Co-authorship of today’s post is shared with Joseph Svinth, the editor of the EJMAS and multiple other important works on martial arts studies. He brought the following account and historic photographs to my attention, and we both agreed that they were worth sharing here.
It seemed as though the events of WWI had largely receded from the public consciousness over the last few decades. Yet the Great War has been making a comeback in popular culture. It served as the setting for the hit 2017 film “Wonder Woman,” as well as several other projects appearing on the small screen. It is often forgotten that China was officially a combatant in WWI (having declared war on Germany and her allies in 1917). While China never sent troops to fight on the Western front, it did provide the UK and France with a large labor corps to assist the war effort. The opening scenes of Donnie Yen’s 2010 film “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” helped to renew popular appreciation of that fact in China and the West.
Yet what was the Chinese Labor Corps? Following the horrific (and largely unexpected) losses of the first two years of the war, the allied governments found themselves facing an acute manpower crisis on the Western front. To alleviate this pressure the French (and later British) governments began negotiations with China to provide a large body of non-combatant laborers. These individuals were typically drawn from poor families in Shandong and other provinces of northern and central China. The provision of about 140,000 workers freed up allied soldiers allowing them (for better or worse) to return to the trenches.
The members of the Chinese Labor Corps performed a wide variety of tasks. The simplest included digging trenches, filling sandbags and setting up camps. More specialized assignments included working in weapons factories, unloading ships at various ports, and cleaning and maintaining heavy weapons such as tanks. Between ten and twenty thousand members of the Labor Corps died during WWI, and their graves can be found in war cemeteries across Western Europe. Most returned home in 1919 or 1920, yet at least 5,000 individuals remained in France and helped to create that country’s Chinese community.
The experiences of members of the Labor Corp were highly variable. Many individuals were forced to work for extremely poor wages, and some were even deprived of basic food and supplies. Others seem to have weathered the conflict better and a few were trained as semi-skilled workers. These units were led by British and French officers and were accompanied by Chinese students who acted as translators.
At least one of the officers who worked with the Chinese Labor Corps should be well known to students of martial arts history. Ernest John Harrison made a name for himself as both an intrepid journalist and an early student of Judo. While living in Japan Harrison became the first Westerner to receive a blackbelt from the Kodokan. He went on to write many books and articles. Early in his career he tended to tackle more political questions, but after WWII the public knew him best for his many volumes on various aspects of Judo. Anyone interested in learning more about him should check out this “autobiography”, based on Harrison’s private correspondence with the American martial arts pioneer R. W. Smith.
Harrison was already an avid wrestler and judo practitioner by the time that he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in British military and assigned to the Chinese Labor Corp. As such he was in a good position to observe the Lunar New Year celebrations that his troops staged in 1918. He noted with interest the performance of “katas” (his term) and weapons demonstrations. At one point, Harrison even found himself facing off against a Chinese martial artist in both jacketed and stripped wrestling. He also reported on a brick breaking demonstration.
Harrison’s account notes that his fellow officers and countrymen also observed and photographed these demonstrations. Luckily for us, many of these historic photographs still survive, so we can visualize with ease the scenes that he describes. The existence of these photos also raises two additional points that are worth considering.
Joseph Svinth notes that it is clear that these celebrations had been planned by the Chinese workers themselves and quite a bit of preparation went into them. It is not really a surprise to see the martial arts being demonstrated in a setting like this. Yet it is important to note that even in an explicitly militarized context, the Chinese martial arts never appeared in a “pure” form. Practical wrestling was always juxtaposed with amateur opera, actors on stilts, iron palm demonstrations and sword dancing. It is sometimes assumed that there was once a pure “military” art that was debased by the world of the seasonal festival or marketplace street fair. Indeed, that was the operating theory of many early 20th century reform organizations, including the Jingwu Association (whose very name means something like “pure martial.”) While not denying that the martial arts have had a “serious” and a “military” aspect, the experience of the Chinese Labor Corps seems to suggest that these things could never be fully extracted from the other cultural factors that traditionally surrounded these fighting systems, even in an environment as grim as the battlefields of WWI.
Second, these scenes of the Chinese martial arts were not enjoyed in isolation. Soldiers from many nations saw these displays. And on other holidays (Christmas and New Year) they tended to enjoy their own forms of boxing, wrestling, theater and pantomime. The 1910s and 1920s were a period of intense globalization and cultural exchange. While WWI demolished important aspects of the global trade system, the meeting of so many soldiers and cultures on the Western front encouraged other types of exchange and cultural learning. If nothing else, the sad shared experiences of trench raids led all sorts of individuals to wonder about better and more appropriate forms of martial art and hand to hand combat training.
