When Lithuania declared independence in 1918, the region soon descended into conflict. Lithuania, too, had to assemble a fighting force. Lured to join the army with promises of land, a Chinese man unexpectedly became one of the first volunteers.
There is not much information about the life of Petras Činšas in Lithuania who took part in the Wars of Independence, a series of armed conflicts between 1918 and 1920 fought by Lithuania against the Bermontians – German and Russian troops that stayed in the Baltics after the First World War – Russian Bolsheviks, and Poland.
Činšas died in Alytus, a town in southern Lithuania, in 1930. According to Vilmantas Dunderis, a historian at Alytus Museum of Ethnography, Lithuanian newspapers only started reporting about him after he passed away.
“After his death, he was described as an example of patriotism and a honourable soldier […] who served a country other than his homeland,” the historian said.
The press wrote that Činšas was buried with military volunteer regalia in Kaunas, the capital of Lithuania at the time. He was awarded the Volunteer Medal no. 1506, which means that he was among the first 10,000 volunteers in the Lithuanian army. The exact location of his grave is, unfortunately, unknown.
Arrival in Lithuania
Records in military archives show that Činšas was born in Qingdao city, China. He is identified in the documents as Petras, without any reference to his Chinese name.
According to Dunderis, Činšas was brought to Lithuania by a Russian soldier “as his assistant or servant”. They travelled together across the Russian Empire and joined the front when the First World War started. Činčas and the Russian soldier were later captured by the Germans.
“When the war was coming to an end, they came to Lithuania and stayed there. Lithuania was then in the process of building a state and Činšas decided to join its army,” the historian said.
The new Lithuanian government was inviting young men to join the army and promising land to those who did.
“That is why many Jewish people joined the army […]. American-Lithuanians also came,” Dunderis explained.
The Chinese man took the oath on July 21, 1919.
Rumour about Chinese battalion
Činčas was assigned to the so-called Separate Belarusian Battalion. At first, he was fighting against the Polish army and later, against Bolsheviks in eastern Lithuania.
“During the fights with the Poles, he [Činšas] was captured. The Poles were surprised because they arrested a soldier who was dressed in Lithuanian uniform, but looked Asian,” the historian said.
While in captivity, Činšas started a rumour that there was an entire Chinese battalion in the Lithuanian army, according to Dunderis, and the Poles believed it.
Činšas later managed to escape, came back to Lithuania and re-joined the army. He was injured and demobilised in 1923.
After the war, the Chinese soldier settled in Kaunas, married a Lithuanian woman, and learned the language. No information could be found on whether he was given the land promised by the government.
In 1930, Činšas visited Alytus, where he died unexpectedly. After his death, Lithuanian press began picking up on his story, referring to Činšas as the only Chinese man who served in the country’s army.