Literature Frozen in Time: A Personal Essay about Writers in Manchukuo

Yutian Chen | University of Cambridge

Sometimes, it does feel that being an Americanist, I almost have it too easy. By "easy", I do not mean that the reading list appears shorter or that the historiographical debates reveal their true light because FDR is my jam. What strikes me as fortunate, thinking as a historian now, is the continuity of US political institutions, the unabridged maps, and a universal language emphatically celebrated and creatively conserved. Since the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States has always seen itself progress or regress in a linear timeframe secured by a vast territory from coast to coast. Needless to say, not every nation, not even the Europeans, enjoys such confidence of continuity. To both nationals and historians alike, it seems, being American is an authentic experience – not necessarily comfortably so, of course – but at least a concrete one.

I come from a place where no such authenticity is immediately obvious. Imagine China as a rooster, and Manchuria/Manzhou/Dongbei would be its head facing Korea. During the Qing dynasty, its flamboyant comb would have stretched to Siberia and the wattle to Hebei, the underbelly of Beijing. This region had lacked a standardized toponym throughout history; it was not until the Qianlong Emperor (r.1735-1796) expressed his personal interests in graphing the Changbai mountains – the ancestral “dragon veins” – that Manchuria finally gained its currency in the global circulation of maps.

Map of Manchuria, depicting international borders, major settlements and geographical features
Map of Manchuria

People had come to Manchuria for different reasons. Although Han settlement was officially prohibited during the Qing, hunters and herb diggers ventured into the ancient forests for black bears, sika deer, and ginseng. Outlaws built criminal hubs along its borders; Han refugees repeatedly flooded into Manchuria and never left. As the region gradually entered the theatre of modern warfare in the late 19th century, Japan and Russia hungrily eyed Manchuria for its soybeans, timber, coal, and easy access to the ice-free port of Vladivostok. The Russian government built the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1851 and then the Chinese Eastern Railway to connect Vladivostok to Harbin. After the Russo-Japanese War, much of the railway control in Manchuria had changed hands to Japan which, in 1932, established a puppet state called Manchukuo (1932-1945).

It was not until recently that I realized that I grew up as a Manchurian. I choose not to use the standard term Dongbei ren– a person from the northeast – because the historically layered myths and memories remain palpable to this day. I remember children would remove each other’s shoes on the playground and examine whether their second toe was longer than the big toe, allegedly being the evidence of having Manchu ancestry. A pair of bigger feet was a telling sign, too, but now I suspect it is only because someone’s grandparents mentioned that Manchu women did not bind their feet. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a Manchu. If anything, the old-time glory and luxurious lifestyle associated with the Qing Aisin-Gioro lineage aspired much envy and imagination. Our Geography teacher was allegedly dating a descendant of the Aisin-Gioro, in fact. We had our own suspicions, but his family name was Ai, and he drove an Audi when nobody owned a car. We let it go.

Occasionally, people would comment that I had led a life of Japanese manga. It is true that in Dalian, my home city, children wore sailor uniforms, took school trips to watch cherry blossoms and maple leaves, and changed shoes when entering the classroom. Some schools offered Japanese or Russian rather than English; some hosted exchange students. For a period of time, the chorus would sing half of the school song in Japanese, although nobody understood what it meant; we found it intriguing – special, even – and notated each word with Chinese transliteration. But there were also long-distance winter runs, 12.9 kilometres, to commemorate those who resisted the Japanese invasion, alongside ominous warnings against any foolhardy attempt to explore air-raid shelters. A classmate from the northern province of Jilin once brought up, rather nonchalantly, that nothing would grow in certain patches of his family farm because “gas chambers are bad for the soil.” And then, there were many, many tales about landmines.

Having said that, the most distinct feature of Manchuria is the dialect. The Dongbei dialect is easily recognized for its long vowels, unsophisticated word choice, and, subsequently, humour produced. It is China’s own equivalence of the Queen's accent of the Big Apple. When you speak it, you feel like you belong to a hood, and Dongbei is famous for its gang fights. Although it is one of the most popular dialects to imitate, few could master the pell-mell configuration of Russian, Japanese, Korean, and fisherman’s slangs combined. For instance, a dress is Bulaji derived from Russian. A shirt is Wanxiazi, which traces its origin to wa-shatsu, meaning a Japanese shirt. Of course, the word shatsu – a transliteration of shirt –itself is a forced cultural product of the Iwakura Mission (1871-73), in which Japanese aristocrats and statesmen toured around Europe and the United States and brought foreign concepts into the national parlance.

Would it be a surprise then, if I say that Manchuria disproportionally attracted the politically discarded and intellectually disillusioned? Exiles and refugees found or founded their communities in this vast and forbidding borderland. At first, it was the Russians. Known as the Ice March, tens of thousands of Kolchak soldiers and Cossacks trod across the steppe and flooded into Harbin after the White Movement (1917-1923). On September 23, 1920, the Chinese Republic ceased relations with Czarist Russia, leaving Russians in China stateless. Some took the Soviet passport and returned; they were branded as “re-emigrant” and immediately subjected to investigation by the NKVD (People’s Commissarial of Internal Affairs). After all, Russian residents in Harbin were labelled as belobandity (white bandits). Because they had to be either a Soviet or a Chinese national to work on the Chinese Eastern Railway, some became the Soviet Radish (red outside and white inside) to keep their job. Some became Chinese citizens under the warlord Zhang Zuoliang.

