Burma Road and Its Significance to the World


By KING-CHAU MUI, Chinese Consul-General at Honolulu

Delivered over the radio from Hilo, Hawaii, November 28, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol VII, pp. 151-153.

ANYONE who has made any study of China at all has heard of the Great Wall, or as the Chinese call it, the ten thousand li wall, that winds over mountains and plains and valleys in north China. Far less known is the Burma road that cuts its way across high mountain slopes and over deep gorges in southwest China. Yet as an engineering feat among the Chinese the building of the Burma road is second only to the construction of the Great Wall which has always been considered as one of the wonders of the world.

But for the action of Great Britain in closing the road to traffic on July 18 as the result of Japanese pressure and then in reopening it three months later following Japan's alignment with the axis powers, even less would be known about this communication line. These events together with Japanese attempts to bomb it in order to stop the flow ofsupplies into China, have brought it to the attention of the world. For the next 15 minutes, over the facilities of this station, I shall endeavour to tell you something about the Burma road which has become known as China's life line in the war against Japanese aggression.

Both the Great Wall and the Burma road are national defense measures. Both are constructed by enormous man power, fashioned with crude tools without the aid of modern machinery. But here the comparison ends. The differences, in fact, are greater than the points of similarities. The Great Wall is symbolic of the spirit of ancient China. The Burma road is symbolic of modern China. And the spirit that prompted the rulers of the past to put up the ten thousand li wall is vastly different from the spirit that has impelled our present leaders to build the Burma highway.

The Great Wall was intended to safeguard the country against foreign invasion, to prevent potential enemies from crossing the frontier into Chinese territory. Behind it was a spirit of self complacency and defeatism. That it failed to serve its purpose was shown by the fact that several times in history invaders have swarmed over this immense defense works to conquer the country and hold it in subjection for a time. The latest example of the failure of such defense strategy is afforded by France with its supposedly impregnable Maginot line.

If defeatism had dominated the mind of the rulers of present day China, we would not be talking about the Burma road now. If China had depended merely on a defense wall, if it had isolated itself from the rest of the world, it may be already on the road to ruin. But fortunately it had not made that error.

It has maintained its contact with the outside. It has always believed that it will get assistance from the peoples and nations which believe in right and justice and fair play. It is confident that these peoples and these nations will cooperate to save the world from falling into the clutches of aggressors and dictators. When Japan's armies occupied China's seaports and when its navy blockaded our coast, the Chinese turned to the west and hewed back door routes to maintain its communication abroad. In the building of the Burma highway is seen the indomitable will of the Chinese to preserve their independence. In it is symbolized a spirit of hope, confidence, enterprise and courage.

The building, or rather, the rebuilding of the Burma road was started in December 1937 and in eight months the highway which runs 715 miles from Kunming westward and southwestward to Lashio to join the Rangoon-Mandalay-Lashio railway in Burma was opened to traffic. It also connects with a highway that parallels the Burma railroad to the sea.

The road is really not new. It follows the Old Tribute or Ambassadors' Road because before Chinese seaports were opened to the west it was over this trail that Chinese envoys made their way to southern Asia and representatives of Burmese principalities bore their tribute to the emperors in China. Records have it that the famous Venetian traveler Marco Polo made use of this road in his missions from Yunnan to Burma on behalf of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. In effect, then, what is generally the Back Door of China today was the Front Door of China yesterday.

What the Chinese have done was to convert into a highway traversable by motor trucks this tortuous trial that winds dizzily across sharp gorges and deep valleys and on the side of precipitous ridges that at places are 8,000 feet above sea level. This task was achieved without the assistance of a single piece of modern machinery, under the supervision, incidentally, of Chinese engineers who had received theirtraining in American universities. Part of the work included the construction of almost 300 bridges and nearly 2,000 culverts.

Hundreds of thousands of people have contributed their labour in the construction of the highway. They were mostly the inhabitants of the areas through which the road traverses. To the government's call for workers these people have responded in a manner that was most gratifying. Most of them brought their families with them. They brought whatever crude tools they possessed. Although they worked long hours with practically no pay, they did not complain. Everything was done in the spirit that in a time like this civilians as well as soldiers should do their share in defense of the country.

