Shanghai, 1923. A sleek blue luxury train departs from China’s cosmopolitan port city and heads into the country’s lawless heartland. Waiting to attack are one thousand heavily armed bandits, disgruntled ex-soldiers led by a charismatic 25-year-old rebel who is dead-set on freeing his province from the yoke of a brutal warlord.
His audacious plan is not just to rob the train but to capture its rich and famous passengers, using them as bargaining chips to force a weak Chinese government to grant him autonomous control over his native soil. His raid on the Peking Express will have a cascade of startling consequences: riveting the world press, toppling a Chinese president, advancing Japanese ambitions to infiltrate the country, inspiring a Hollywood blockbuster with Marlene Dietrich, and fueling the revolutionary ambitions of a young Communist named Mao Zedong.
Known at the time as the Lincheng Incident, this forgotten episode roped in a global cast of dictators, diplomats, business moguls and good Samaritans who all struggled — sometimes against each other’s interests — to win the hostages’ release during six excruciating weeks in May and June 1923. The jaw-dropping story of what those hostages endured is told from the point-of-view of one of the great foreign correspondents of the period, John B. Powell, a rugged, Hemingwayesque adventurer who happened to be aboard the train when it was attacked. He would not only document the event but play a heroic role in its ending.
Along with Powell, the 100 hostages included a cross-section of urban China between the wars: American military men, playboys from Shanghai's Jewish merchant community, the wealthy and prominent sister-in-law of John D. Rockefeller Jr., a well-known Italian lawyer with shady clients, a French war hero, a scion of a rich Mexican family and his bride, and a brilliant Chinese professor. They spoke different languages, prayed to different gods, mistrusted each other. Yet to survive, they had to learn to work together. And they would experience not only six harrowing weeks of captivity but also the hidden beauty and terror of rural China in the early 20th century, with its opium-scented villages, crumbling temples, and peasant farmers mired in abject poverty.
While the period and setting may recall fictional locomotive thrillers by Graham Greene and Agatha Christie, The Peking Express is an entirely true story — painstakingly reconstructed from archival documents and unpublished diaries. Every bit as colorful and gripping as a novel, this book also sheds light on a formative moment in the history of modern China and exposes how Beijing’s longstanding mistrust of, if not resentment toward, the West still resonates today.