Asia House, London, 3 February 2015: From Peking to Paris: China and the First World War

Penguin China WW1 boxsetA number of contributors to the Penguin China Specials series ‘World War One 100h Anniversary’, including myself, will be speaking at Asia House, London, on 3 February 2015.

Details of the event, from the Asia House website (where bookings can be made):

During the First World War, 95,000 Chinese farm labourers volunteered to leave their remote villages and work for Britain. They were labelled “the forgotten of the forgotten”, as their stories failed to form part of the public record on the War. This is just one example of many of the lesser known stories relating to China and the Great War. But these stories are now starting to be addressed.

To mark the centenary of the First World War, Penguin China has published a series of short histories on the economic and social costs it brought to China and the Chinese. Each book – written by a leading expert in the field – tells a fascinating tale which will fill the gaps of your China and WWI knowledge, including the only land battle in East Asia fought by Japan and Britain against the German concession in Shandong.

Asia House is pleased to host a panel with several of these authors, who will all talk on their chosen subjects.

Speakers include:

Best-selling author and historian Paul French, the chair of the panel (Betrayal in Paris: How the Treaty of Versailles Led to China’s Long Revolution)

Journalist, best-selling author and China analyst Jonathan Fenby (The Siege of Tsingtao)

Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural Studies, Dr Anne Witchard, from the University of Westminster (England’s Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War)

Professor of History at University of Bristol, Robert Bickers, (Getting Stuck in For Shanghai: Putting the Kibosh on the Kaiser from the Bund)

Curator of Chinese collections at the British Library, Frances Wood (Picnics Prohibited: Diploma in a Chaotic China during the First World War)

Join us to hear the fascinating and all too often forgotten stories of the Great War.

A drinks reception will follow, with signed copies of the books available to purchase.

Venue: Asia House, 63 New Cavendish St London, W1G 7LP

Time: 18.30-20.00

Tickets can be purchased from here.

Not like Hong Kong

Further to my recent post on the London Underground, Punch magazine in 1924 published this further take on the Royal Navy’s routine experience of the China Station. This cartoon was the work of Leonard Raven-Hill (1867-1942), who was educated at Bristol Grammar School, which is 200 yards from where I am typing this.

Leonard Raven-Hill, 'Somewhere in the NOrth Sea', 1924

Leonard Raven-Hill, ‘Somewhere in the North Sea’, 1924

Lost monuments and memorials on the Shanghai Bund, 3: the Iltis monument, 1898

IltisThe Kaiser approved. Well, at least, his favourite sculptor Rheinhold Begas did, the man whose florid creations littered the sites of Wilhelmine power in Germany, and had oversight of the creation of the first German memorial erected in Shanghai. The Iltis Monument — the Iltis Denkmal, 伊尔底司碑 — commemorated the 77 dead German naval personnel, whose ship, the gunboat SMS Iltis, had foundered off the Shandong coast in July 1896. As the vessel sank the men were reported to have gathered around the mast and sung a hymn: ‘Now thank we all our God’. Three days earlier the ship’s officers had entertained Shanghai society at a reception on board, and so it seemed only proper that the International Settlement should host a memorial. The German seizure of Jiaozhou Bay (‘Kiaochow’), and the development of what became the city of Qingdao did not take place until 1897, and Shanghai hosted the largest community of the ‘China Germans’, who were inscribed as such — Die Deutschen Chinas — on the memorial itself.

Iltis drawingThree and a tons of bronze were cast into the shape of a broken mast, around which was wrapped a flag on a staff. A broken mast was a common funerary device, given added piquancy in this case by the facts of the Shandong disaster. The design was sketched by a German naval officer, and then the monument was designed by August Kraus. It was cast in Germany and shipped out to China where it was placed on the Bund, not far from the entrance to the Public Garden and close to the German Club Concordia.

Unveiling of the memorial, 21 November 1898

Unveiling of the memorial, 21 November 1898

It was unveiled by Prinz Albert Wilhelm Heinrich von Preußen (Crown Prince Henry of Prussia) on 21 November 1898. A German naval band played the hymn the crew had sung. Even more than the Allied War Memorial unveiled a quarter of a century later, the Iltis Monument came to serve a ceremonial function. The visual life of the structure online attests to this — for there seem to be many more postcards and other images of this monument than any of the others that were erected, and so more collateral records of it have survived. It came to be a common ritual for visiting German dignitaries or military personnel to pay a formal visit to the site and to lay a wreath, and this is recorded in photographs and postcards.

