Chinese trench art



'Trench art', a generic term used to describe folk art created in the context of war, has only very recently drawn the attention of academic scholars. These objects can take any form but most common are engraved artillery shells. It is now believed many of these items are more than mere souvenirs, for they reflect some of the realities of a unique war experience. This is perhaps even more evident with ‘trench art’ made by members of the Chinese Labour Corps, a group that otherwise left few sources.


Some 140,000 Chinese men served in France and Belgium during the First World War. While the 40,000 recruited by the French were to be found all over France, the British militarized their 96,000 Chinese in a Chinese Labour Corps, deployed behind the front and along the Lines of Communication from 1917 to 1919, with the last of them only leaving Europe in 1920. The vast majority of these labourers were illiterate. Yet in some public collections and even more so in large private collections, exquisitely carved objects left by Chinese labourers are to be found: artillery shells with dragons, lions, Peking opera figures, flowers and butterflies, or Chinese characters.These little pieces of China were created far from home amidst a war of utter destruction. One example has the inscription “YPRES - Present by Lin Feng chao to Lt. Sykes for memory 2/8/19” and serves as material witness to a 'cultural encounter', while another bears an inscription by the poet Meng Haoran (689-740). Significantly, the poem is one about homesickness.