A Yankee Among The War Lords

PrintPrintEmailEmail The countryside was sere, with no sign of spring grain; only the grave mounds stood out against the brown earth, while the wind whirled clouds of yellow dust over deserted houses.

The International Famine Relief Committee meeting in Peking heard reports of bungled food shipments, of incompetence and graft among officials, and of profiteering in grain. The committee took the “hopeful view,” however, that official China had at last awakened and “will leave the work for foreign committees and the American Red Cross, trusting no more to country and provincial officials.” This was the pattern of Western activism and Chinese acceptance. Appealing to the American public for the Chinese Famine Relief Fund, President Wilson, in a classic statement of the American point of view, said, “To an unusual degree the Chinese people look to us for counsel and for effective leadership.” The Chinese themselves never confused material aid, which was what they looked to America for, with either counsel or leadership. Spurred by the missionaries, the campaign in the United States brought such an outpouring of funds that a surplus resulted, and this made possible the road-building program.

Stilwell himself believed that the missionaries deliberately exaggerated reports of the famine, justifying themselves on the ground that by bringing in money and food in a time of distress they were furthering the cause of Christianity. Having to work “against the passive resistance of officials,” he wrote, they had a chance “to do something for the people that the government could not or would not do.”

Out in the field, where the provincial interest was paramount, he found the local officials of Shansi more ready to help than hinder the work of road building. This was owing to the influence of the tuchun of the province, Yen Hsi-shan, a progressive and practical materialist who enjoyed the title of “Model Governor.” He had the wit to see that he could draw more strength and wealth from the province by improving its conditions than by squeezing it dry. …

The projected road link was to be eighty-two miles long, starting at Fenchow and finishing at Jung-tu on the Yellow River. Stilwell’s instructions were to make it twenty-two feet wide, with a gravel surface, keep the grade under 6 per cent, and finish the job by August 1. He had twelve foreign assistants, including a Standard Oil civil engineer, a Swedish mining engineer, two Norwegian missionaries, and an Anglo-Indian reserve officer. The country was rocky and mountainous, with rich agricultural valleys where crop failures were unknown. Everywhere the Chinese farmer could be seen “with his patient cow and B.C. plow,” as Stilwell wrote, turning over furrows on hillsides so steep that “the daily struggle even to reach his fields would appall a white man.”

The trace ran along a river valley, over a pass, down into another valley, and “after that to be determined.” Riding or walking miles every day, sleeping in a different place every night, often outdoors to avoid bedbugs and lice, Stilwell directed the work of six thousand men, showing the Chinese surveyors what to do, helping the section engineers, locating the work gangs, deciding on grades, ings, cuts, and fills, and trying to master the local dialect. Fortunately many spoke Mandarin.

Homes in the area were mostly caverns in the hills, lined with stone arches and closed by stone walls in front. Stonemasons were plentiful. Stilwell dealt with small contractors for rock breaking, lime, marking stakes, mules, water buckets, and road labor, avoiding the sleek, silkgowned businessmen from the towns who offered to take on the whole contract. He preferred to deal with common men in patched breeches and dirty shirt than with the fat gentry “so refined and elegant that they cannot walk up six steps without puffing.”

Most of the pick-and-shovel men were small farmers earning extra money, organized in work groups of about thirty men with an overseer and one or two cooks. The tuan chang , or overseer, carried a cane, wore a straw hat and clean clothes, and usually snoozed in the shade with sentries posted to whistle at Stilwell’s approach. When the work was poor the battle of face began. Stilwell would reproach the overseer, who in turn would roar at the work gang, who in their turn “rather enjoy the play: they know it is all for effect and if favored with a wink from the foreigner from behind the overseer’s back will break into broad grins.” When “the Chief Engineer meets man after man who can see through a joke, even when it is on himself and laugh as heartily as the bystanders, his heart warms to the whole race.” …

In Shansi, Stilwell could see, unfiltered through the pleasant life of Peking, the raw wants of China; all that it lacked, all that it needed, and how one local strong man was attacking the problem. …


In 1922 the road’s chief engineer was an object of interest to the war lord of the neighboring province, Feng Yu-hsiang, the Christian General of Shensi. This province, the earliest center of Chinese civilization, was a region of hills and caves and terraced agriculture, where in the next decade the Long March was to bring the Communists to settle around Yenan. With cotton, wool, wheat, and mountains rich in minerals, Shensi should have been prosperous but was not, owing to opium smoking and banditry, but fundamentally to lack of good communications.