This weekend James Zimmerman, an American lawyer who has worked in China for almost three decades, will lead a small group up a mountain in Shandong province, about 600km south of Beijing.
They will be retracing the route walked a century ago by 100 passengers on the Peking Express when they were taken hostage by bandits who attacked the train as it travelled towards the capital from Shanghai in the early hours of May 6th, 1923.
The passengers included 28 foreigners, among them John D Rockefeller’s sister-in-law Lucy Aldrich and other wealthy Americans and Europeans, as well as a number of foreign correspondents. Most of them were still in their pyjamas when the bandits led them on a four-day trek up the mountain where they were held hostage during an ordeal that lasted more than a month.
The wealth and prominence of some of the hostages and the presence of the reporters helped the drama to remain front-page news across the world while it was playing out.
Some of the hostages told their story in the months following their release, and Aldrich dined out for years on the tale of how she successfully hid her jewellery in her bra and between her toes for the entire ordeal.
But the hold-up was soon forgotten, even if Josef von Sternberg’s 1932 film Shanghai Express in which Marlene Dietrich spoke the line “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”, was based loosely on the events in Shandong.
Now Zimmerman has told the whole story for the first time in a new book, The Peking Express: The Bandits Who Stole a Train, Stunned the West, and Broke the Republic of China.
His research took him from archives in Nanjing and Shanghai to the homes of descendants of the hostages, rescuers and government officials.
“It was almost like acting like a private detective to try to trace where families lived and who was who,” he said.
“And what I discovered was that there was a lot of information that had never been public record. For example, one gentleman who was a hostage for 37 days, he kept a 120-page diary, very detailed. I mean, he talked about every bug that crossed his path, every time he ate something, like a Shandong dog and whatever. It was really detailed and it had never been publicly released. And so it kind of allowed me to stand in the shoes of some of the passengers.”
Many of the bandits, who numbered about 1,000, were soldiers whose units had been disbanded in the chaos that followed the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. The republic that replaced the empire struggled to impose order as warlords fought for control of parts of the country and as one warlord’s army prevailed over another, the losing side’s troops were left with nowhere to go.
Sun Mei-yao, the 25-year-old leader of the bandits, wanted his men to be reinstated as soldiers and to receive back pay they were owed and his plan was to use the hostages to bargain with the government. He called his bandit force The Self-Governed Army for the Establishment of the Country and his ultimate aim was the overthrow of the government and its corrupt officials.
“Our object is to protect the poor, to bring about equality among men and to kill all unscrupulous officials and wicked generals; to reform the government’s rotten policy which has done so much harm to the people and to establish a stable government,” he said.
Roy Anderson, the American son of missionaries who had fought in the revolutionary Chinese army that overthrew the Qing dynasty, was among those who tried to mediate between Sun and the authorities.
As the stand-off continued, an American rescue mission arranged for deliveries of food and luxuries to the hostages and set up the Bandit Post, complete with its own stamps, so they could exchange letters with their families.
Anderson brokered a deal that led to the release of the hostages in return for a promise that the former soldiers would be re-enlisted with their back-pay restored and Sun installed as their brigade commander. The authorities initially kept their promise but, six months after the hostages’ release, Sun was tricked into a meeting where his bodyguards were shot and he was beheaded.
Three years later, Mao Zedong praised the bandits as starving peasants fighting landlords but said Sun’s failure demonstrated the need for the organisational skills of the Communist Party.
Local party officials in Shandong province hope the renewed interest in the story will drive tourism to the area and on Saturday they will release a limited edition of stamps and envelopes with the markings of the Bandit Post to commemorate the centenary of the hold-up.