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The Blue Express Incident - How 30 Foreigners Were Kidnapped in Republican China

On the evening of May 5, 1923, everything seemed quiet on the Blue Express, China's luxury railway line connecting Tianjin and Pukou. The train, recently purchased by the Chinese Railway Administration from an American company, boasted Asia's first all-steel coaches. Its first class carriages consisted of compartments which, on that day, were filled not only by Chinese, but also by foreign passengers of various nationalities, some of them businessmen or long-term residents of China, others, using a modern word, 'tourists'.

Among the passengers were Miss Lucy Aldrich, the sister-in-law of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and daughter of Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island; two officers of the US Army, Major Allen and Major Pinger; Angelo Musso, a wealthy Italian lawyer based in Shanghai and an early supporter of Benito Mussolini's Fascists; he was accompanied by his private secretary, the young Alba Coralli. There was a Mexican industrialist with his wife, one Rumanian, and several French, American, and British citizens. On board the train was also John B. Powell, an American journalist travelling to a recently completed land reclamation project on the Yellow River that had been financed by the American Red Cross.

Mr Powell shared a compartment with a French national named Berube, who worked for the Chinese Customs Administration and had just returned from Europe, where he had served on the Western Front. Years later Powell recalled that first night on the Blue Express,

It was early spring and a bright moon was shining, making the barren rocky Shantung Mountains quite visible in the distance. We had raised the window so as to enjoy the warm breeze, and just before retiring I looked out the window and remarked to Berube that we were passing through 'bandit territory,' as the mountainous area including parts of three provinces, Kiangsu, Anhwei, and Shantung, had long been notorious as a haunt for roving bands of ex-soldiers who had served in the provincial armies and, being unable to find jobs, had taken up banditry. Some of the bandit leaders had a Robin Hood reputation, but most of them were engaged in plain outlawry, looting towns and villages and kidnaping their inhabitants.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, China was a country wrecked by chaos, political instability and civil war. The Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s had cost at least 20 million lives. Foreign invasion and economic decline had weakened the imperial authorities. Poverty and the erosion of traditional social structures favoured the proliferation of secret societies, criminal syndicates and bands of outlaws. After the revolution of 1911 had overthrown the Qing Dynasty, the new Republican government proved too fragile and shaky to restore China’s greatness. The country soon fell apart, and the political vacuum left by the old regime was filled by warlords, powerful military leaders who established personal fiefdoms. Chinese society was militarised as never before. Far from being the modern, democratic state its founders had envisaged, Republican China sank into the abyss of anarchy, and the once well-ordered Confucian society turned into a battlefield in which political and military power were inextricably intertwined.

While the central government existed merely on paper, the vast territory of the Republic was sliced up in domains controlled by mighty generals, each with a de facto independent administration. There was Zhang Zuolin, the lord of Manchuria. Shandong was in the hands of the 'Dogmeat General' Zhang Zongchang, a former coolie whom a contemporary described as having "the physique of an elephant, the brain of a pig and the temperament of a tiger". Wu Peifu, known as the 'Philosopher General' or the 'Jade Marshal', had his power base in Hunan and Hubei and controlled the strategically important Beijing-Hangzhou railway line. Yan Xishan ruled over Shanxi, introducing modern reforms and improving infrastructure. Feng Yuxiang, the 'Christian General', was renowned for his frugal lifestyle and for baptizing his soldiers en masse.

The warlord era was a brutal and violent time. Soldiers robbed and tortured, peasants feared for their lives and property, citizens were taxed heavily to provide resources for their rulers’ endless wars. Thousands of destitute, most of them illiterate, were recruited to fight in the warlords' armies. When troops were disbanded, they often turned to banditry. As a contemporary remarked, 'Soldiers come and bandits follow them, then the bandits withdraw and the soldiers come back – and what’s more, it is the armies who maintain the scourge of banditry here. All discharged soldiers become bandits; and when the army needs one more soldier, it enlists a bandit . . . soldiers and bandits are two names for the same thing.' 

As the Blue Express crossed the border between Jiangsu and Shandong Province in the early morning of May 6, "there was a sudden grinding of brakes" and the train stopped so abruptly that passengers were hurled out of their seats. Firing was heard outside, and people shouted in panic. Mr Powell looked out of the window and saw 

what looked like a small army of men swarming down the embankment, yelling and firing their rifles as they came. They climbed into the cars through the windows, ran along the corridors and began routing the passengers out of their berths while they ransacked the baggage. One man, a Rumanian, objected to being pushed around and threw a teapot at his captor. The bandit raised his rifle and fired, killing the man instantly. There was no further resistance. I had in my bag a small .25-caliber automatic I had purchased in Washington. My French compartment-mate also had his service revolver, but we quickly decided that our armament was outclassed by the weapons in the hands of the highwaymen, and handed over our revolvers without protest. The bandits in our compartment were so elated by getting our guns that they permitted us to put on our clothes and shoes, a lucky break for us as most of the passengers, women as well as men, were attired only in their nightgowns and pajamas as the bandits lined us up along the embankment.

