Yongusil 11: “War of Words” at Leiden University: Korea in the Chinese Imaginary

By | October 15, 2013 | No Comments

owen lattimore and chiang kai-shek

Owen Lattimore and Chiang Kai-Shek, Chungking 1941 | Image : David Lattimore

Professor Remco Breuker’s recent announcement of a new European Research Council funded project at Leiden University’s Institute for Area Studies  focused on history and historiographies of Manchuria within a regional and geo-political framework entitled “A War of Words: What ancient Manchurian history does to Korea and China today” got analysts at Sino-NK all intrigued and put their Sino-Korean borderland foci and interests in sharp focus. The project sounds an amazing conflagration of academic possibilities, and potentially complications. In a series of three short Yongusil, contributors to Sino-NK consider the temporal, historic and geographic ground which this project and its participants might cover and inhabit as they embark on an exciting scholarly journey. Our esteemed editor, Adam Cathcart in the first of these pieces notes the circularity of Chinese narratives of Manchuria in light of Professor Breuker’s project – Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Yongusil 11: “War of Words” at Leiden University: Korea in the Chinese Imaginary

by Adam Cathcart

Some two decades before he was targeted by the anti-Communist fervor of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the British Sinologist Owen Lattimore was traversing the massive frontiers of Manchuria. Being concerned with Chinese nationalism, Japanese imperialism, and the Koreans caught in a vice grip between those two forces, Lattimore was in an ideal observational position, if not a comfortable one.

Lattimore produced a description of a land which was nominally Chinese, but becoming increasingly full of Koreans, who were themselves of varied backgrounds.  Some were native to the region, while others were economically disadvantaged but industrious participants in the expansion of Japanese empire from Korea. Exceptionally, other Koreans in Manchuria were guerrilla fighters. To the Japanese security organs honeycombed around the cities of new Manchukuo’s urbanizing spine, these rebellious men and women, mostly Koreans, were “insurgents,” communist bandits who needed to be rooted out through an evolving stable of tactics, none of them particularly pleasant.  As has been argued by Wada Haruki, Adrian Buzo, Bruce Cumings and those of us in their collective wake, Manchuria thus became a critical external testing ground for Korea’s nationalist, ideological, and proletarian struggle. Not without justification or logic, the North Korean state has built this Manchurian guerrilla experience into the sina qua non of the DPRK’s proto-nationhood, centered around the person of Kim Il-song operating in the perilous border region. But quite another narrative of Manchuria was promoted at the time by Japanese scholars, vested not with millet and rifles, but with bulging research budgets thanks often to entities such as the South Manchuria Railway. To these intellectually ambitious pan-Asianists, Korea and Manchuria had always been united–mansen ittai, as the slogan went.

Today at Sino-NK, the interplay between Manchuria and Korea, and the unique frictions generated in and about the border region, is central to our work. The narratives of national identity construction, that so captured Lattimore have also ensnared us. It is thus with exceeding pleasure that we note the impending arrival of a large new research project under the supervision and tutelage of the scholar Professor Remco Breuker at the University of Leiden’s Institute of Area Studies. The recently announced project “A War of Words: What Ancient Manchurian History Does to Korea and China Today”  (funded by the European Research Council ), will support consideration and analysis of Manchuria’s place within a once developed Korean imaginary at the same time as the later Imperial China sought to establish Han supremacy and ownership over the territory and space abutting the Korean Peninsula.

Serving as a liminal bounding space around which narratives had seemed consolidated and settled during recent years, perhaps due to political and diplomatic expediency during the Cold War, Manchuria, its history and claims to authority and importance within it have been put back in play in the academic sphere by developing narratives and historiographies in recent years, old wounds and discords reopened and re-vivified. “A War of Words” will be a welcome contributor to the debate and analysis of this borderland space, its past, present and future and the nature of developing historiographies and historicities at play and in motion within such a contested, anxious locale.

 Professor Breuker’s is a strong voice, but by no means is he a voice in the wilderness in academia. Nor will he be a solitary voice within this project, which also includes a postdoctoral fellow focused on  “Reading Policy through Historiography: North Korea as the Pivot of China’s Manchurian Heritage Politics” and some four PhD students.  This project seems a fine example of well constructed scholarship, connecting all levels of scholarly activity and exchange within a cohesive whole, something of a hallmark of Leiden University and the Institute for Area Studies previously the home of Professor Koen De Ceuster’s “History as Social Process : Uncoventional Historiographies of Korea” project. We at Sino-NK eagerly await its outputs, contributions and engagements.


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