The Peking Express: The Bandits Who Stole a Train, Stunned the West, and Broke the Republic of China by James M Zimmerman - review by Adam Brookes

Adam Brookes

Blood on the Tracks

The Peking Express: The Bandits Who Stole a Train, Stunned the West, and Broke the Republic of China


Public Affairs 321pp £25

One hundred years ago, on a cool spring night in 1923, a train rattled north from Shanghai towards Peking, capital of the young, unstable Republic of China. Its passengers were drawn from across China’s vastly unequal and chaotic society. In the third-class carriages, near the smoky engine, were hundreds of Chinese passengers. In the luxury rear carriages, European and American businessmen and travellers drank, dined and gambled into the night. China’s railways were the country’s central arteries of communication, a symbol of nascent modernity in the poverty-stricken agrarian landscape. China was in the midst of its ‘warlord era’, a time of persistent civil war between regional military strongmen arrayed in complex, shifting alliances.

Lying in wait for the train in the darkness, just south of the town of Lincheng in Shantung province, were a thousand armed outlaws. They were alienated, impoverished men who lived a precarious, violent existence preying on the population. They roamed the countryside in gangs and were commonly referred to as tufei, or ‘bandits’. The tufei had tampered with the line, and in the early hours of the morning of 6 May the train derailed and ground to a halt. The armed men smashed their way aboard. They rampaged through the carriages and took passengers hostage at gunpoint.

The Peking Express heist became globally infamous. In this intelligent, engrossing book, James M Zimmerman draws on archival material, memoirs, letters and press reports to relate this strange, little-remembered story, and does so with pace and style.

Among the hostages taken that night was Lucy Aldrich, a wealthy middle-aged

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