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What Role Did China Play in WWI and Why Is It Forgotten?

Most people think of European powers and their colonies, including Germany, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, when they think of World War I. Still, these nations were not the only ones affected by the Great War. China, a country located on the opposite side of the globe, was involved in the conflict as well. China’s engagement in World War I had a significant impact on the future of the nation, even if it is not as well-known or well-documented.

China’s Pre-World War I Political and Social Environment

China’s political and social environment before World War I was characterized by a complex relationship between dynasty control, foreign influence, internal conflict, and emerging reform forces. The ruling dynasty was the Qing Dynasty, which had been in charge for more than two centuries, but by the early 20th century, it was obvious that the dynasty was about to end.

China was confronted with a multitude of political issues. Internal turmoil, corruption, and a disregard for the nation’s mounting issues were hallmarks of the Qing Dynasty. Due to China’s military shortcomings being made public during the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century, foreign countries were able to seize Hong Kong and other Chinese territory. The Qing government’s reputation internationally was severely damaged by the ferocious anti-foreign and anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

China was beset on the inside by widespread poverty, heroin abuse, and social upheaval. The centuries-old Confucian social system was disintegrating, and the gap between the governing class and the poor was growing. Past peasant uprisings, like the Taiping Rebellion, had shaken the nation and brought attention to the need for reform.

China’s political environment was significantly influenced by outside forces. European countries such as Britain, France, Germany, and Russia had established spheres of influence in the country by making use of China’s riches and controlling important trade routes. Other countries competing for a share of the Chinese market were the United States and Japan. This foreign dominance exacerbated domestic instability and fed anti-imperialist sentiment.

Many reform movements started to take shape in the midst of this unrest. Reformers and intellectuals such as Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei promoted constitutionalism, modernization, and the acceptance of Western political structures. The brief attempt at reform, known as the Hundred Days’ Reform in 1898, served as a model for the larger political shifts that would come later.

The disintegrating dynasty, outside influences, and domestic unrest all defined China’s pre-World War I political and social environment. It prepared the ground for the revolution that would topple the Qing Dynasty and usher in the Republic of China in 1912. As the country struggled with the demands of modernization and attempted to make its mark on the international scene, this period in Chinese history saw the start of a new chapter.

China’s Involvement in the World War I

In the modern history of China, the country’s 1917 involvement in World War I was a turning point. China did not play a large role in the conflict, but its choice to side with the Allied Powers had a big impact on its political and territorial ambitions.

China proclaimed its neutrality at the beginning of World War I in an effort to preserve its sovereignty and stay out of the international conflict. Still, as the conflict dragged on and the world stage changed, China would finally have to reevaluate its position.

Twenty-One Demands Crisis

The emergence of the “Twenty-One Demands” problem was one of the major elements motivating China’s decision to enter the war. In 1915, Japan—an ally—made a series of requests to China in an effort to increase its power and dominance over Chinese land. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of China were seen as being directly threatened by these demands. China’s President Yuan Shikai looked for outside assistance in order to resist caving in to Japan’s pressure.

China was given the chance to join the war when the Allies acknowledged Japan’s threat and encouraged Chinese involvement. China joined the Allies in 1917 and declared war on the Central Powers, which included Germany and Austria-Hungary. The aim to oppose Japan’s expansionist aspirations and win over the other allies—especially the United States and the United Kingdom—was the driving force behind this choice.

Paris Peace Conference 1919

China’s involvement in the conflict had a number of important repercussions. It first made it possible for China to participate in talks at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, when the Treaty of Versailles and other agreements that officially put an end to World War I were negotiated. China was able to take back land that Germany had taken during the war because of this.

Regaining Chinese authority over Shandong Province, which had been leased to Germany, was the main problem. China was disappointed to learn that the Treaty of Versailles fell short of its aspirations. The treaty angered the Chinese people by giving Japan the land instead of giving Shandong back to China. The May Fourth Movement, a notable anti-imperialist and nationalist demonstration in China, was sparked by this decision.

May Fourth Movement

China’s history was significantly impacted by the 1919 emergence of the May Fourth Movement. There was a surge in political and intellectual action, along with calls for social and political reforms, as a result of it expressing the popular attitude against foreign domination. Contributing to the larger story of China’s fight for independence and national sovereignty, the movement prepared the way for the rise of the Chinese Communist Party.

China’s involvement in World War I produced a variety of results. The perceived treachery in the handling of Shandong and the larger problem of foreign imperialism fueled internal dissatisfaction and anti-Japanese sentiments, even if it helped China win a seat at the negotiating table in Paris and ultimately led to the conclusion of the war. These problems persisted in China over the 20th century and influenced the country’s current political and social climate.

Economic Implications and Difficulties for China

China’s post-World War I economic ramifications and challenges were complex and had a significant influence on the country’s growth in the early 1900s. The political and social developments that were taking place at the time in China were strongly related to these difficulties.

1. Disruptions to the Economy

Global trade had been severely disrupted by World War I, and China was not exempt from the ensuing economic fallout. China’s exports of tea, silk, and other commodities had been a major source of income for the nation, but the war had caused a drop in the market for these goods abroad. In addition, the conflict caused supply chain disruptions throughout the world, which resulted in shortages and the inflation of necessities.

2. Loss of Resources and Territory

The economic interests of China were affected by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. China was upset to see that the peace treaty did not fully acknowledge its territorial claims, particularly in Shandong, despite the fact that it had joined the war as one of the Allied Powers. China’s capacity to utilize these regions for economic benefit was hampered as a result of losing control of important resources and territory.

