Discovering Patriotic History near China’s Korean Border
Along the Chinese-North Korean border, trade may be at a standstill, but the production of historical narratives continues apace. This short source reading looks at one new site of anti-Japanese memory in Jilin province.
About twenty months ago, the Oxford historian and sinologist Rana Mitter published China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism. Handsomely produced by Belknap Press, a crossover offshoot of Harvard University Press, the book is a worthwhile read, not least because it reminds us that certain themes remain constant in China, pulsing on underneath the pandemic and likely to outlast our present extended disruption. There are many subnarratives in the text. These include: a history of governance in wartime Chongqing, a deep dive on the historians working on the War of Anti-Japanese Resistance in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, echoes of the war in popular culture, and Xi Jinping’s September 2015 globalized (and yet domestically-oriented) parade.
Mitter’s ability to use the past as a prism for the present, or to document how Chinese leaders today use the past to frame contemporary goals and thereby shift the narrative, is salutary for scholars and journalists who might wish to look at how China continues to both repeat and reshape its Korean War narrative in the light of relations with both North Korea and the United States.
Here I go deeper on how these ceremonies and historical threads both unite and divide North Korea and China's relations (circa 2013). Today one might use Rana Mitter's _China's Good War_ paradigm to reevaluate Korean War memory & PRC nationalism/diplomacy. https://t.co/wzgD7kXol8— Adam Cathcart (@adamcathcart) October 1, 2021
I got round to seeing “the Battle at Lake Changjin” tonight. It’s a Chinese movie about a major battle in the Korean War. While it has some good filming etc it significantly misrepresents the reasons for the start of the war as well as the reasons for #US #China involvement. pic.twitter.com/7U0CKkku62— Stephen McDonell (@StephenMcDonell) October 5, 2021
But, as fans of Mitter’s earlier books, or readers of this site can attest, the War of Anti-Japanese Resistance (1937-1945) easily bleeds back in time, recalling the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and thus the combined Chinese and Korean resistance to that invasion for the duration of the 1930s. Rana Mitter’s 2003 book The Manchurian Myth remains a fine exploration of the echoes and resonances of the Manchukuo era, but does not do so primarily through the prism of communist Chinese-Korean cooperation.
As I described in my 2021 book chapter entitled ‘Ink and Ashes,’ the history of Chinese-Korean solidarity in northeast China in the 1930s is compelling in its long aftereffects, but the period and theme also maintain a certain difficult relationship to historical documents.
As if on cue, local CCP cadre in the Sino-Korean border region unveiled a newly-discovered site commemorating the 88th Brigade and anti-Japanese war resistance in the 1930s. The site has been renovated to serve the purposes of red tourism, cadre education, and borderland / frontier consolidation. On 26 July 2021, an extensive press conference described multiple aspects of the site, and the Party’s plans to use it for patriotic education in the border region.
The officials at the press conference extended beyond the usual suspects of county propaganda bureau leadership, including officials from the Jilin Province Museum, musicians from the Jilin Province composers’ committee, and the head of the United Anti-Japanese Resistance fighter commemoration committee. The site at Laoheihe (老黑河), Jilin, is being pumped up as a great site for patriotic education, with the smallest rusty plate serving as evidence of anti-Japanese relics.
Whereas the North Koreans tend to bend historical facts with great ease for their wartime bases in the Paektu border area, the CCP does not go entirely overboard. They describe how the Laoheihe base area was evacuated in 1940-41, with Japanese military and timber companies dominating the area fully from 1941-1945. The site began to be used for patriotic education starting in October 2019, when some 30,000 cadre from around Jilin province were sent there for tours. More images of the developing patriotic education circuit around Laoheihe, including some Soviet-made bullet relics and recent infrastrcture, can be found here.
Adam Cathcart, “Ink and Ashes: Documenting North Korea’s Mythic Origins in the Border Region, 1931-1945,” in Decoding the Sino-North Korean Borderlands, Adam Cathcart, Christopher Green, and Steven Denney, eds., (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021), 131-163.
Jilin Provincial Government, “长白山老黑河遗址保护利用新闻发布会,” 26 July 2021, http://www.jl.gov.cn/szfzt/xwfb/xwfbh/xwfbh2021/jlsdssjrmdbdhdychy_377408/