The bandits completed their looting, taking with them everything that seemed valuable, even clothes and light bulbs. But ransacking the train was not their main objective. As soon as they had finished pillaging, the band's chieftain, Sun Meiyao (1898-1923), ordered that the passengers be rounded up. The bandits – numbering around 2000 - kidnapped the 200 passengers of the Blue Express, among them 30 foreign nationals. Westerners were particularly coveted victims, because the outlaws could extract higher ransoms.

Train of the South Manchurian Railway (source: Wikipedia)

As the bandits and their captives marched up the mountains, a contingent of soldiers sent by the government ran after them, but they failed to stop the gang. At 10 a.m. the party finally reached the top of a mountain, "on which was a crude fort with walls and rifle rests all about." Now the bandits seemed unsure about how to proceed. Mr Powell noticed that the chieftains held numerous 'conferences' to discuss what to do with the prisoners. “These conferences,” Powell remarked, “led to the impression that while the original wrecking of the train may have been carefully planned, they were not so sure about their next move.” In the late afternoon the hostages received their first meal after a whole day of fasting and marching: one egg to each captive and several jugs filled with water, enough “for a good swallow around.”  

After holding numerous talks, the bandits came up with a plan. They asked the foreigners to write a message to the authorities, informing them that all foreigners would be killed if the government troops did not immediately cease fire. The captives asked Powell to write the letter. However, they made the condition that all women be set free, to which the chieftains agreed. After the ceasefire came into effect and 10 foreign women were released, the bandits resumed their march with the remaining hostages. As Powell recounts, 

After stumbling through the water and mud for several hours, we approached the environs of a village. We could see the dark walls and could hear what seemed like a dozen dogs barking at once. Finally we were marched into a dark rectangular compound with a low mud wall surrounding the four sides and some low buildings along one end. We were led to the open doors of the buildings and told to go inside … The next ten days were a nightmare of forced marches, always at night, doubling and redoubling on narrow rocky trails through the mountains, often only a few jumps ahead of pursuing soldiers. We crossed railway tracks twice, which puzzled us for several days until we learned that the bandits had taken us into an isolated area served by a branch line which ran to a coal mine. The nearest station was known as Tsaochwang, but we never saw it until we were released several weeks later. The distance we walked in the first few days, usually at a rapid pace, could only be guessed at, but we were sure it exceeded a hundred miles.

The long march and lack of food debilitated the hostages, who entreated the bandits to give them something to eat. The gangsters’ only response was to pat their stomachs and say they had nothing to eat, either. One day, however, the bandits brought the prisoners meat, which they claimed was “young cow meat”. Afterwards the foreigners discovered that it was actually Shandong dog. Popular superstition had it that whoever ate it would be possessed by the animals’ spirits for seven years. Days later the captives were served another ‘delicacy’: a shrimp-like type of meat that turned out to be boiled scorpions.  

The foreigners became an attraction on their own right for the people who lived in the villages they passed through:

As the bandits marched us through the villages the entire population turned out to see the spectacle of the captive foreigners, something never previously seen in China, with the possible exception of the disturbed period of the Boxer Uprising in North China in 1900. 

During one of these ‘parades’, Powell saw an “attractive Chinese girl dressed in silks and wearing so much jewelry that she had the appearance of a jewelry shop window display figure.” The girl waved at them. Powell recognised her as a former fellow passenger of the Blue Express. After arriving in the village, the captives were allowed to walk around accompanied by guards. Powell and one of the interpreters asked the townsmen about the mysterious girl. They found out that she was a 16-year-old ‘sing-song girl’ whom General He Fenglin had sent as a present to a Shanghai warlord. 

But she never reached her destination. One of our chiefs took a fancy to her and annexed her to his own private entourage. She seemed to be quite happy in her new surroundings and anxious to display the jewelry the chief had given her, most of which had been looted from the foreign passengers on the train.

After a few days’ march the men reached a mountain, around six thousand feet high and flat at the top. “We were guided up the narrow road for several hundred feet,” writes Powell. 

