Wednesday 16 August 2023

The Peking Express by James M. Zimmerman

In 1923, the Blue Express, a luxury train also known as the Peking Express, departed from Shanghai, chugging northward to Peking. On the night of May 5th, near the town of Lincheng, a gang of Chinese bandits derailed the Peking Express and took the passengers hostage, leading to a standoff that captured the world’s attention.

The Peking Express: The Bandits Who Stole a Train, Stunned the West, and Broke the Republic of China by James M. Zimmerman thoroughly details this interesting event in a very readable, almost novel-like prose. The story was famous at the time, so much so that it loosely inspired the famous 1932 movie Shanghai Express, directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich. Though, the movie is far more fiction than fact. However, this appears to be the first full-length book devoted to the Peking Express, or the Lincheng Incident in English. At least, the first in modern memory.

If there is a main character, then it’s the Sun Meiyao, the bandit chief who engineered the attack. At this time, China was divided into factions of feuding warlords, and many former warlord soldiers had been recently discharged, due to inability to pay or defeat in battle. These soldiers often turned to banditry and wound up following Sun, a prominent brigand in the northern Shandong (Shantung) province.

The luxury Blue Express train made an appealing target, carrying many upper-class Chinese, along with various foreigners, mostly Americans. These included Lucy Aldrich, daughter of a US Senator and sister-in-law to John D. Rockefeller, along with Guiseppe Musso, a prominent Italian living in Shanghai’s French Concession. Even two US Army officers were among the hostages, elevating the prominence of the so-called Lincheng Outrage.

The prisoners were marched from the derailed train and into the Shandong mountains to the bandits’ hideout. Although the women were released soon after, the incident caused a major embarrassment for the government in Peking. Although China was divided at the time, there still existed a central government in the historic capital, a major prize for the feuding warlord factions.

Government troops surrounded the bandit stronghold and a series of tense negotiations followed. Sun wanted a pardon for his men, reentrance back into the army, and guarantees of impunity for himself. This dragged on for weeks, while the hostages pondered their fate.

Zimmerman includes many first-hand accounts, mostly from the hostages, since the bandits didn’t leave many written memoirs behind. They describe Sun and his men as somewhat good-natured, though, all-too willing to kill prisoners if need be, Indeed, a British passenger, Joseph Rothman, had been killed during the initial derailment for refusing to give up his valuables.

An interesting conspiracy the book highlights is that the Japanese passengers had abandoned the Blue Express prior to arriving at Lincheng. Zimmerman wonders if these Japanese had been warned in advance, possibly by the Japanese military, who may have had a hand in planning the attack. Though, hard evidence of this is lacking.

The Peking Express is a great historical and summer read, perfect for those looking for narrative nonfiction that shines a light on a fascinating episode in Chinese history.