Count Walldersee pays his respects, 1900

Count Walldersee pays his respects, 1900

If the monument acquired a life as a nationalistic symbol, it was also much lauded as a symbol of Anglo-German friendship. The memorial was situated on a piece of the Bund foreshore that the British firm Jardine Matheson & Co. had residual rights to, but the company had pointedly acceded with alacrity to the request to allow the monument to be sited there. The interests of treaty port Germans and Britons were increasingly closely intertwined at this point. They formed companies together, hosted each other at their clubs, collaborated in running Shanghai’s International Settlement and Race Club, saluted each others’ monarchs, and cemented their commercial relations through marriage. Respecting and honouring the dead of the Iltis disaster was a part of this.

Breaking apart these ties when the lengthening war demanded it in 1914 proved difficult. But the Lusitania sinking in May 1915 and the ‘Roll of Honour’ published in the British Shanghai press started to have a tangible impact. With the allied victory in November 1918 debate immediately commenced about the Iltis monument. Why, demanded some, was a nationalist monument  ever allowed to be erected on the internationalised Bund. But why should triumph change our past view, others countered, of the heroism of the men it honoured: ‘Is victory to turn us into Huns?’ asked one British woman? But the debate proved irrelevant, for a large contingent of French sailors, aided by others, pulled the memorial over on the evening of 1-2 December 1918 and made off with the flagstaff. Nobody saw a thing, funnily enough.

The memorial after it was pulled over, 2 December 1918

The memorial after it was pulled over, 2 December 1918

But the monument survived (and even the flagstaff was anonymously returned). The structure was placed in storage, and in 1929 it was restored to the German community and re-erected in the grounds of the German school in the west of the settlement. There it resumed a ceremonial role, as a site for annual Volkstrauertag — memorial day — ceremonies on 16 March. These were steadily Nazified after 1934 as ‘Heroes’ Day’ (Heldengedenktag). The Iltis made the longest journey of the mobile stone and bronze memorials that were erected on the Bund, and proved the most potent of symbols, to its friends and to its enemies. It was tied up both with the rising imperialism and nationalism of the Wilhelmine state, the Nazification of the Shanghai Germans after 1933, and of course the unforgiving belligerence of the victorious allies. But for some the attack on the monument broke a taboo: foreign power in China was rooted in solidarity, even when the imperialist states jockeyed for advantage and position with each other. The destruction of the memorial set a very bad example, some argued — German and Briton alike in 1914 — for who alone, ultimately, stood to gain from the internecine strife of the Europeans, if not the Chinese.

Crowded train to China, 1924

 

‘Ow fer you got ter’ go, Mate?’ asks the ‘chance companion’ of the sailor, as both emerge from the crowded London underground train in this February 1924 Punch cartoon by George Scholefield Dixon (1890-1960). ‘China’ is of course the answer. I like Dixon’s cartoon for what it suggests about the quiet interpenetration of the worlds of Britain and of the British in China. February 1924 was not a time of crisis, but one of calm in Chinese-British relations. Most Royal Naval personnel would have spent some time on the China Station during their careers, whatever their ranks. The man squashed next to you on the underground might well be heading out to China, or on his way back home with silks and souvenirs. And where, after all, was the absent naval father in Arthur Ransome’s much-loved Swallows and Amazons: he was of course out in China.
20141027074229_Page_1 copy

All aboard for the war: the Suwa Maru sails from Shanghai, 1914

The photograph below was taken at just after 8.30 on the morning of 16 October 1914, and shows just a part of the estimated 7,000 strong crowd that thronged the Bund at Shanghai, and all possible river-side vantage points to wave off 110 British men who were heading out to board the Japanese mail steamer, the SS Suwa Maru. The men were on the first leg of their journey to Britain, and to the various front lines of what we now know as the First World War. This is the story I tell in Getting Stuck in for Shanghai.

waving off the Suwa Maru from the Shanghai Bund, 16 October 1914

Waving off the Suwa Maru from the Shanghai Bund, 16 October 1914

Some 35 of the men were colleagues of the policeman you can see in the foreground. Others worked for various British trading companies and banks, local department stores, the Shanghai Municipal Council’s Public Works Department, and the Chinese Maritime Customs. Some had been born in China; some had only just arrived to take up posts in Shanghai. One was a policeman from British East Africa, and I have not yet worked out what he was doing in China.

This was possibly just about the largest crowd that had yet ever assembled on the Bund, and it was certainly the noisiest. They hurrahed and sang, competing with the horns and whistles of ships in the harbour, until long after the tender carrying the Shanghai British Contingent had sailed out of sight. A couple of months earlier similar scenes were reported at Shanghai’s North Station, when hundreds of German residents assembled to cheer off 40 military reservists returning to the colours, and entraining for Qingdao, the Germany colony in Shandong. At least two of those had been killed in action before the Suwa Maru reached London in December 1914, others were taken prisoner as Japanese forces captured the city, and were to be placed in POW camps in Japan.