In many places it consisted of narrow stair-steps cut in the solid rock. At last we came to a wooded glen and there we found an ancient temple abandoned and in ruins. Only one or two rooms were habitable, and apparently they had provided shelter for the bandit gang. Impregnable against attack, the only entrance was up the narrow gorge or canyon, while the valley below was easily defended, as it was entirely surrounded by mountains.

While roaming about, the foreigners found a tablet with a Chinese inscription written on it. After deciphering the characters, they learnt that the monastery had been built by monks. However, the temple had been the target of bandit attacks for centuries. In the end, the priests chose to abandon the site altogether, leaving it to the outlaws. 

One day the bandits allowed a German Catholic missionary, Father Lenfers, to visit the captives and bring them news from the outside world. Lenfers had moved to China in the late 19th century. He had been sent to Shandong, then part of the German colonial empire, by the authorities in Berlin. 

Through Father Lenfers and the newspapers he brought, the captives learnt that their kidnapping had caused quite a stir back home as well as in China. The foreign powers, enraged by such an affront, were exerting pressure on the Chinese to handle the situation decisively and effect the release of the hostages. The US minister to China, Jacob Gould Schurman, had urged Beijing to act promptly. He had also travelled to Baoding to confer with Cao Kun, one of the country’s most powerful warlords. 

Upon Schurman’s initiative, the American Red Cross was allowed to send a team to bring food and clothing to the captives. Furthermore, he arranged with the British, French and Italian authorities to send their representatives directly to Shandong. Carl Crow, a journalist and representative of the American Red Cross in China, as well as the journalist Roy Anderson, participated in the ensuing negotiations. The talks between the bandits and the foreign consulates greatly improved the captives’ situation. As Powell wrote,

Our sojourn as guests of the bandits began to take on the character of an outing in the mountains--except for the presence of our ragamuffin "hosts." The arrival of food greatly improved our relations, at least with those of our captors who were in our immediate vicinity. We learned that the reports of the success of the bandits in obtaining supplies of food had spread through the mountains and in consequence the bandit gang had swelled from the original thousand to more than three thousand, most of the new arrivals being deserters from nearby provincial armies. We also learned that the force the Government had sent against the bandits numbered about eight thousand, but they were more or less powerless due to the constant threat of the bandit leaders to execute the captives in case they were pressed too hard.

Despite the humane treatment that the bandits reserved to their foreign 'guests', there was no doubt about the outlaws’ cruelty. There were rumours that the gang had kidnapped many children and held them as their prisoners on that very mountain. One day Father Lenfers and John Powell decided to verify the accuracy of this story. They took a stroll, accompanied by two guards. Then they offered the captors some of the brandy the priest had brought. As expected, the bandits got drunk and fell asleep, allowing the prisoners to move freely. Powell climbed up the mountain and reached the top, on which huts had been built. From one of the shacks came voices. 

Pulling the straw-matting curtain aside, I realized with a shock that the story which had been told to Father Lenfers was correct. The room was filled with children, little boys ranging in age from eight to fifteen years. As they crowded about me I saw them glance apprehensively over their shoulders toward a door at the other end of the room. Almost immediately there emerged a bandit carrying a rifle, which he immediately swung off his shoulder as he saw me. Since I was unarmed, all I could do was smile and greet him with a friendly gesture. He understood the gesture, for I was holding out toward him a package of cigarettes. After hesitating a moment he also smiled, and reached for the cigarettes. I rapidly counted the children; there were twenty-three, and most of them were in rags, remnants of silken costumes indicating they had been kidnaped from better-class homes. After making a mental note of the situation, I indicated my intention of departing, and handed the bandit another package of cigarettes. He made no attempt to hinder my departure, and I hurriedly descended the steep stairway and ladder and rejoined Father Lenfers, who was sitting on the rock watching the still sleeping bandits. I told him of my discovery, and after awakening our captors we hurried back to the temple.

Powell wrote an article about what he had seen. It was smuggled out of the bandits’ lair and printed in the Western press. According to Powell, public outrage about the kidnapping of children ultimately resulted in the authorities’ intervention. The children were released and some of them were sent back to their families. Yet many could not return to their homes, as their parents were never found. As Powell later discovered, the bandits kept those children whose families could not afford to pay a ransom and raised them as their own offspring.

Meanwhile, negotiations between the chieftains, the Chinese government and the foreign consulates had stalled due to the bandits’ unreasonable demands. They were not content with the payment of a ransom. They wanted the provincial government to resign and to be appointed rulers of Shandong in their stead. The gang’s behaviour reminded Powell of that of another group of ‘bandits’ who would later change China’s destiny: 

I remembered the demands of the Shantung bandits at a later date when the Chinese Communist faction made its demands for the abdication of high government officials in World War II.

