Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 30, 2023

The Men of the Burma Road (1942), by Chiang Yee


This week while browsing the online catalogue at Diversity Books, I stumbled on a remarkable short novel featuring an unfamiliar aspect of WW2 history.  It was written by a Chinese author living in London in 1942.  (Reading it now coincided nicely with Chinese New Year.)

Amongst other more catastrophic travails, 1942 was a difficult time for publishing in Britain and Europe.  In Occupied France, stories to encourage resistance to the Nazis were published and distributed underground, and I have previously reviewed the most famous of these, Le Silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea) by “Vercors”. In Britain there were wartime restrictions on paper and materials, and there was a labour shortage because most men had joined the armed forces.  There was also heavy censorship and the Ministry of Information had a Literary and Editorial Division led by Graham Green that prepared morale-boosting publications.  I have also reviewed wartime editions of I, James Blunt, by H V Morton and my father’s copy of John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, which were produced under these conditions.

The flimsiness of the paper and covers of those wartime books makes me suspect that my postwar Sixth Edition of The Men of the Burma Road was the first edition to be published in hardback with a coloured dustjacket.  This slim novella was first published by Methuen in July 1942, and it went into two further editions by the end of the year.  The fourth and fifth editions came out in 1943 and 1944, and my sixth edition in 1946.  Its yellow boards are imprinted with blue Chinese characters with the title in blue on the spine.  The dustjacket is on gloss paper, it has hand-drawn maps of Burma and China on the endpapers, and the book itself is illustrated with B&W line drawings and has eight full page illustrations on gloss paper as well.  This would be an expensive little book to produce even now and it seems unlikely to have been produced in this form under wartime conditions.  (The British Library appears to have the first 1942 edition, but I don’t like to pester them to find out if I’m right.)

But why would a little book about the Chinese building a road to Burma be so popular that it went into six editions?

While fossicking around online, I checked out the Wikipedia page on propaganda and came across the information that American wartime films were made to help people understand allies such as the Greeks, to allay their mistrust of the USSR and to dispel their bigotry against the Chinese.  It seems likely that a little book about an heroic Chinese wartime undertaking had the same purpose.

It seems to have been forgotten now that these nations were our allies against the existential threat of the Axis powers. It’s also forgotten by many that WW2 began not in 1939 but in Asia in 1937 when the Japanese attacked China.  Wikipedia acknowledges this in the last line of this paragraph.

The Nanjing Massacre or the Rape of Nanjing (formerly romanized as Nanking) was the mass murder of Chinese civilians in Nanjing, the capital of the Republic of China, immediately after the Battle of Nanking in the Second Sino-Japanese War, by the Imperial Japanese Army. Beginning on December 13, 1937, the massacre lasted six weeks. The perpetrators also committed other war crimes such as mass rape, looting, and arson. The massacre was one of the worst atrocities committed during World War II. (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove hyperlinks and footnotes.)

By 1940 all China’s ports were in Japanese hands and a new route was needed to transport British and American arms and supplies to Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in China. The Men of the Burma Road is the fictionalised story of the construction in 9 months of 700 miles of road  from China’s wartime capital Chungking (now Chongqing) in Southwest China to Lashio in Burma (now Myanmar). This astonishing effort was accomplished by peasants without heavy machinery or modern equipment.  They didn’t even have a plan.

The Burma Road

Chiang Yee’s book is dedicated to

Hsiao Ch’ien who witnessed the completion of the Burma Road and to those who gave their lives to the road.  Their labour and sacrifice will not be in vain.

Chiang Yee (1903-1977) was a poet, author, painter and calligrapher who had been living and working in Britain as an academic teaching Chinese since 1933.  As you can see from the list of works at Wikipedia, he was a prolific author, producing a series of books called ‘The Silent Traveller in...’, the first being The Silent Traveller: a Chinese Artist in Lakeland, followed by The Silent Traveller in London, … the Yorkshire Dales, and … Oxford, (written after Yee’s flat was destroyed in the Blitz and he moved to Oxford.) After the war, the series included Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Japan. Travel writing, pioneered by H V Morton in the mid 1920s, was then in its infancy and Yee’s books were well-received because they offered a unique perspective.

(AbeBooks, BTW, has a first edition of The Silent Traveller in London (1937) for US$1,250.00).

The Men of the Burma Road appears to be Yee’s only venture into fiction, though he also wrote some books for children.  In simple prose of great restraint, Chiang Yee uses the story of two peasants, Old Lo and middle-aged Li to show how they came to join hundreds of other peasants building this crucial road.

Old Lo is a crusty old conservative with a quick and obstinate temper, who tends his three acres in fulfilment of a Confucian duty to his father’s dying wish.  He resents the government’s new requirement to educate his children and he looks forward to the day when his son Tieh-ming can join him in the rice fields learning how to be a farmer. He’s not happy that his older son Kan-Ming has joined the Provincial Army, and worse yet, his daughter Hsiao-lien has married a fellow-soldier against her father’s wishes and lives in Nanking.  Everything is changed now, he says, and youngsters do not respect their elders nor obey their fathers very much. His wife, who is ignorant in the true and generous sense of the word, has no concept of life beyond her village.  She is afraid to travel to see her family but she does not actually know what a train is.

