A novel look at the Chinese Labour Corps in the Great War

Chinese War Cemetery Noyelles-sur-Mer

Chinese War Cemetery Noyelles- sur-Mer © grassrootsgroundswell/Flickr

Roy Peachey
Roy Peachey

Roy Peachey (SOAS MA Chinese Studies, 2010) has written Between Darkness and Light, a novel about the contribution of the Chinese Labour Corps in WWI.  He outlines his career to date:

My first degree was a BA in Modern History at Oxford, “modern” meaning the 4th Century to 1964!  Then I studied for another BA with the Open University in Literature and English Language.

I became especially interested in Chinese language, history and culture while my wife and I were waiting to adopt our first child from China. Given its international reputation, SOAS was the obvious place to study. I really enjoyed the breadth of the course and the opportunity to burrow down into Chinese history and literature.

After a short spell working in a night shelter after uni and an abortive PhD in 17th century history, I became a secondary schoolteacher. I’m now Director of Curriculum Development at The Cedars School, Croydon, while also working for a Catholic charity, studying for a PhD in Theology and contemporary fiction at Nottingham, and trying to develop my writing career. I’ve had three non-fiction books published as well as my novel, Between Darkness and Light.

I was browsing in the SOAS library while working on my MA when I came across Xu Guoqi’s China and the Great War. The title unsettled me: I had a History degree from Oxford and had been teaching History for some years but I had no idea that China had been involved in World War I. I put the essay I was supposed to be writing to one side and started filling in the lamentable gaps in my knowledge. The more I read about the Chinese Labour Corps the more convinced I became that there was a great story to be told, a story that cried out for novelistic treatment.

It is a novel about blindness, a First World War novel in which there is no fighting, a post-war novel about the meeting of China and the West, and an unconventional love story.

Once I had finished an initial draft, I realised that I needed a go-between, someone who could move between China and the Western Front, so I rebuilt the book around Wang Weijun, a Chinese translator with the Chinese Labour Corps who had a one-eyed love of the West that he could not sustain. The metaphor was too good to remain as a metaphor, so I opened the novel with a childhood game of William Tell that went badly wrong. My one-eyed protagonist then discovered the comic potential of his artificial eyeballs while I explored metaphorical and actual blindness: the difference between perception and reality and the very real trauma of sight loss and trachoma that many labourers faced during the war.

I have finished writing a novel about a young English boy who travels to China with Lord Macartney’s diplomatic mission in the 18th century and I am in the early stages of writing two other novels, one of which revolves around a great Chinese politician of the early twentieth century. I am also working on some history books for children. I enjoy juggling lots of different projects!

Further information

Between Darkness and Light
Between Darkness and Light

Roy Peachey Between Darkness and Light (Eyrie Press, 2019). To order a copy

“A compelling and audacious novel”
Martin Alexander, Editor-in-Chief, Asia Literary Review

“A tragic epic”
Michel Hockx, Professor of Chinese Literature, University of Notre Dame, USA

“Of all the imaginings of those times, this is a tale that stands out”
T. H. Barrett, Professor Emeritus of East Asian History, SOAS

See also, Roy Peachey, ‘Discovering the Great War of China:  A third of a million Chinese labourers helped the Allies defeat the Kaiser, but their huge unsung contribution ended in betrayal’, Standpointmagazine, 26 June 2019

Eventually some 140,000 labourers were recruited by Britain and France, while Russia hired another 200,000 men. By the time China declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in August 1917, many thousands of labourers had already travelled to Europe and many had died.

Photographs of the Chinese Labour Corps in France

Roy Peachey is an experienced public speaker and available to give talks about the Chinese Labour Corps and the novel.
(Get in touch:  roypeacheyuk@gmail.com)

SOAS degrees

MA Chinese Studies

Chinese and Inner Asia degree programmes

History degree programmes


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