The Sino-Korean Border in History

A review of My Land, My People: Discourses and Practices in the Tumen River Demarcation, 1860s to 1910s, by Nianshen Song.

Nianshen Song’s dissertation critically examines territorial disputes over the demarcations of the Sino–Korean boundary river, the Tumen River, from the 1860s to the 1910s. Based on rich Chinese, Korean, and Japanese archives, Song examines the processes by which an immigrant society gradually forming on the borderland imposed “multilateral and multilayered” (p. 10) challenges to adjacent states from the bottom up, and how these states that were spatially, geographically, and politically involved in the border disputes made demarcations into presentations of power, using such presentations to compete with one another in order to control the borderland and community from the top down. The dissertation argues that the Tumen River demarcations presented not only the fierce “competitions of nationalism, colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism” (p. 8), but also a highly critical, controversial, and “perpetual” (p. 389) issue that fundamentally concerned “the formation of the modern state and international relations in East Asia” (p. 388).

The dissertation starts from the multivocal inscription of the Mukedeng stele that was erected on the Sino-Korean border in 1712 on the peak of Mt. Changbai (or Mt. Paektu in Korean). The stele would become a myth of demarcations in the following two centuries that synthesized “local, national, regional, and global” (p. 21) history in the boundary area itself. Chapter 1 introduces the socio-ecology of the Tumen River region, which imposed grave challenges of territoriality on both China and Korea when Han Chinese and Korean immigrants moved to the boundary area in large numbers to cultivate arable lands in the second half of the nineteenth century. Facing unprecedented and substantial changes in the area, both Qing China and Chosŏn Korea conceptualized bilateral border-crossing disputes within the conventional zongfan (a.k.a. tributary) framework and legitimized their responses by means of two political and diplomatic discourses of the zongfan system: “serving the great” for Chosŏn and “cherishing the inferior” for the Qing (p. 78). From a unique and broader perspective, Song has critically explored the close relationship between the Qing’s policy of naturalization toward the Miao people in Southwest China and its policy toward Korean immigrants in the Tumen River region, brilliantly revealing the late Qing’s “constant ‘interiorization’ of frontier regions” (p. 60). At the same time, the aggressive penetration of the region by other powers, Japan and Russia in particular, integrated the Sino-Korean bilateral contest into “the wave of imperialist expansion” (p. 79) that invited “the principle of multilateral interactions” (p. 86).

After introducing conventional geographical studies in East Asia, to which Song refers as “imperial geography” (p. 93), Chapter 2 discusses how the Qing and Chosŏn in their joint demarcation projects in the 1880s employed their imperial geographical conceptions to pursue their own historical and territorial legitimacy in the Tumen River region. The Qing and Chosŏn embraced different conceptualizations on the upper Tumen River region before the 1880s, particularly with regard to the cosmological role of Mt. Changbai (Mt. Paektu) in cultivating and legitimizing different geographic and political narratives (pp. 99-104). Underlying bilateral tensions produced “multiple uncertainties” (p. 109) within their shared zongfan arrangement. In consequence, the two countries conducted two demarcations in 1885 and 1887 and identified the Tumen River as the boundary river, but failed to reach any treaties defining and demarcating the border. Compared to Sino-Russian and Sino-Vietnamese border demarcations at the time, the Sino-Korean demarcations proved ineffective in going beyond the zongfan mechanism and embracing modern cartography and international law. By the same token, as the author points out, their joint projects revealed that “the mutual political recognition” between them “remained relatively untainted” (p. 129), and that the boundary was virtually determined by “its engagement within the geopolitical network” (p. 139). This tension between zongfan and modern political arrangements was embodied by the geopolitical accounts of the “territorialization” (p. 140) of the very boundary area made by the distinguished Chinese official Wu Dacheng and his prominent Korean counterpart Yi Chungha.