One of the Britons who sailed was 22-year old Albert Rothery, son of a farmer in Patterdale, in the English Lake District. Rothery, apprenticed from school as a plumber, had come to China in 1907 to work for the Shanghai Waterworks Company, a British firm. Earlier this year I helped the Patterdale and Glenridding War Memorial Project find out a little more about Albert, who was listed on the local ‘Roll of Honour’ as a casualty. In fact, as you can see from their webpage about him, Rothery had survived the war, earning a Military Medal and a Military Cross on way, emerging as a Lieutenant in the Tank Corps in 1918. He had first joined the 10th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, along with about 40 of the Suwa Maru volunteers. Lt. Rothery returned to China and the Waterworks, eventually retiring in 1934, and returning to live near his home, settling 30 miles away in Carlisle.

Part of what drives my research is an interest in the British local history of the relationship with China. Far from being the exotic preserve of an ‘imperial’ British elite, you can find links to China like Rothery’s in the local histories of a great many British localities through the people who went out to work there. The China British certainly included the elite businessmen who went to work for Jardine Matheson & Co — the ‘Princely Hong’ that was at the centre of James Clavell’s 1966 blockbuster Tai-Pan (as the ‘Noble House’, ‘Struan’s)– or the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank. But they included too, in far greater numbers, these drapers and policeman, tobacco and oil salesmen, tidewaiters and public health employees who sailed on the SS Suwa Maru in October 1914, and the staff of the Shanghai Waterworks, men like Albert Rothery, the plumber from the Lake District.

Lost monuments and memorials of the Shanghai Bund 2: Statue of Sir Robert Hart, 1914

I first started writing up this research in 2010 when invited to give a lecture in Shanghai at a meeting of the International Council of Museums. This had been timed to coincide with the Shanghai World Expo, which carved out chunks of the city, south of its former core, and peppered them with dozens of pavilions showcasing international design. Over six months some 73 million visits were made to these sites. Part of the city’s overall pitch was to show how internationalised a place it had become after two decades of ‘reform and opening up. It was now a true world city, cosmopolitan and modern. I have never trusted the word ‘cosmopolitan’, for reasons that I will come to, but I have found the word used more than once to describe these monuments that formerly stood on the city’s Bund — its riverside embankment. In fact they are used to represent Shanghai’s longer history of being a world city: we have always been cosmopolitan, runs the argument, look at the array of artistic styles represented by the monuments which graced our public spaces. One display in which you can find this wording used is in the Bund History Museum underneath one of the current memorials: the Monument to the People’s Heroes (上海市人民英雄纪念碑).

Unveiling of statue of Sir Robert Hart, 25 May 1914

Unveiling of statue of Sir Robert Hart, 25 May 1914

Was this the most ‘cosmopolitan’ of the memorials? The second youngest of the Shanghai monuments at the time of their removal in September 1943 was the statue of Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General (I. G.) of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service from 1863-1911. Designed by Henry Pegram, R.A., and unveiled on 25 May 1914, the Hart statue (赫德铜像) originally stood on the river-front lawns at the junction of Jiujiang (Kiukiang) Road and the Bund. Ostensibly, yes, it was in many ways the most ‘cosmopolitan’ of the six memorials placed by the Huangpu river. Hart’s organisation was an agency of the Chinese state, but it employed some 11,000 foreign nationals over nearly a century, from 1854 until 1950, and they worked smoothly together, mostly, in what was for its time an institution unusually international in its composition. Half of those men were Britons, like Hart, but the others were American, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and from many more nations besides (including quite a number of Norwegians). Although the initiative to build a memorial came from the service, it was unable to see it through. Hart was the subject of something akin to a cult within the Customs, but its leaders could not use public money to honour their former chief, and not enough money was donated by its staff. It was also felt that it would be politically sensible to have a monument erected not in Peking, where Hart had spent most of the five decades after 1861, but in foreign-controlled Shanghai. So there it was that the statue was unveiled by the Danish Consul-General. Its epitaphs were composed by the President of Harvard University, and its designer was British. A German conducted the Town Band as proceedings got underway. Chinese texts were carved on to the plinth as well, and it was largely paid for by licence fees paid by the Chinese residents of the International Settlement.

Robert Hart statueThe statue shows Hart back bowed with the weight of his responsibilities, so it was hardly a subtle object, but unusually for the Bund memorials it also had a didactic text (see below). Hart, the words on panels attached to the plinth stated, was a ‘True Friend of the Chinese People’. He was ‘Modest, patient, sagacious and resolute’, it continued, ‘He overcame formidable obstacles, and / Accomplished a work of great beneficence for China and the world’. These are the words composed by Harvard’s Charles Eliot. Your ‘true friend of the Chinese people’, might well be my ‘black hand’ of British imperialism of course (to use a Chinese term), but the most controversial aspect of the memorial for some, at least until the Japanese takeover of the city in December 1941, was that the plinth was too small, and that the statue faced the wrong way. As those who Shanghai can see, it was positioned so that Sir Robert looked north, but this put it out of line with most of the other memorials on the Bund which were designed to be viewed with the river behind them, facing the buildings that lined the west side of the road.