The presence of the Chinese Labor Corps in Europe ensured that they too would be part of this conversation. Chinese travelers brought their experience with Western boxing back to their homeland, while individuals like Harrison got to see iron palm demonstrations and try their hand against China’s martial artists. During the 1920s and 1930s many individuals in China would begin to actively promote their martial arts on the global stage precisely because the martial arts had become the subject of a truly global conversation. The Lunar New Year celebration of the Chinese Labor Corps was an important harbinger of things to come, and who better to announce its arrival than E. J. Harrison?
Description of Source Material
“Transcription of a thick notebook (some 132 pages and nearly 38,000 words) in which Ernest John Harrison records his life as an officer in the Chinese Labour Corps, starting on 14 December 1917 and ending on 25 July 1918, going from Japan to China to Canada to England to France. The original is in the possession of his daughter, Mrs Aldona Collins… The account is in his handwriting. Where there is doubt about the spelling of a word, mainly names, this is signified with (?). R. Bowen. November MM.” [Note: I have added additional paragraph breaks to make the document easier to read in a digital format.]
11: Probably the most enjoyable and satisfactory day yet spent in camp. Companies were roll-called and then given the rest of the day to themselves. When I arrive on parade company was drawn up with lance-corporals facing right flank, in which position the entire company solemnly saluted me. NCOs and p’ai t’ous came up to the mess soon after nine am. They made a gallant showing . Lowder and all the rest admitted that they carried off the palm for smartness, as exemplified in marching, turning, etc. My English-speaking corporal tendered me the NCO’s cards with names transliterated and also two crimson paper scrolls bearing names of members of company and also communicating some special New Year sentiment. Burman, as at one time assistant officer, also received cards.
I acknowledged greetings to the best of my poor ability, the while my messmates on the verandah above made ribald remarks at my expense. The men went off as smartly as they came. Afterwards I visited bunk-house and told them how pleased I was with their performance. It is undoubtedly gratifying to see that, after all, one’s efforts have borne fruit. Hennigan, Thompson, Spence and I went for a walk before tiffin. We did perhaps four miles across country to a Japanese settlement, where we drank some beer at a tea-house. Rising Sun flags were displayed everywhere in honour of the Japanese New Year. Here too we met one of Hennigar’s sergeants, a fine-looking fellow, who is a local resident. He took us to his home and introduced us to his brother and nieces. For such a man the surroundings were really surprisingly decent; showing how good a type often enlists in the coolie corps. Returned in good time for tea.
While enjoying my post-tiffin nap the head boy called me saying that Van Ess wanted me to come out to see some coolie stunts. I went down and found two fellows stripped to the waist going through kata-like movements. One man had a knife with which he made mimic attacks upon the other. The display was quite good and thrilling in its way. Then nothing would satisfy Van Ess but that I should try conclusions with the bigger man of the two. He being stripped it was not easy to obtain a grip, and during the first encounter, as I twisted his arm, he caught my foot and managed to bring me on all-fours to the ground – of course no fall at all in wrestling, but none the less a source of great delight to the mess onlookers. Then we repaired to softer soil on the East side of the mess. The coolie donned his tunic and in quick succession I twice put him on his back without trouble. He declined to have any further truck with me.
The two fellows then continued their stunts. The culmination was one in which the smaller man lay with his head resting cheek downwards on a stool; the other placed seven bricks upon the other side of the head, and then seizing a single brick dealt the pile a violent blow which shattered them in fragments over the head of the recumbent coolie who at once sprang up none the worse for his experience. The taller coolie also broke several bricks over his own head. Several snaps were taken by Van Ess, Lowder, Cormack, etc, of these interesting scenes.
Shortly before four pm a procession headed by the camp “band” paid us a state visit. There were the mandarin and daughter (or wife), the mandarin astride a pole and the girl in a sedan chair carried on bearers’ shoulders, an escort comprised of several men on stilts, including our sergeant-major also made up as a mandarin who staggered perilously as though under the influence of liquor. One of the stilt-walkers was made up as a girl carrying a fan, he was simply immense, his imitation of the mincing steps of the conventional belle, the craning forward of the neck, the handling of the fan and the simper being ludicrous beyond words. A squad of “soldiers” clad in our jail-birds’ uniforms, armed with wooden guns marched behind the band, and deliberately marched out of step. They were priceless. Unfortunately, the sergeant-major became so intoxicated with his success that he outdid himself and fell rather heavily. I then left the scene and returned to the mess for tea. Sayer told me at tiffin time that he had had a yarn with my men during the forenoon. He said they referred to me as the “No.1″ officer in camp! They praised my good temper and declared I hardly ever struck them like other officers. Sayer assured them I had a very bad temper of which they had better be beware. One man said he knew coolies were not beaten in France. Sayer told him he was wrong and that if he objected to corporal punishments for his misdeeds he had better not go to France. The man, however, concluded he would go in any case and risk it.