On the evening of May 5, 1923, everything seemed quiet on the Blue Express, China's luxury railway line connecting Tianjin and Pukou. The train, recently purchased by the Chinese Railway Administration from an American company, boasted Asia's first all-steel coaches. Its first class carriages consisted of compartments which, on that day, were filled not only by Chinese, but also by foreign passengers of various nationalities, some of them businessmen or long-term residents of China, others, using a modern word, 'tourists'.
Among the passengers were Miss Lucy Aldrich, the sister-in-law of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and daughter of Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island; two officers of the US Army, Major Allen and Major Pinger; Angelo Musso, a wealthy Italian lawyer based in Shanghai and an early supporter of Benito Mussolini's Fascists; he was accompanied by his private secretary, the young Alba Coralli. There was a Mexican industrialist with his wife, one Rumanian, and several French, American, and British citizens. On board the train was also John B. Powell, an American journalist travelling to a recently completed land reclamation project on the Yellow River that had been financed by the American Red Cross.
Mr Powell shared a compartment with a French national named Berube, who worked for the Chinese Customs Administration and had just returned from Europe, where he had served on the Western Front. Years later Powell recalled that first night on the Blue Express,
It was early spring and a bright moon was shining, making the barren rocky Shantung Mountains quite visible in the distance. We had raised the window so as to enjoy the warm breeze, and just before retiring I looked out the window and remarked to Berube that we were passing through 'bandit territory,' as the mountainous area including parts of three provinces, Kiangsu, Anhwei, and Shantung, had long been notorious as a haunt for roving bands of ex-soldiers who had served in the provincial armies and, being unable to find jobs, had taken up banditry. Some of the bandit leaders had a Robin Hood reputation, but most of them were engaged in plain outlawry, looting towns and villages and kidnaping their inhabitants.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, China was a country wrecked by chaos, political instability and civil war. The Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s had cost at least 20 million lives. Foreign invasion and economic decline had weakened the imperial authorities. Poverty and the erosion of traditional social structures favoured the proliferation of secret societies, criminal syndicates and bands of outlaws. After the revolution of 1911 had overthrown the Qing Dynasty, the new Republican government proved too fragile and shaky to restore China’s greatness. The country soon fell apart, and the political vacuum left by the old regime was filled by warlords, powerful military leaders who established personal fiefdoms. Chinese society was militarised as never before. Far from being the modern, democratic state its founders had envisaged, Republican China sank into the abyss of anarchy, and the once well-ordered Confucian society turned into a battlefield in which political and military power were inextricably intertwined.
While the central government existed merely on paper, the vast territory of the Republic was sliced up in domains controlled by mighty generals, each with a de facto independent administration. There was Zhang Zuolin, the lord of Manchuria. Shandong was in the hands of the 'Dogmeat General' Zhang Zongchang, a former coolie whom a contemporary described as having "the physique of an elephant, the brain of a pig and the temperament of a tiger". Wu Peifu, known as the 'Philosopher General' or the 'Jade Marshal', had his power base in Hunan and Hubei and controlled the strategically important Beijing-Hangzhou railway line. Yan Xishan ruled over Shanxi, introducing modern reforms and improving infrastructure. Feng Yuxiang, the 'Christian General', was renowned for his frugal lifestyle and for baptizing his soldiers en masse.
The warlord era was a brutal and violent time. Soldiers robbed and tortured, peasants feared for their lives and property, citizens were taxed heavily to provide resources for their rulers’ endless wars. Thousands of destitute, most of them illiterate, were recruited to fight in the warlords' armies. When troops were disbanded, they often turned to banditry. As a contemporary remarked, 'Soldiers come and bandits follow them, then the bandits withdraw and the soldiers come back – and what’s more, it is the armies who maintain the scourge of banditry here. All discharged soldiers become bandits; and when the army needs one more soldier, it enlists a bandit . . . soldiers and bandits are two names for the same thing.'
As the Blue Express crossed the border between Jiangsu and Shandong Province in the early morning of May 6, "there was a sudden grinding of brakes" and the train stopped so abruptly that passengers were hurled out of their seats. Firing was heard outside, and people shouted in panic. Mr Powell looked out of the window and saw
what looked like a small army of men swarming down the embankment, yelling and firing their rifles as they came. They climbed into the cars through the windows, ran along the corridors and began routing the passengers out of their berths while they ransacked the baggage. One man, a Rumanian, objected to being pushed around and threw a teapot at his captor. The bandit raised his rifle and fired, killing the man instantly. There was no further resistance. I had in my bag a small .25-caliber automatic I had purchased in Washington. My French compartment-mate also had his service revolver, but we quickly decided that our armament was outclassed by the weapons in the hands of the highwaymen, and handed over our revolvers without protest. The bandits in our compartment were so elated by getting our guns that they permitted us to put on our clothes and shoes, a lucky break for us as most of the passengers, women as well as men, were attired only in their nightgowns and pajamas as the bandits lined us up along the embankment.
The bandits completed their looting, taking with them everything that seemed valuable, even clothes and light bulbs. But ransacking the train was not their main objective. As soon as they had finished pillaging, the band's chieftain, Sun Meiyao (1898-1923), ordered that the passengers be rounded up. The bandits – numbering around 2000 - kidnapped the 200 passengers of the Blue Express, among them 30 foreign nationals. Westerners were particularly coveted victims, because the outlaws could extract higher ransoms.