It is because of this spirit of sacrifice of the people and their refusal to submit to Japanese domination that such a stupendous project was accomplished in so short a time. For almost two years, except for the three months period during which the road was closed, trucks have rumbled along the road bringing into free China the supplies needed to carry on the fight—munitions, gasoline, medical supplies, machine and airplane parts. Outbound trucks have carried back tung oil, tungsten, tin, antimony, tea, silk, bristles and hide to pay for these supplies.

The primary importance of the Burma road, of course, is military. China's coast has been blockaded by the Japanese fleet although not so completely as to make it impossible to trickle in at different points. With the capitulation of France to the Japanese in Indo-China, the railway linking Haiphong and Kunming is no longer available for Chinese use. This leaves the Burma road the country's principal line of communication with the outside world. China has another route that leads 2,000 miles from Sian westward into Russian territory, but traffic over this line is far more expensive and difficult. This is indicated by the fact that the bulk of Russian supplies reaching China has been by sea via Rangoon.

Because of the importance of the Burma road to China, Rangoon has enjoyed a prosperity it has never had before. Supplies for China carried by ships of many nations are landed at this Burmese city. The American President and Isthmian lines now make the city a regular port of call.

While the Burma road is vital to China during this period of emergency, there is no reason to believe that it will lose its importance after the war is over. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that it will assume greater significance as an avenue of commerce between China's interior and the world.

During the last few years China has combined with its policy of resistance against Japanese invasion, a program of reconstruction of the interior. In the past it has made the mistake of concentrating its industry and wealth along the coast. It does not intend to make that mistake again. After the start of hostilities many factories in cities along the seaboard were lifted up bodily and transplanted in remote points in the west. About 30,000,000 people, many of whom are factory workers, have moved inland to make new homes in a region already populated by 150,000,000 people and richly endowed with natural resources. A great deal of capital has already been attracted to new industries rising up amidst surroundings that probably had remained unchanged for a thousand years. Most of the universities and colleges that have made such cities as Peiping, Shanghai and Nanking centers of culture now hold their classes in such far off places as Kunming and Chengtu.

The interior is being transformed, although only the beginnings of industry are being made. It is different fromwhat it was only a few years ago and a few years hence it will be vastly different from what it is today. We may see in China during the 20th century a phenomenon like that in the United States during the 19th century—the claiming of the west. We can expect that in the future the Burma route will carry much of the trade between China's western provinces and the world. The Chinese foresee this, so they are planning to build a railroad to connect with the Rangoon-Mandalay-Lashio line.

At present, however, the importance of the Burma road is more military and political rather than commercial. It is the most important channel over which supplies to China can be routed. Over this highway must come the materials that China needs in its fight for freedom. Over this highway must come the aid that Great Britain and the United States can give to enable China to keep the Japanese military machine immobilized so that it can not move against more vital British and American interests. Over this highway must come the help that China must have to break Japan and thus contribute to the defeat of the axis powers.

China needs all the help it can get from the democratic powers and it is to the interest to these powers to give China this help. The war that is raging in the Far East is inseparably bound up with the war that has ravaged Europe. This fact is recognized by men with a deep knowledge of international affairs. It is recognized by President Roosevelt who has pledged himself to render aid to the last remaining countries making a stand against the forces of aggression. It is recognized by Admiral Harry E. Yarnell, former commander of the American Asiatic fleet, who has pointed out that China's fight is also America's fight. It is recognized by the editor of the Nation magazine who writes that "an unconquered China is more important than battleships to our Pacific defense." It is recognized by secretary of navy, Frank Knox, who has promised American aid to China.

It is only by making heavy sacrifices and overcoming tremendous obstacles that the Chinese have made possible this back door route. They can not afford to see it closed. In the same spirit they have made this highway, they will strive to keep traffic flowing. I am sure they will succeed in spite of severe rains and unexpected landslides, in spite of bombing by Japanese planes, in spite of attempts of the Japanese to incite the Burmese natives to sedition against the British and sabotage against the Chinese.

Damages to the road done by nature or by the Japanese are being repaired quickly by a people with a will for freedom. The Japanese have persistently bombed the highway since it was opened to traffic on October 18 and their attempts have not been very successful. Vital points like bridges are not easy to hit because of the rugged terrain of the country with its high peaks and protective clouds and cliffs. But even the destruction of bridges can only interrupt, but can not stop, the flow of traffic over the road.

The Burma road is more than a great engineering feat. It is more than a possible avenue of profitable commerce in the future. Today it is China's last link with democracy. The Chinese are determined that it shall not be broken and with American help, it will not be broken.