Gu Xingqing was one of about 140,000 members of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC). They were recruited from 1916 onwards as labourers for the French and British armies on the Western Front. 

In a book, which was first published in 1937 he elaborated on his experience as an interpreter with the CLC. Born around 1894 in Shanghai, health problems forced him to travel to the north of China in 1917. There he probably heard about the recruitment driven by the British, which had been taking place since the end of 1916. Undoubtedly, Gu felt that this was an opportunity to experience a special adventure.

He left the port of Qingdao (Shandong Province) on April 17th, 1917 the date on which his account of his trip to Europe starts. It also makes up the largest part of his work. The first part of his journey aboard a ship named the « Protesilaus » took him to Nagasaki and Yokohama in Japan. He was quite surprised to see the drivers of rickshaws (a tricycle which is frequently used as transport in Asia) reading the newspaper on their break. This detail was indicative to him of the high level of education of the Japanese.

On April 24th, he left Japan for Canada. The boat docked in Vancouver on May 9th. He took advantage of the stop in Vancouver to visit the city. He waxed lyrical about the clean streets and was quite surprised, when going into a post office, to be told that it was forbidden to spit on the floor. An offender could be fined USD 50 for this.

The journey then continued by train to the Atlantic coast of Canada, after which he travelled to Great Britain by boat. The risk of an attack by the many German submarines that scoured the ocean at the time was great. One boat, carrying Chinese workers, had already been torpedoed in the Mediterranean in February 1917. Thus their boat was escorted by warships. After a stop in Folkestone (Kent) where Gu experienced his first bomb raid first-hand, he finally arrived in France in Noyelles-sur-Mer (Somme) in July 1917. From there, he left for Poperinge in Belgium.

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  • Map describing the various routes to get to Europe, map taken from Xu Guoqi, " Convergence of Two Civilizations: Research on the Chinese Workers in France During the First World War”, Foreign Intercontinental Press, 2007, 151 p.

  • Portrait of Gu Xingqing, Poperinge, 1917, photo taken from his "Memoirs of my Work during the War in Europe", published in Changsha, 1937-38

    Unfortunately the only portrait of Gu Xingqing in his CLC uniform is of very poor quality. His memoirs were published in 1937 and were based on the notes he took during his stay in Europe. His story gives an accurate account of the various stages of his journey and his relations with the Europeans but tends to gloss over the details of his daily life.

Map describing the various routes taken by the Chinese workers to get to Europeportrait of Gu Xingqing