The Great Train Robbery on the Shanghai-to-Peking Express is the name of a daring heist that happened in 1923, inspiring the 1932 film “Shanghai Express,” and now, James M. Zimmerman’s excellent book, “THE PEKING EXPRESS: The Bandits Who Stole a Train, Stunned the West, and Broke the Republic of China.” The story of a small group of bandits under the leadership of Sun Mei-yao and their daring derailing of a passenger train is as exciting as it is enlightening, giving a vivid picture into modern Chinese history and the tradition of social bandits seeking justice by any means necessary.
The train from Shanghai to Peking was full of luxury travelers and hundreds of Chinese riding hard-class, and it was the latter group Sun took hostage. It wasn’t about money for Sun—he was seeking back pay for his former army comrades, and was ultimately looking for a way to overthrow the Chinese government. With the derailment, Sun initially succeeded, though one passenger, criminal Joseph Rothman, was fatally shot. The other hostages, most in their pajamas, were marched for miles up rough terrain and into a rough camp up on Paotzuku Mountain. Food was scarce, though Leon Friedman was able to cogently comment that “What is a good Jew boy going to do in the circumstances? We starve and they send us a ham! We have nothing to read, and they send us the New Testament!”
Negotiations progressed, and heiress Lucy Aldrich successfully managed to keep her jewels hidden first in her brassiere and then a crevice in a rock nearby. Eventually, political advisor Roy Scott Anderson was brought up to the mountain to work on negotiations, and he eventually succeeded in freeing the remaining hostages after nearly a month of captivity. At this point, Sun and his men were captured, with Sun being beheaded and his fellow bandits sent to prison for a lengthy sentence.
All in all, the Lincheng Incident taught a powerful lesson about the corruption of the Chinese government, leading ultimately to the fall of the president in office and the rise of Mao Zedong. Although the film “Shanghai Express” simplified the story (understandably), James M. Zimmerman’s exciting work makes it plain that there was more to the story than met the eye. The writer may not be a stylist, but the thorough research and displays of quoted speech make this story as educational as it is entertaining, and an important reminder of public attitudes toward inequality in 1920s China, and even now.