Against the historical backdrop of a “frontier building enterprise” (p. 154) initiated by the Qing and Chosŏn in the 1880s, and the termination of the Sino-Korean zongfan relationship in the 1890s, Chapter 3 demonstrates that the Tumen River region was gradually transformed into the vanguard of the Japanese colonial power under the name of “Kando” (pp. 158-159). Complex socioeconomic and geopolitical conditions, such as the provocative land distribution as part of the Qing’s policy of naturalizing Korean immigrants, the high mobility of the multi-ethnic local population, and the deep involvement of non-governmental forces, made the local society of “Kando” an international arena where China, Korea, Japan, and Russia were engaged in the great game of “sovereign competition” (p. 227). It was on this point that some intellectual pioneers of Japanese colonialism, in particular Shinoda Jisaku, distorted certain historical accounts and international law to define Kando as “no man’s land” (p. 239; p. 245), which further opened the door for Japanese colonialism to march toward the whole of Manchuria. Chapter 4 explores the re-demarcation of the Tumen River region between China and Japan from 1907 to 1909 that concluded the long-lasting Sino-Korean territorial dispute. It analyzes different political agendas of state and non-state agencies and elaborates the arduous and perspicacious efforts of leading intellectuals in Japan, China, and Korea in the early twentieth century, represented by Naitō Torajirō (Konan), Song Jiaoren, and Sin Ch’aeho, to promote their regime building in the region through “de-territorialization and re-territorialization” (p. 318) of “Kando” and Manchuria. The Tumen River region and the whole of Manchuria were thus redefined by different “territorial versions” which were “mutually informed, inspired, encouraged, and enhanced” (p. 318). Manchuria, therefore, turned out to be a place full of “various geopolitical imaginations” (p. 249).

Chapter 5 discusses “identity politics” raised by the formation of new Korean community on the northern bank of the Tumen River that was termed by Chinese documents as “Yanbian” in the early twentieth century (pp. 324-325). After Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, the identity of Korean immigrants in Yanbian proved very sensitive as Koreans faced a triply interwoven identity crisis – including being Korean, being Japanese, or being Chinese – in which they acted as human agencies of sovereignty-building for both Japan and China in Yanbian and Manchuria. The very land Yanbian “provided these ‘stateless people’ a space to construct their imagination of nation” (p. 367) in a tangible sense, and served as a major site for cultivating the Korean nationalist movement (pp. 370-373). By illustrating the characters of “temporal continuity” and “spatial interactivity” (p. 389), the Epilogue and Conclusion explores “modern and contemporary legacies of the Tumen River demarcation” (p. 25) in the framework of the “making of nation-states in ‘modern’ East Asia” (p. 376). The dissertation closes with a consideration of the Chinese film, The Tumen River (2009), which portrays contemporary conditions of “North Korean defectors (t’albukcha)” (p. 393) living in the boundary area, which makes the dissertation proof of what Benedetto Croce’s maxim that “all history is contemporary.”

Song’s dissertation is at the cutting edge of transnational and interdisciplinary research on the making of nation-states in modern China and East Asia. The “multilateral and multilayered” local history of the Tumen River area under his examination is extremely important for students of modern East Asia for its insights into the historical processes of state building and the establishment of sovereignty by China, Korea, and Japan during these turbulent decades of modern East Asian history. The historical legacies of these processes are still playing a key role in defining territory, nation, state, and sovereignty on both sides of the river. Song’s study greatly enriches our understanding of the formation of modern nation-states in East Asia.

Yuanchong Wang
Department of History
Cornell University

Primary Sources

Hunchun fudutong yamen dang’an 琿春副都統衙門檔案
Archives in Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies 奎章閣檔案
“Kantō mondai,” in Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan日本外務省外交史料館, “間島問題”
Dongbei bianjiang dang’an xuanji 東北邊疆檔案選輯
Jilinsheng chaoxianzu shehui lishi diaocha 吉林省朝鮮族社會歷史調查

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2013. 418pp. Primary Advisors: Bruce Cumings, Prasenjit Duara, James Hevia, and James Ketelaar.

Image: Kim Chŏngho, Taedong yŏjido (大東輿地圖), Vol.2, Sequence 14.

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