I stumbled across the first four of these eBook specials earlier today, and thought I’d share the information. With the UK and elsewhere paying a lot of attention to the Great War, I was very happy to see that Penguin Books had released these four books focusing on China’s experiences during the time. This is the type of topic that is all-too-often overlooked by the West. I do hope more in a similar vein are on the way – either about other periods of China’s history, or other nations’ experiences during the two World Wars and other momentous moments.
After 1914, between tiffin and a day at the race track, the British in Shanghai enjoyed a life far removed from the horrors of the Great War. Shanghai's status as a treaty port – with its foreign concessions home to expatriates from every corner of the globe – made it the most cosmopolitan city in Asia. The city’s inhabitants on either side of the conflict continued to mix socially to mix socially after the outbreak of war, the bond amongst foreign nationals being almost as strong as that between countrymen. But as news of the slaughter spread of the Far East, and in particular the sinking of the Lusitania, their ambivalence turned to antipathy.
Jonathan Fenby, The Siege of Tsingtao
In 1914, Europe was not the only continent coming to terms with a new form of conflict. Through a mix of complex alliances and global ambition, the war had spread to northern China, where the German-held port of Tsingtao became a key battleground. To strike a blow at Kaiser Wilhelm's naval forces, Britain and its ally Japan lay siege to the port during October and November. In The Siege of Tsingtao, the first of the Penguin China Specials on the First World War, celebrated historian Jonathan Fenby examines the causes of the battle, the ulterior motives for it, and the path it helped set East Asia on for decades to come.
At the conclusion of “the war to end war”, the victorious powers set about redesigning the world map at the Paris Peace Conference. For China, Versailles presented an opportunity to regain territory lost to Japan at the start of the war. Yet, despite early encouragement from the world’s superpowers, the country was to be severely disappointed, an outcome whose consequences can still be felt today.
Mark O’Neill, The Chinese Labour Corps
As the young men of Europe were fighting in the trenches, a little known contingent of Chinese labourers crossed the world to provide support vital to the Allied war effort. Largely illiterate farmers from northern China, these men were simply attempting to make a better life for themselves, ignorant of the war and its causes. Under brutal conditions many died for their efforts, and their involvement wasn't recognised for decades – it is still not widely known. In this fascinating First World War China Special, journalist Mark O’Neill brings their story to light, describing in detail the labourers’ recruitment, their daily experiences in a foreign land and the horrific work they carrier out – including the clearing of remains from battlefields.
And, two bonus Penguin Specials, time not connected to World War I, but still focusing on China:
Paul French, The Badlands: Decadent Playground of Old Peking
The Badlands, a warren of narrow hutongs in the eastern district of pre-communist Peking, had its heyday in the 1930s. Home to the city's drifters, misfits and the odd bohemian, it was a place of opium dens, divebars, brothels, flophouses and cabarets, and was infamous for its ability to satisfy every human desire from the exotically entertaining to the criminally depraved. These vignettes of eight non-Chinese residents of the precinct White Russians, Americans and Europeans bring the Badlands vividly back to life, providing a short but potent account of a place and a way of life until now largely forgotten, but here rendered unforgettable.
When news of the murder trial of prominent Communist Party leader Bo Xilai’s wife reached Western attention, it was apparent that, as with many events in the secretive upper echelons of Chinese politics, there was more to the story. Now, as the Party’s 18th National Congress oversees the biggest leadership transition in decades, and installs the Bo family’s long-time rival Xi Jinping as president, China's rulers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep their poisonous internal divisions behind closed doors.
Bo Xilai’s breathtaking fall from grace is an extraordinary tale of excess, murder, defection, political purges and ideological clashes going back to Mao himself, as the princeling sons of the revolutionary heroes ascend to control of the Party. China watcher John Garnaut examines how Bo’s stellar rise through the ranks troubled his more reformist peers, as he revived anti-“capitalist roader” sentiment, even while his family and associates enjoyed the more open economy's opportunities. Amid fears his imminent elevation to the powerful Standing Committee was leading China towards another destructive Cultural Revolution, have his opponents seized their chance to destroy Bo and what he stood for? The trigger was his wife Gu Kailai’s apparently paranoid murder of an English family friend, which exposed the corruption and brutality of Bo’s outwardly successful administration of the massive city of Chongqing. It also led to the one of the highest-level attempted defections in Communist China’s history when Bo’s right-hand man, police chief Wang Lijun, tried to escape the ruins of his sponsor’s reputation.