The captives decided to take matters into their own hands. They asked to meet the chieftains and discussed with them the terms of their release. After having reached an agreement, the bandits sent John Powell and one of their own representatives to a nearby railway station where Chinese and Western officials were residing during the negotiations. Before their departure, a ‘traditional’ ceremony was performed,

The No. 1 Chief lined up all the captives in a row. Then he ordered his followers to form a guard of honor leading from the door of the temple to the gate of the compound. Approaching me, the chief presented me with a sealed envelope containing an address in Chinese. The name was that of the chief representative of the provincial governor, known as the "Pang-ban." After he had given me the letter he drew his revolver, and walking down the long row of foreign captives, he pressed the muzzle of the gun against each man's chest. In this manner he indicated that one or possibly all of the captives would be killed if I failed to carry out the mission or possibly should attempt to double- cross the bandits by causing their emissary to be held by the provincial officials. As I mounted my mule and we started out on the forty-mile ride, the chief broke the tension by clapping his hands and cheering. Everybody followed suit so enthusiastically that our mules bolted down the hill at a gallop.

At the station, Powell met John, K. Davis, the American consul, as well as Roy Anderson, Carl Crow, and a personal friend of his, Roy Bennett, who worked for the China Weekly Review and the Manila Bulletin. Many years later, during World War II, Bennett would be captured by the Japanese and spend almost three years in an old Spanish prison in Manila after he had refused to collaborate with the invaders.  

The representative of the bandits was taken to the Governor, where he was received “with all the formality of a high government dignitary.” The following morning, the American consul, John Powell, the Governor and Roy Anderson participated in a meeting, in which the terms of the foreigners’ release was discussed. After the Governor had handed a letter with his proposals to the bandit and a copy of it to John Powell, the two men returned to the outlaws’ den. The bandits were happy about the outcome of the talks. The chieftains went to congratulate Mr Powell for his success and said they would accept the government's proposals.  

The following day Powell and a representative of the bandits rode back to the station. They returned to the hideout accompanied by Roy Anderson, a contingent of Chinese soldiers and carts laden with silver for the outlaws. They also brought thousands of army uniforms. One of the main demands of the bandits had been to be incorporated into the Shandong provincial army. This may appear surprising, but, as remarked earlier, many bandits were former soldiers who had been discharged and, unable to adjust to civilian life, had no choice but turn to banditry to make a living. Another demand was the pay of large sums of money for each bandit, sometimes as high as a million dollar, which they regarded as a compensation for the payments they had not received after being dismissed from the army.

What John Powell did not know was that the notorious gangsters Du Yuesheng and Huang Jinrong, members of the Green Gang and later close associates of Chiang Kai-shek's, were also involved in the negotiations. The French, who used criminal syndicates to maintain order in their Shanghai Concession, urged the gangsters' intervention to effect the release of Mr Berube. 

After the meeting between representatives of the authorities and the bandits’ chieftains, the main leader, Sun Meiyao, raised his hands in a dramatic gesture and, vowing his loyalty to the central government, signed the agreement, followed by the other chieftains. The document was subsequently signed by the Chinese officials as well as by Anderson and Powell, who acted as “witnesses and guarantors of the good faith of both participants”. To the foreigners’ surprise, the government later compensated the passengers for their lost property and offered them an indemnity for each day spent in captivity. 

However, it turned out that the authorities had never intended to keep their word with the bandits. About half a year after the incident, Anderson called Powell, informing him “in great indignation” that the Governor of Shandong had violated the agreement. Six hundreds bandits were machine-gunned and their chief, Sun Meiyao, was executed. Many foreigners approved of the Governor’s action. But Anderson predicted that this betrayal would only cause an escalation of violence. When bandits kidnapped foreigners, they no longer trusted the authorities and killed the captives if they did not receive the requested ransom immediately. 

The day after the agreement was signed, the foreigners boarded a special express train to Shanghai provided by the government. As Powell later recalled, 

When the train arrived the next day Shanghai's entire foreign population, which had been demanding strong punitive measures in reprisal for the bandit outrage, turned out in such a crowd that they blocked the streets leading to the railway station.

Twenty years later, Powell met again one of his fellow captives, in a cell of the notorious Bridge House prison where the Japanese had taken them after seizing Shanghai's International Settlement in 1941. When the two men saw each other, they exclaimed in unison, “I prefer Chinese bandits to these Jap scoundrels.”


Phil Billingsley: Bandits in Republican China

Lloyd E. Eastman / Jerome Ch'en / Suzanne Pepper et al. : The Nationalist Era in China, 1927-1949

John B. Powell: My Twenty Five Years in China


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