Korean in Northeast China: Ambiguous Identity as Survival Tactic

Chong Eun Ahn

A review of From Chaoxian ren to Chaoxian zu: Korean Identity under Japanese Empire and Chinese Nation-State, by Chong Eun Ahn.

There is a growing interest in anglophone academia in the study of the Korean diaspora in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Research on this topic not only deepens our understanding of nation- and state-making in the Asia-Pacific region, but also explores a new angle for the study of colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, as well as East Asian capitalism. Among all the Korean diaspora societies, the Manchurian-Korean community deserves special attention. In the first half of the twentieth century, approximately two million Koreans, either willingly or by force, migrated to Northeast China (Manchuria). With the collapse of the Japanese Empire by the end of WWII, nearly half of these migrants returned to the Peninsula, bringing Manchurian imprints to the modern Korean states (both North and South). Those who stayed in Manchuria composed one of the ethnic minorities of the modern Chinese nation. Dominant historiography about the Manchurian-Koreans, in both China and Korea, emphasizes their (anti-Japanese) nationalist or revolutionary experiences, which neatly fit into the postwar grand narrative of nation-state building. Challenging such a myth, Chong Eun Ahn’s dissertation, From Chaoixan ren to Chaoxian zu, urges us to rethink the process of national or ethnic formation through the lens of identity politics in the everyday lives of the Manchurian-Koreans. The dissertation argues that the Manchurian-Korean identity was far from certain during the colonial and de-colonial era, despite the multiple states’ attempts to impose a “certainty,” top-down. Instead, Koreans often found themselves caught between a Japanese colonial power and Chinese natives. They deliberately employed such an ambiguous status in their struggle for survival in a foreign land. Borrowing theory from Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein (Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. New York: Verso, 1991) and Michel de Certeau (The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), Ahn argues that the process from Chaoxian ren (a Chinese term for “Korean people”) to Chaoxian zu (ethnic “Korean-Chinese”) should be regarded as a dialectical project in which local Koreans proactively participated through their daily practices. Without downplaying the role of state actors, this study highlights the agency of Manchurian-Koreans in their identity-making, using many archival and oral sources to reveal a history that is told by the Koreans themselves.

Chronologically structured, the dissertation has five content chapters and covers a time period from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s. Chapter 1 summarizes the history of the Korean immigrants in Manchuria, highlighting two basic elements that composed the “problem of Korean people.” First, although the first wave of border-crossing by the Korean refugees appeared in the late nineteenth century, it was not until the first decade of the twentieth century that the Korean population gradually changed the overall demography of Manchuria. Second, the political and military competition over Manchuria (among China, Japan, and Russia) formed the historical dynamic of the issue of Korean migration. Manchuria, a former royal reserve forbidden to explore, was opened by Qing China to counter Russia’s infiltration. Around the same time, Japan’s expansion to the Korean Peninsula – first through the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, then the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 – forced more Koreans to depart from their turbulent home country. In other words, contrary to the common assumption that Japanese colonialism was the major cause of Korean immigration, Ahn locates the phenomenon in “the 19th century trans-border nexus in the region” (p. 20). After Japan annexed Korea in 1910, Korean people were under Japanese jurisdiction. This situation allowed Koreans to find a “freer” space in Manchuria, where the competition between China and Japan provided the immigrants a more negotiable, if not favorable, survival condition than on the peninsula.

The Japanese occupation of Manchuria (1931) and the establishment of Manchukuo (1932) marked a turning point in the Manchurian-Koreans’ identity politics. Chapter 2 deals with the period from 1931 to 1936 and examines how Japanese and Chinese elites tried to incorporate Koreans into their colonial/national agendas, as well as how local Koreans recognized their own position in the new sociopolitical structure. Japanese colonizers attempted to categorize Korean peasants as “fellowmen (douhou)” (p. 65) who, in contrast to Chinese workers or Japanese supervisors, played a role as productive famers in the multi-ethnic Manchukuo. Partially echoing the Japanese vision, Chinese nationalist intellectuals portrayed Manchurian-Koreans as either an agency (or at least a beneficiary) of the Japanese colonization of Manchuria, or a potential ally of the anti-colonization movement. However, interviews with and memories of local Korean farmers show that none of these imposed categories accurately described their daily experiences. Neither colonialism nor nationalism, Ahn argues, seem relevant to the majority of Korean immigrants, who survived difficulties without necessarily associating with any of the given identities.

