1916: start of the recruitment

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Yuan Shikai decreed that China would be neutral. Upon the death of Yuan Shikai in June 1916, China decided to renounce neutrality. The Chinese felt humiliated by the Western powers’ appropriation of large parts of China. The Government therefore wanted to acquire greater prominence on the international stage in hopes of having a greater say at a future peace conference about a new world order. The country decided to support the British and French but the Germans were one of the largest foreign communities in China, with considerable business interests. China did not wish to antagonise the Germans by sending soldiers to Europe to support Germany’s enemies, which is why the impoverished country decided not to deploy soldiers but sent workers instead. Later, in 1917 China was to declare war on Germany.

The recruitment of Chinese workers commenced in January 1916. The French took the initiative and on the 4th of May 1916 France and China signed an agreement together. Later the British would also launch recruitment drives, which they carried out in a highly professional and almost military fashion. The new recruitment campaign was based on a contract that guaranteed the workers would be provided with transport, food, clothing and accommodation. Part of the worker’s wages was to be paid to his family and one of the key clauses in the contract also stipulated that the workers would not be exposed to the hazards of war.

Prior to their departure, workers were subjected to a medical examination to check for certain venereal diseases, lung infections and trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease.

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  • A doctor of the Canadian Army’s medical corps subjecting a new recruit of the Chinese Labour Corps in Weihai to an eye exam, 1917, photo, collection of David Livingstone, Waterloo (Canada)

    In some cases the British relied on Canadian doctors to examine the Chinese workers that presented themselves during the recruitment campaigns for the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC). Captain Harry Livingstone was one of them.

  • The taking of fingerprints of a new recruit of the Chinese Labour Corps, first quarter of the 20th century, photo, Tank Museum, Bovington

    Before being recruited, the Chinese workers had to give their fingerprints and were subjected to a medical examination. “The doctor was British and he really paid attention to everything. Anyone with a skin affliction, trachoma, hemorrhoids (?) or an incomplete set of teeth didn’t stand a chance.” Chen Baoyu.

  • Insignia of the Chinese Labour Corps, early 20th century, metal, In Flanders Fields Museum collection Philippe Oosterlinck, Ypres

    This simple badge was virtually the only emblem worn by the Chinese labourers. Chinese workers had previously been employed by Western countries as coolies, as porters or as agricultural workers, without any rights. This new recruitment campaign was based on an employment contract.

A doctor and a Chinese workerThe taking of fingerprints of a new recruit of the Chinese Labour Corpsinsignia of the Chinese Labour Corps