.
Kimerülnek a francia nők = Az Est, 1918. július 29.
Százötvenezer kínai dolgozik Franciaországban = Az Est, 1918. augusztus 23.
Act XXXIII of 1921 (The Trianon Peace Treaty)
Jamrik Levente: Az Osztrák–Magyar Monarchia kínai gyarmata
The forgotten army of the first world war. How Chinese labourers helped shape Europe.
First World war’s forgotten Chinese Labour Corps to get recognition at last = The Guardian, August 14, 2014
China declares war on Germany

Written by: Róbert Takács