Review: Mirrorlands: Russia, China, and Journeys In Between by Ed Pulford

By | May 12, 2022 | No Comments


Ed Pulford, Mirrorlands: Russia, China, and Journeys In Between. London: Hurst & Company, 2019. 346 pp. $25.00 / £20.00

Travel writing on the edges of northeast China isn’t what it used to be. Back in the 1930s, travelling European journalists and wandering spiritualists like Gerald Yorke could turn up on a donkey in Chengde, break up an opium party, and run into scholars such as Owen Lattimore. Naturally, a writer who had been on the edges of Manchukuo amidst a (potential, and often actual) spasm of Sino-Japanese violence could attract immediate public interest to his or her analysis once safely back in London or New York, touting a new volume and educating the broader public as to the nuances of the regional war. Oddly, during the Korean War, few memoirs appeared, other than Robert Riggs’ 1951 Red China’s Fighting Hordes, which was more about the heartland of Northeast China rather than the periphery. And in 1951, Owen Lattimore was fully occupied fighting off investigations, but even he might not have been able to offer much more than a general tenor of the borderland relationships between the individuals at the core of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Chinese Communist Party.

As Chinese power today rises and demonstrates its bordering strength on all edges of northeast China, travel memoirs tend to be like Michael Meyers’ In Manchuria: reflections on a potpourri of themes like industrialisation, the smashing of the iron rice bowl, pollution, and population loss. Lacking an obvious focal point and without the ability today to travel to either side of the frontier, travel writings about Northeast China can mainly only attract attention now via the spectre of war, particularly the impact of the war in Ukraine on Sino-Russian relations. 

A Sino-Russian border crossing at Manzhouli. Via China Daily. 

Given the intensity of Western public interest on any given element of Sino-Russian relations of late, one might have imagined the time was ripe for a more detailed public discussion over the physical and historical terrain of the Sino-Russian border regions. But in spring 2022, about the best one could do with respect to the border was to see it discussed in comparative mode – see Rana Mitter’s reflections on China’s Cold War border conflicts with Vietnam and the Soviet Union in The Guardian – or find some Twitter-based discussion of the posture or makeup of Russian military in the Far Eastern regions. The task of providing an overview of the border fell to parties armed with orbiting surveillance satellites, as when US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin described to reporters his concern over movements of Russian troops away from the Chinese border in order to concentrate on Ukraine’s frontiers.

In short, Western journalists produced a firehose of details and “hot takes” on Sino-Russian relations, but few did the work to enhance our structural understanding of Sino-Russian power, brotherhood, or contradictions in the regions and river valleys which the two nations co-inhabit. It feels as if the present moment requires a slowing of the informational rhythm. Now more than ever, we need assessments of Sino-Russian relations which are unhooked from observations about Xi or Putin’s personal psychologies, Mackinder’s theories, or a raw instrumental view of a massive border region whose only importance is in its bearing on the war in Ukraine. We need a writer to unfurl a longer and more meaningful tapestry of relations between China and Russia with a focus on the borderlands.

Fortunately, Ed Pulford has written such a book, providing a historically-oriented and geographically-anchored prism through which to look at Chinese-Russian relations. Although his writing is untethered to the Ukrainian moment of crisis in Sino-Russian relations, readers seeking a slower-paced treatment of the underlying theme without galvanising doses of venom, war crimes or totalitarian psychobabble will be pleased with this text.

Century Square in Manzhouli, a city of cultural collision.

While today he is faculty at the University of Manchester, early in the millennium, Ed Pulford spent a year as an undergraduate in Vladivostok and two years in Wuhan. He wrote his PhD dissertation, supervised by Caroline Humphreys, at the University of Cambridge. He has extensive linguistic chops, is an historically-oriented anthropologist, and has put his travel experience to good use: his dissertation dealt with Hunchun, the semi-Russified, semi-Koreanized city on the for eastern edge of both the PRC and the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. He is more than adequately equipped to discourse on history or borderlands theory in this region, and it shows in Mirrorlands, an eloquently written and insightful experience of travel along both sides of the Russian-Northeast Chinese border. Journeys to the respective capital cities add to the theme.

Gladly, Pulford’s book mostly veers away from an overtly scholarly emphasis. The book is also mostly free of authorial paranoia about being suppressed by either the Russian or the Chinese state actors along the way. It is not rooted in an obsessive focus on China’s belt and road initiative, or Russia’s Asian future; these are questions that adorn rather than undergird this volume. The style is at times almost slick with prose that feels ready for broadcast, such as a description of a Russian town ‘now subsiding under the erosion of market-driven emigration and underinvestment, its physical and social fabric now fractured and frayed.’ (48).

The book is given additional heft when drilling down into a single place or an interview with a single informer. One such informer is Leonid, the couch surfer and IT worker, who allows Pulford to investigate the theme of belonging and ethnicity, and the gap between the publicly-presented visions of power and alliance which are undercut by more human elements. Chapter 8, which deals with the Korean region of China, is itself like a miniature book, and is well worth the price of the book, reaching a nice blend of small detail and broad brushstrokes. At other times the author goes a little overboard with random train conversations and culinary writing, but it is this pastiche of interactive details which allows Pulford to draw out slow inferences from his interaction, rather than imposing some overly reductive model on his every anecdote.

Topics covered extensively include minority nationalities (or ethnicity) in both Russia and China, mutual perceptions of Russians and Chinese, the late Qing empire, cross-border commerce, and tourism. Most of the book’s nine chapters average in the neighbourhood of 20 references each, some of which stem back to the work of past travel writers in Manchuria and the Russian eastern borderlands, including Qu Qiubai, Hu Yuzhi, and Ethel Brilliana Alec-Tweedie, a method used by Tessa Morris-Suzuki in her To the Diamond Mountain. (Fortunately B.L. Putnam Weale, whose Manchu and Muscovite, a field-based analysis of the Russo-Japanese War and its leadup, remains unexploited in this way; but some future author might find that text cause for revival.) Qu is a particularly good choice, and is put to regular use as a sub-theme in the book. These historic travel writers sometimes get lost for some 50-75 pages at a go, but the references themselves give an erudite edge to the work. If some of the historical figures fail in their individual attempts to illuminate, others are quite interesting, such as in relaying a Chekhov comment about a Ukrainian town. 

This text is deeply related to the great crisis of early 2022, but its relevance is hardly tied to Putin’s war, Xi’s “bromance” with the Russian leader, or any armchair analysis on such themes. The book is packed with relevant and enjoyable details which provide grist for specialists and attraction to the subject for beginners. From a standpoint of borderlands writing around China, it makes a clear contribution and we can expect more fine writing from this talented scholar.

A modified version of this review will be published in the scholarly journal Chinese Historical Review in 2022. 



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