The Northeastern History Project and the Battle for the Past

By | March 03, 2012 | No Comments

Ji’an is a small city on the upper reaches of the Yalu River whose claim to fame is twofold: it has a bridge to the DPRK (Manp’o) which functioned as the main switching-point for China’s intervention in the Korean War, and it has ancient monuments. The latter are profuse, encountered as a layering on of pyramids, tombs and steles amid the valley of the ancient Koguryo, the expansive counterweight between China’s Sui-Tang dynasties and the somewhat less militant two of Korea’s vaunted “Three Kingdoms” to the south.  Kim Jong Il, according to his written works, was prolix when it came to Koguryo — the ancient kingdom would just spring to his mind at any given time, and he regarded it since his very middle school days as a worthy model.  So why was it that, when he passed through Ji’an on the way back to the DPRK from China in May 2011, the Dear Leader did not detrain for an afternoon to examine the historical artifacts and pose with his belly full of wine next to a stele upon which were carved messages of ancient Korean glories in Manchuria?  Kenneth Luu, a student of Leonid Petrov at the University of Sydney and the Social Media Coordinator for, arrives at the Koguryo question in search of the relevant context.  — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Koguryo Museum Rising in Ji’an, 2009 | Photo by Adam Cathcart

The Northeastern History Project and the Battle for the Past

by Kenneth Luu

In January 2012, an article entitled “The 10-Year Effort of the Northeast History Project Concluded – The Possibility of Korean History being Rewritten as Part of Chinese History” (translation available here) resurrected discussion of the Northeastern History Project (东北工程), an often-controversial Chinese  history project under the auspices of the state-sponsored Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社会科学研究院). The Northeastern History Project has been a significant point of contention between China and both North and South Koreas due to its controversial retrospective application of the Chinese concept of Zhonghua Minzu (中华民族- loosely translated as United Multicultural Nation theory) in order to define Chinese history. The theory and its application has created significant concerns that states regarded as Korean or proto-Korean, such as Balhae and Goguryeo, would be written as part of Chinese history.  Much furor has already erupted in internet discourse between citizens of China and the Republic of Korea (South Korea),  as noted by Thomas Chase in his article “Nationalism and the Net: Online discussion of Goguryeo history in China and South Korea”.

While, tangible friction between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) over the Northeastern History Project does not appear to be likely in the short or medium-term, given the DPRK’s economic reliance on China, it is important to note the direct opposition from academics and the DPRK’s official policy towards these historical states. A direct challenge to PRC historical orthodoxy occurred once in 1993 at a conference in Ji’an, China, when DPRK historian Pak Si-hyong challenged the view that Goguryeo was an integral part of Chinese history. Pak’s dismissal led Chinese historian Sun Jinji to publish a series of papers to defend the Zhonghua Minzu-orientated perspective of the Goguryeo. This challenge appears to have been inspired by the official perspective of the DPRK, itself based upon the paradigm espoused by Korean nationalists such as the influential 19th century historian, Sin Chae-ho. Sin’s definition of the racially defined nation (민족/minjok) established an exclusively Korean continuity of states, which defined Korean identity between past and present; the DPRK’s incorporation of “Joseon” into its official name illustrates its acceptance of the significance of this Korean-exclusive continuity.

The official stance can also be deduced from KCNA’s releases in 2011 on Goryeo, Goguryeo, and Balhae, which frame events, people and places related to the two states in the context of nationalist ideology, evident in statements such as “The battle inspired the Korean people in their struggle to defend the sovereignty of the nation.” While the DPRK’s current reliance on China is once again obviated by omissions of specifics such as the origins of the “enemies” and “invaders” referred to in the KCNA articles, it is self-evident to readers that the foreign invaders to be resisted are, in fact, Chinese. It is not entirely coincidental that in the direct aftermath of extensive public talks with PLA General Li Jinai in November 2011, that the KCNA suddenly began to issue stories about Koguryo and Balhae’s greatness and their willingness to protect and expand the frontiers.

However, the issues raised by the Northeastern History Project arguably translate on a larger scale to China’s other borderland and disputed territorial concerns. The Chosun Ilbo article alleges that China’s historical orthodoxy is based upon the utilisation of history as a means of preserving the status quo and pre-empting settlements or situational changes in these areas and are possibly a form of “historical imperialism.” In the meantime however, it appears a diplomatic incident over the concluded Northeastern History Project between the DPRK and China is near-impossible, given the current state of Sino-North Korean cooperation over the issue of defectors and the current status quo within the DPRK itself.


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