In 1927 the statue was moved  a little way north, and placed on a new, much higher plinth (more in proportion with the statue itself, which was designed to be viewed from below), and at the same time the plaques were renewed. The text had been too closely placed together, because of the size of the plinth, and some of it was by then quite indistinct. There were also mistakes in the Chinese inscription. But the main reason for the refurbishment was the deliberate use of Hart’s reputation by his nephew, Sir Frederick Maze, who was to take over Hart’s position as Inspector-General in 1929. The actual occasion was the rebuilding of the Customs House at Shanghai in 1925-27, where Maze was Commissioner. After he took the post, Maze had a glossy brochure published as a Circular (a Customs Service high-level order or announcement) , which was sent to retired former senior officers and many others. Look, Maze aimed to say, Hart and his legacy are safe with me.

statue1928In its new location the statue now faced west, and stood on a traffic island in front of the main entrance to the Shanghai Customs House, with its back to the Customs Examination shed. Presumably it then functioned to shame those sloping off early from work. Perhaps they snuck out the back of the building instead, in order to avoid his gaze. (But as the service also had photographs of Hart officially on display in offices, there was a limit to how far they could avoid the old ‘I. G.’). This was not the only one of the Bund side statues to move, in fact all did so, over the years. We might well be accustomed to thinking about the meanings of memorials shifting (or simply fading), but think less about the fact that the objects themselves, seemingly so rooted, are often shifted. Roads are widened or re-routed; anxieties lead to monuments being re-sited on private, instead of public land; political change demands a cleansing of a cityscape. Hart’s statue, along with all the others on the Bund, was taken down in September 1943, at the insistence of the Japanese authorities in the city.

Removal of statue of Sir Robert Hart, September 1943

Removal of statue of Sir Robert Hart,September 194

Aside from the Shanghai War Memorial, this was the monument that foreign observers seemed most invested in emotionally. In a couple of accounts published in wartime Britain, the statue is pointed to as representing all that was positive about the British presence in China, and what was presented as the selfless contribution of men like Hart to its development. I have discussed the nuances and realities of such thinking in The Scramble for China, and Hart’s role in particular, but it is telling how much this statue came to symbolise what were argued to be the positive aspects of the British presence in modern China, which it became important to articulate after December 1941, when Britain and China were formally allies in the war against Japan. The ‘savagery’ of the Japanese — this was the type of language used — was highlighted in these accounts by the pulling down of the statue of Sir Robert Hart. The sense of a lack of proportion is more telling yet.

In early December 1945, the Customs Service leadership, which had been based in Chongqing since February 1942, started to take back over the organs of the service based in Shanghai which had continued to function under Japanese control during the occupation. One would have thought that with a harbour to rehabilitate, a population to feed, and an economy to help reconstruct, there would be little time or resource to spare to think about a statue. But no: a team was despatched to relocate Sir Robert and get him back on show. The statue and all the side the panels had been transferred to the Shanghai Customs when the memorial was dismantled — I have held in my hands the signed receipt that was issued (such are the things which survive in archives) — but they were now missing. At some point late in the war, as shortages pushed up the price of metal, someone in the Customs House quietly sold them off to a scrap-metal merchant. The investigation team followed the trail to a couple of scrapyards, but there it went cold. Or not so cold: evasive replies from those interviewed at the yards suggested to the team that the deposed Inspector-General and the plaques proclaiming all of his virtues and titles in English and in Chinese had been melted down.

Hart died in England in 1911, and was buried in the pretty Thames-side churchyard at Bisham, near Marlow. In early 2013 with funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council,  I worked with fellow-historians to restore the grave of Hart and his wife Hester, which was rededicated in a ceremony in February 2013 (you can find a write up here). Several of Hart’s descendants came to the event, as well as the children and grand-children of Customs staff. I also collaborated with a Bristol-based company on a short film about this process and about Hart’s career and contributions to Britain-China relations (for more on that look here). Hart is also remembered in the name of a primary school in his homeland. The last time I visited the Shanghai History Museum he was just about the first person I saw, in the shape of an actor playing the Inspector-General in the introductory film, but the statue remains conspicuous by its absence, as all the Bund memorials do.

And my beef with that word ‘cosmopolitan’? Well, this was never an innocent word, and it was in general a statement of power for the foreign residents of Shanghai who lauded their little league of nations on the banks of the Huangpu river. It was cosmopolitan on their terms, and those terms were shaped by the power relationships which shaped the city. After all, Chinese residents were forbidden from walking on the Bund lawns on which Sir Robert Hart was placed, and so would not have been able to read those inscriptions, which went through the cosmopolitan motions of speaking in Chinese, but which spoke to a deliberately emptied air.

closeupplaque