Brother-in-law Li is more sanguine than Lo.  He’s proud of his daughter Hsaio-mei’s newly acquired literacy, and he boasts about how her teachers persuaded his wife to go to school too and now she keeps the books for the farm.  He’d like to learn to read and write himself, but he’s too busy with the farm.

But eventually the effects of war come even to this isolated outpost. The government needs to acquire their cherished land to build the road. Lo is adamant that he will not part with it, and it takes a great personal tragedy for him to change his mind. But when he does, he refuses government compensation for his land and his dedication to the road is absolute.  With Li, and the remnants of their families, they give up everything they have and work in dreadful conditions. Like the real-life workers on this road, they experience the dangers of road- and bridge-building in this treacherous terrain. There are fatal accidents while constructing the road over river rapids; there are deaths in perilous floods and landslides caused by dynamiting, and people also die from diseases such as malaria, far from any medical help.

There are propaganda elements to this simple tale.  Yee reproduces rumours about fanatical Japanese soldiers being very foolish men, with no will of their own, and he idealises the noble labour and sacrifice of simple peasants all doing their little bit.

The crowd moved in a huge procession to the spot where the road was to begin, each person carrying a small bundle of possessions on his back.  The authorities had provided a large quantity of long-handled hoes, mattocks, pickaxes, large baskets and other primitive native tools.  There were very few mechanical tools, for machinery was difficult to transport to such a remote inland region, particularly in war-torn conditions; most of the farmer-labourers would in any case not have known how to handle them, and besides, the government needed its limited supplies for more important work at the front and in the factories. (p.59)

No one complains when those breaking stones cause fragments to injure others; and no one voices the lack of satisfaction to be had compared to ploughing and cultivating their own land.  When in the novel characters die, as 3000 real-life workers did within eight months, there is no time to grieve.

Though the Chinese, by comparison with Western nations, are not a very musical race, they sing patriotic songs as they work.  Yee takes the opportunity to express his pride in his native land after centuries of humiliation.

…these great outbursts of song across the wide spaces and great heights of Yunnan did not sound harsh but extremely impressive.  Perhaps there had never before been heard, in that remote region, such a huge noise.  Not even the roar of tigers could have outdone it.  Now from peak to peak the echoes rang, and the sound rolled into the valleys.  It seemed that the wild beasts must have stood still to listen and the chattering birds have ceased their flights.  It wa a cry to tell the world that a new nation was in being. (p.63)

Everyone works amicably and efficiently.  

From daybreak to evening they moved on, foot by foot, yard by yard, without rest or recreation. (p.60)

And while Lo’s (nameless) wife does her share of the stone-breaking, there is no mention of how presumably she and the other women did the cooking as well.  This omission extends to the title, which mentions only the men of the Burma Road, not the women.

Writing this short novel during the war years, Yee offers no sentimental ending, but there is hope.

Trove carries a 1940 report of this road-building in the Burnie Advocate. An American observer had his hazardous journey interrupted occasionally while peasants cleared landslides with their bare hands. He pays tribute to them and to the few Europeans living along the road: American aviation instructors, a missionary, and, on the border, a ‘political officer’ (i.e. a spy).

The Hong Kong China Daily reported on the story of this road on its 80th anniversary. It features memories of children as young as eight who worked on the road.

PS, the next day: With thanks to Linda Jaivin, here’s a link to Ten Questions for Authors: Chiang Yee and His Circle: an interview with Paul Bevan, Anne Witchard, and Da Zheng on Chiang Yee and His Circle: Chinese Artistic and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1930–1950, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2022.

Author Chiang Yee
Title: The Men of the Burma Road
Publisher: Methuen, London, sixth edition 1935, first published in 1942
Cover image and other illustrations by the author
ISBN: none, hbk., 88 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Diversity Books $17.10

Picture credits: Map: By SY – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


  1. Well,that’s a lot of history I didn’t know (and was happy to learn). And what an excellent find.
    From the earlier part of your post, I have always known ‘Vercors’ as a SF writer, of the novel Borderline. Now you’ve motivated me to look him up in Wiki, I might see if I can find some of his others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Do you know… did he write SF before, or after the war?
      (I’m wondering if he was an established writer who was approached to write The Silence of the Sea., in the same way that HV Morton was asked to write a ‘propaganda novel’ by the Ministry of Information in Britain.


  2. This was a fascinating post, Lisa – thanks so much! I have read Chiang Lee’s travel work but this sounds completely different and perhaps unexpected!


  3. What Bill says – a history I didn’t know and what an excellent find. I like realistic endings, which is what I sense you are saying this is, that also offer hope.


    • I can’t believe my luck in finding it, and I had no idea what a treasure it was until I started reading it.
      I love that dedication, which he wrote in the midst of 1942 when the war still had years to run, but he tells the dead that their sacrifice will not be in vain.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Echoing Bill and Sue. I did know that Japan invaded China in 1937 but when I studied that history 50 years ago, I was focussed only on China and Japan.


    • There’s such a lot of history in our part of the world to catch up on…

      Liked by 1 person

Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: