History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but as Mark Twain pointed out, it does tend to rhyme.
Two recent books about China set in the tumultuous period between World War I and World War II unwittingly lend credence to Twain’s witty statement.
“Fragile Cargo,” by Adam Brookes, tells the story of how treasures from the Forbidden City were packed and shipped from city to city across China in a deadly game of whack-a-mole where the threat was not “will Japan attack?,” but “where will they attack next?” It’s hard to imagine a tale of freight transport, even with misses and near misses, putting you on the edge of your seat, but this one will.
Despite the story being set mostly in the 1930s, “Fragile Cargo” is a reminder that a war of invasion not only exacts a cruel toll on human life, but threatens to erase cultural heritage, if not history itself.
“The Peking Express,” by James Zimmerman, tells in blow-by-blow detail the sensational tale of the “Lincheng Outrage,” the story of mostly American first class travelers (and Chinese passengers in coach) getting the ride of lifetime through a violent hijacking and forced march to a bandit’s lair in the hills of Shandong.
It was fodder for tabloids, and grabbed the world’s attention at the time. Near the end of the book, I had to put it down, through no fault of the author, because the revolt of Russian troops based in Ukraine who suddenly made an armed advance in the direction of Moscow riveted the attention of the world. It was almost unnerving to hear Putin give the Wagner Group mutineers the option to join the army, or go back to civilian life, because these are the same options that were offered to the rebel bandits of Lincheng, and it worked out very poorly for them in the end.
Both books take us back to a time when China was a victim country writ large, and in the process of recovery and re-invention. It had just begun to systematically redress injustices and recover from the ravages of British imperialism and the setbacks later imposed by the Eight-Nation Alliance (Germany, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Italy and Austria-Hungary) in the aftermath of the Boxer rebellion in 1900.
American expatriates could and did enjoy the good life in the great urban center of Shanghai, a truly cosmopolitan metropolis built mostly by the British and French (with Chinese labor and China-derived wealth). Both Japan and the U.S. were relative latecomers to the treaty port colonial game, but as non-Chinese they could nonetheless enjoy a quasi-colonial lifestyle in the foreign concessions of Shanghai, living high and well and fast and not always on the level.
After 1927, the communists were driven underground and hid out first in Jiangxi, and later made the long arduous trek to Yanan where they eventually evolved into a formidable political force.
The express train takeover known as the Lincheng Incident took place in 1923 when the future contenders for state power, first the KMT, then the CCP, were still allies, however ill-fitting and fraught with faultlines that alliance was.
With Chiang’s betrayal and bloody crackdown on communists and the left wing of the KMT in 1927, the CCP went underground and overland, but could no longer operate freely in the cities.
Mao’s guerilla army was hardly the first rebel group in China to find refuge in the hills; bandits had been doing it for centuries, if not millennia. In the case of the Lincheng bandits, central power was sufficiently weak and infrastructure sufficiently backward to permit tactical retreats to the hills. China’s road system was backward and inadequate, and chasing bandits in the hills was an arduous task. The same dynamics that made it possible for the Chinese communists to melt into the countryside were in play with the bandits who maintained lairs in the hills and armies numbering in the thousands.
Trains were, of course (and probably still are) the best way to travel inland, but trains are not just limited to where the rolling stock takes them, but are vulnerable to intervention anywhere along the line, and Lincheng was one such juncture, near Xuzhou, straddling the border of Shandong and Jiangsu Provinces.
The bandits who preyed on the fabled express train known as the Blue Express were not ideological, but did desperate things and took action propelled by many of the same drivers that boosted CCP recruitment. Corrupt government, abject poverty, no legal redress for injustice and fighting to live another day.
As the sharply differentiated classes of service on the train so aptly illustrate, Chinese society was starkly divided between the haves and have-nots.
And foreigners, though almost uniformly better off than Chinese, were not cut from the same cloth, either. Zimmerman colorfully recounts the diverse palette of characters put together by chance on the ill-fated train. There were journalists, diplomats, gangsters, educators among the largely American first-class passenger list which also included an Italian, Russian, Mexican and Brits. There was even a Rockefeller sister-in-law, Lucy Truman Aldrich, who traveled with her assistant. Negotiators called upon after the passengers taken hostage included Roy Scott Anderson, an American of missionary stock and the infamous Du Yuesheng, Shanghai gangster who later joined forces with Chiang to liquidate communists in 1927.
In contrast to Zimmerman’s story with its strong American angle, the story pursued by Brookes involves mostly a native cast of Chinese characters, with Imperial Museum curator Ma Heng providing the through-line, though there are American cameos. For anyone who studied with or read the books of John Fairbank, for many years the unofficial “dean” of Chinese studies in the U.S., the appearance of his wife Wilma, a respected art historian knowledgeable in ancient stone tomb carvings and bronze vessels, is a pleasant surprise. She is depicted examining with fascination some of the “fragile cargo” in question during her stint as cultural attaché to the United States Embassy in Chongqing.
At this time of badly fractured U.S.-China relations, there is comfort to be found in century old accounts that highlight unsung acts of heroism in times of crisis. Our forebears struggled with monumental difficulties yet in the long run this did not preclude the deep and meaningful relations between different nations. What’s more, in the same way that our present-day circumstances were as unimaginable to our ancestors as the future is to us, we can still learn something from how they did the best they could do despite the daunting odds.