3. Traditional Industries’ Decline

The war’s economic effects negatively impacted China’s traditional sectors, including handicrafts and agriculture. China’s labor-intensive sectors experienced intense competition and difficulties adjusting to new production methods as a result of other countries’ rising automation and industrialization.

4. Currency devaluation and inflation

Following World War I, some warlords and local governments printed more paper money, which contributed to China’s severe inflation. The population’s purchasing power was reduced by this currency depreciation, which also increased economic instability.

5. Effect on Foreign Investments

China had been receptive to foreign investments, particularly from Western nations, before WWI, but questions concerning these assets’ durability and security were raised by the conflict and its aftermath. As a result, international capital flow into China declined and investors grew more circumspect, which had an impact on the development of important industries and infrastructure projects.

6. The Emergence of Local Warlords

China’s post-World War I era was marked by the predominance of local warlords who ruled over different regions of the nation. Their hegemony over areas and resources frequently resulted in economic exploitation and impeded the growth of the national economy. Corruption, extortion, and a dearth of organized economic planning characterized the warlord era.

7. The Reunification Struggle

China’s economic issues are made more complex by the country’s fractured political environment and the ongoing reunification effort. The Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and subsequently the Chinese Communist Party led attempts to bring the nation back under one administration, but these efforts were sometimes marred by violence and unrest, which had an impact on the stability and growth of the economy.

8. Effect on Transportation and Infrastructure

The infrastructure of China, particularly its roads, ports, and trains, was negatively impacted by the war and its aftermath. Numerous of these crucial transportation networks suffered damage or disruption, which made it more difficult to transfer people and commodities and exacerbated the economy.

 Read More: How was Life During World War I?

Factors Behind Less Information on China’s Role in WWI

In comparison to other major nations such as the United States, France, or the United Kingdom, China’s engagement in the First World War was mostly peripheral in terms of military action. China’s activities and contributions were less prominent in historical records of the conflict since it had a sizable army and did not play a major military role.

a) Focus Worldwide on the Western Front

Europe experienced the brunt of World War I’s fighting, with the Western Front serving as the war’s center. Events in Asia were eclipsed by the significant struggles and advancements that took place there and grabbed center stage in the world story. As a result, the more important events in Europe frequently overshadow the war’s effects on China.

b) Internal Discontent and Civil Upheaval

China was going through political and domestic unrest during and after World War I. The May Fourth Movement, the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and the emergence of local warlords all served to obscure China’s involvement in the international battle. The fight for national sovereignty and internal concerns took center stage.

c) Ignored Historical Document

In comparison to other great countries, China’s World War I papers and data have not been as extensively circulated or conserved over time. This made primary sources less accessible to academics and researchers.

d) Subsequent Focus on World War II

In historical accounts of contemporary Chinese history, World War II frequently supersedes World War I because of China’s larger engagement in that conflict. There may have been less attention paid to World War I as a result of this concentration on the subsequent fight.

e) Few Sources in the English Language

Early World War I historical study was mostly undertaken in English and concentrated on the Western Front. China’s role in World War I was therefore given less prominence in the English-language narrative of the conflict. On the contrary, more academics and historians have been studying this facet of the conflict in recent years, indicating a rising interest.


China’s participation in World War I is an often-overlooked component of the worldwide struggle. Its participation, albeit not particularly military in nature, was motivated by sincere worries about its future and sovereignty. A major influence on the development of China’s contemporary history was the disillusionment with the post-war settlement and the subsequent May Fourth Movement.

A more autonomous position on the international scene, modernization, and reform were all necessary, and the nation’s growing realization of these needs was spurred by World War I. An important part of China’s historical development as a key player in the world economy is still its involvement in the Great War.


What Role Did China Play in the Great War?

China’s main contribution to the First World War was its assistance to the Allied Powers. It declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, despite having little military presence on the Western Front. Its intervention was intended to thwart Japanese expansionism and obtain international backing, particularly from the US and the UK, in order to resolve Japan’s “Twenty-One Demands” conflict.

What Were China’s Main Reasons For Joining World War I?

China’s determination to reclaim control over lands it had lost to Germany, most notably Shandong Province, was one of the driving forces behind its involvement in World War I. China also aimed to become recognized as a significant force globally and to oppose Japanese development in East Asia by uniting with the Western Allies.

What Effects Did the Versailles Treaty Have on China?

For China, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which put an end to World War I, were profound. The pact gave Japan sovereignty over Shandong, despite its aspirations to reclaim control over the province and its contributions during the war. This choice incited fury and anti-imperialist feelings, which helped China experience a nationalist awakening and gave rise to the May Fourth Movement.

What Was the May Fourth Movement, And How Did China’s Participation in the First World War Relate To It?

The year 1919 witnessed the emergence of the groundbreaking intellectual and social movement known as the May Fourth Movement. It was in response to Japan’s acquisition of Shandong and China’s perceived betrayal in the Treaty of Versailles. Protests and demands for political change, opposition to imperialism, and the pursuit of national sovereignty characterized the movement. It developed from China’s disenchantment with both the war and its aftermath.

How Has China’s Participation in World War I Influenced Its Contemporary History?

A significant turning point in China’s modern history was its participation in World War I. The Qing Dynasty was overthrown, and the Republic of China was established as a result of the May Fourth Movement and the subsequent emergence of nationalist and political forces. China’s 20th-century advances were paved with this era’s struggles for social and political reform, national sovereignty, and opposition to foreign imperialism.

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

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