The memoir of an interpreter with the Chinese Labour Corps
The only eyewitness account from a member of the Chinese Labour Corps that has been translated into a western language, the memoir of Gu Xingqing is a remarkable and important document. Even if Gu did not keep a diary during his service in the West, he must have taken many detailed notes. The memoir, however, was only published in 1937 on the eve of the 2nd Sino-Japanese war. In 2010 a Dutch translation was published.
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. Hence an important role as intermediary was to fall on to the shoulders of the interpreters, who were usually young students with a certain knowledge of English or French. Gu, about whom we know very little, was recruited by the British in the early months of 1917. In his detailed memoir, entitled Recollections of my work during the war in Europe, he describes the long voyage from China to France, with glimpses ‘en route’ of Canada and England. His descriptions are accurate and revealing about not only the deeds, morale, and mentality of the Chinese labourers in Europe, but also on their relationship with the local population and British officers. His reflections on the nature of modern (European) war and the importance of nationalistic feelings (a concept rather unknown to most of the Chinese labourers) raise this memoir beyond the mere descriptive. Gu returned home in the final months of 1919, having spent two years and three months at the front in Belgium and France.