To give a more concrete explanation of the argument, Chapter 3 employs local villagers’ memories to further explore how Korean individuals took advantage of their ambiguous identity to “negotiate their powers in everyday practices” (p. 108) in the agrarian society of war-time Manchukuo (1937-1945). In so doing, the chapter complicates the post-independence historiography which tends to divide war-time Koreans’ identifications with an oversimplified ideological dualism of pro- and anti-colonialism.

The collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945 urged the Korean people who remained in Manchuria gradually to clarify their national and ethnic identities. Chapters 4 and 5 examine this transition from Korean people (Chaoxian ren) to Korean-Chinese (Chaoxian zu). Chapter 4 focuses on the period immediately after WWII to the Korean War. During these years, a temporary joy of “recovering (guangfu)” was soon succeeded by the turbulence of the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War. Manchurian-Koreans proactively supported the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts in the Civil War, land reform, and the Korean War. Their endeavor, however, was not due to an ideological affiliation with communism, but again demonstrated their tactics to protect their interests and survive in a changing political environment. It was through this process that they gradually identified themselves as a minority in a new nation.

In the early 1950s, the PRC launched the project of “National Classification (minzu shibie).” This marks the final stage when Korean immigrants were solidified as a single ethnic minority in a Chinese socialist state. Chapter 5 reveals a dialectical relationship between state and local society in the creation of “Chaoxian zu.” With the state trying to demarcate a boundary between Korean-Chinese and Korean in (North) Korea in contemporary international context, daily practices of the local Koreans had certain flexibility either to follow or challenge such a boundary. When the state advocated Han language education as a critical way to promote socialist modernization in the ethnic autonomous region, the implementation of this policy varied and depended on demographic structure of local villages. As the dissertation concludes, “The rise of a new multi-ethnic nation-state was influenced by those people who moved around the borders, and who were willing and unwilling to learn the majority’s language. The People’s Republic of China was not only a creator of but also a product of Chaoxian zu people’s everyday life” (p. 195).

Ahn’s dissertation sheds new light on the making of ethnic Koreans in China. It contributes to the field, and differentiates itself from most previous studies, by employing a bottom-up perspective and carefully investigating the everyday life of those who were often seen as “voiceless.” Moreover, it provides a valuable case study to enrich our understanding of several important themes in modern East Asian history, namely, Japanese colonization, ethnicity-building in Manchukuo, and nation-making of the PRC. It vividly shows how these grand themes were entangled in a local trans-border society, and how the local society, in turn, gradually transformed itself in a constantly changing environment.

Nianshen Song
Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
History Department
Vassar College

Primary Sources

Zhongyang Ribao (The Central Daily News)
Dongbei Ribao (The Northeast Daily)
Dongbei Chaoxian Renminbao (The Northeast Korean People’s Daily)
Chinese Academy of Science. Report on Jilin Province Yanbian Chaoxian zu Autonomous Prefecture Luozi gou Township Taiping gou Chaoxian zu Society and History). China, 1965.
To-hyong Kim. Singminji Sigi Chaeman Chosonin Ui Sam Kwa Kiok: Kusul Charyojip (Korean Life and Memory in Colonial Manchuria): Oral History Collection. Soul-si: Sonin, 2009.

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2013. 206 pp. Primary Advisor: Madeleine Yue Dong.

Image: Photograph by the author.  Entrance of Manlongtun (满龙屯), Shenyang, Liaoning in 2009. 

Leave a Reply