When it comes to the causes, course, and outcome of the First World War, the main emphasis is placed on events in Europe, often dismissing those of the Asia-Pacific region and the American continent. Despite the absence of large-scale hostilities there were also supporters of the redivision of the world. The article considers the special participation of China in the Great War and its essential role, which remained unnoticed and underestimated by the rest of the powers and the world community as a whole. The main argument of the article is that it was precisely the invalidity of China’s participation in WWI that led to the country becoming a Communist.
By that time, Japan had won the First Sino-Japanese war in 1895 and by that had put to an end China’s supremacy in the East. Boissoneault describes how China and Japan took part in the WWI in search for gaining regional dominance1. Simultaneously, European states were involved in military actions aiming at inserting themselves into East Asian affairs. Most importantly, Germany had set its colony in Shandong province, China. This territory became a bone of contention between Japan and China. While the former sought to establish their dominance in Shandong and, eventually, increase their power in China, the latter aimed at regaining their positions.
The Republic of China formally took part in the First World War on the Entente side. However, the country’s remoteness from the main places of hostilities led to the fact that issues related to participation in the war were mainly a background for internal political problems. At the same time, China itself did not take part in the military operations of the Great War. The young republic was in dire need of recognition from the largest European states.
In 1917, although China joined the fight against Germany, it managed to hold out, however, without firing a single shot. Formally entering the war, China counted on European and American allies’ support in defending its territories from Japan. In November 1914, the Japanese occupied Jiao Zhou, a German colony in Qing China, and targeted other Chinese areas. The role of Chinese citizens on the territory of European powers was enormous. Many Chinese had to dig trenches, others worked in factories producing shells in shipyards and auto and aircraft factories. They repaired roads and railways, worked in logging in mines, and thus made a considerable contribution to supporting the military industry in Europe in 1916-1918.
However, their contributions have gone unnoticed and underestimated, and hat resulted in absolutely disadvantageous for China decisions represented in the Versailles Treaty: the Western powers decided on Shandong to become Japanese. As Boissoneault writes, “China saw the move as a rejection of its demand to be recognized as an equal player in global politics, and as an affront to its sovereignty.”2. The ensuing protests in Beijing necessitated political and social change, resulting in the establishment of Chinese Communist Party in 1921.
Three important arguments of the article should be noted in this regard. First, international wars tend to globalize military operations due to various political interests, mixing with the original ones. Second, despite its official neutrality, China took part in direct hostilities on the Entente side, using commercial businesses. Third, the Western powers unfairly divided territories between China and Japan without delving into their history and the corresponding contribution.
The narrative presented by Boissoneault is significant for historians for it presents a new perspective on causality within the framework of China’s policy (including modern). It also sheds light on the impact of global, transnational decisions on the fate of a particular country. In addition, one must also consider the broader context in which the articles themselves were written. In January 2017, Donald Trump became the new president of the United States. From the very beginning, he began to pursue a harsh and, at times, even extravagant international policy, relations between the United States and China began to deteriorate noticeably. The article can be considered a timely reflection on the influence of ill-considered or paternalistic decisions on the course of history.
Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The Surprisingly Important Role China Played in WWI” Smithsonian Magazine, 2017. Web.
- Lorraine Boissoneault, “The Surprisingly Important Role China Played in WWI” Smithsonian Magazine, Web.
- Boissoneault, “The Surprisingly Important Note,” para. 16.