Caring beyond national borders: the YMCA and Chinese laborers in World War I Europe

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Date: June 2009
From: Church History(Vol. 78, Issue 2)
Publisher: American Society of Church History
Document Type: Essay
Length: 9,970 words
Lexile Measure: 1710L

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IT is well known that 175,000 Chinese laborers worked for Allied troops in Europe during World War I. (2) This phenomenon has been recorded in major WWI histories and has become the topic of monographs in Chinese and Western languages. (3) Chinese laborers solved the Allied problem of a serious manpower shortage and made contributions to military fieldwork, construction, and factory work. (4) Comparatively speaking, few scholars have paid attention to the Christian work among the Chinese laborers, which gave them considerable comfort and assistance and which laid the foundation for other service to Chinese laborers in France. (5) Though some people have a general understanding that the Young Men's Christian Association (including the British YMCA and the International Committee of the YMCA in North America) was the most active and energetic group in offering assistance to the Chinese laborers, little has been written that explains the YMCA operations among the laborers, preventing a fair and thorough evaluation of the YMCA's service to the Chinese laborers. This paper, based on material from the American YMCA Archives, the Canadian Church Archives, and some Chinese writings on this topic, attempts to investigate the origin, operation, and development of this YMCA international project and to assess its significance in church history and in modern China.

Although this paper will focus on the YMCA in China, it is important to note that the Y was an internationalist organization that pioneered in the employment of indigenous personnel all over the world. The YMCA was ahead of denominational mission agencies on that score, and its commitment to multiculturalism is an important backdrop to this paper. This is an important point, for when the call went out to the YMCA in China to support the movement, there were already Chinese YMCA leaders in place who responded to the call. The YMCA worked incredibly hard, through its agents like Sherwood Eddy, Fletcher Brockman, and others, to cultivate local leaders. The internationalist matrix was already being established by the Y, not only in China but in India and elsewhere.


Christian involvement in the Allied warfare effort, in fact, was not initiated by the churches. It came from the other direction. The British government, from the beginning, employed a very delicate scheme to manipulate the churches and missionaries for its purpose. As early as 1916, when the British government faced a great manpower shortage and began to contemplate how to get laborers from China, the military suggested that British missionaries in China could lend a hand in this matter. In addition to recruiting Chinese laborers, the missionaries were also employed to pacify the Chinese laborers in Europe.

The British military leadership proved correct in utilizing missionary assistance in China. Unlike in the late nineteenth century, missionaries enjoyed a respectable status in early twentieth-century China. (6) The Chinese, in turn, would not cast any doubt on causes advocated by the missionaries. This was especially true of the British Baptists who carried...

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