Black and white photograph of Kitaiskaia Street in Harbin
Kitaiskaia Street in Harbin

It was in this period of chaos and movement, however, that Russian literature flourished in Manchuria. As early as 1932, emigrants had formed a literary group, Churaevka, in Harbin in order to set themselves apart from the Parisian enclave and preserve Russian authenticity from the corruptive Soviet influence. At its apogee, the readership of the Harbin publications – which surpassed that of Berlin in the 1920s – had reached as far as Brazil, Australia, Japan, Canada, and Zanzibar. Foreigners used their works to study Russian, and poets corresponded in verse with school children from all over the world. The most fascinating aspect of this supposedly pure Russian language is the constant invocation of the Manchurian landscape and Chinese vocabularies such as chi (air) and guo (country). For the Russian exiles in Manchukuo, literature not only asserted a personal identity against the Soviet imprint, but the expansion of print-capitalism, too, enabled an imagined community that they sought to belong to.

In Dalian, such imagined communities also started with Czarist Russia and railways. Naming the city Dal’niy – the crown jewel of the Far East – Russia coerced the Qing to sign a 25-year lease on Dalian to develop another ice-free port in the region. In 1902, Russia linked Dalian with the Tran-Siberian Railway through Harbin. After the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, Dal’niy, now Daren, was ceded to Japan. Engineers, architects, and intellectuals affiliated with the South Manchuria Railway poured into the city and envisioned building a modern society that the conservative mainland would never allow. Central heating was first trialled in Dalian, so were cable cars and nursing homes. It is equally interesting to see how the landscape had changed people’s ideas about literature in this period. The avant-garde, labyrinthine and alienating layout of the city set the central stage for detective novels; the endless railways into the void had also provided much inspiration for poets. In 1924, a group of young Japanese poets working for the South Manchuria Railway established the seminal journal A. Their striking usage of blank space and short lines became the foundational elements for modern Japanese poetry.

People of Japanese ancestry who were born in Dalian expressed a different sense of blankness altogether. Akihara Katsuji, for instance, writes about how growing up in Manchuria, he would learn the names of items from a textbook but did not know what they looked like. He did not know the names of things in front of his eyes, either. “We were born in Manchuria but unfamiliar with Manchuria. We are Japanese but unfamiliar with Japan. Who are we?… To say that we have lost our homeland is an over-statement; we were born without a homeland.” Reading this, I always wonder how Katsuji would have felt after he was repatriated to Japan after 1945. Would he achieve his peace of mind, finally knowing what Japan looked like? Or did his sense of alienation metamorphosize and deepen when he spoke his native language in his native land?

This is how many Chinese writers felt in Manchukuo, anyway. For us to say that they were Chinese is, in fact, a politically anachronistic exercise. Some of them were Han Chinese, but many were Manchus, Hui Muslims, or nationals born in Vladivostok. What bounded them together was the Chinese language, but does speaking Chinese necessarily make a person, Chinese? After all, many writers had multilingual backgrounds and had frequented Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo. In the case of Korean writers across the empire, they were required to take Japanese names and write in Japanese from 1939 onwards. Literature itself provides no natural adhesive to form alliances, either. Although it might appear easy for Japanese intellectuals, who were often former leftist exiles, to use Manchukuo as a platform to “reverse from Japan” and “overcome modernity” (kindai no chūkoku); Chinese writers, facing a drastically different level of censorship, surveillance, and payment disparity, remained cautious if not utterly despondent when asked to build an intellectual commune. It was a matter of life or death if they blurred out the wrong idea, after all.

Greyscale photograph of Dairen Oohiroba
Dairen Oohiroba

Like most things that have changed how I understand history, Manchukuo literature came to me by accident. Hoping to get access to the South Manchuria Railway Papers in Dalian – none was given – I came across writers who penned their experience in Manchukuo. What fascinated me was not necessarily their progressive, worldly, and cutting-edge discussions on feminism or affirmative actions. Indeed I often did not understand the text at all. I have not inherited the cultural word stock to decipher the multilingual references scattered throughout their works, as if Manchukuo literature froze in history, staying inaccessible to its East Asian contemporaries and historical offspring. This is because most of the Chinese writers who survived Manchukuo were executed during the Cultural Revolution, and their Japanese counterparts, once being repatriated, never wanted to discuss their continental experience again. Russian writers continued their exile to Brazil, France, and the United States. The study of their literary works quietly falls into the post-Cold War order, and the impasse of Manchukuo subjectivity has been kept to a safe distance.

I will get into even more trouble if I claim that these writers were not Chinese or that they did not detest the Japanese as much as they should. So, a different question seems appropriate: What were they, exactly, then? I think of Donald Glover’s This is America and am immediately filled with envy – at least people understand and make judgement of what he critiques, while I, on the other end of the spectrum, hesitate over Is this Manchuria, or is that Manchuria?

Further reading:

  • Bakich, Olʹga Mikhaĭlovna. Valerii Pereleshin: Life of a Silkworm. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

  • Culver, Annika A. Glorify the Empire : Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo. Vancouver : UBC Press, 2013.

  • Duara, Prasenjit. Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003.

  • Mitter, Rana. The Manchurian Myth: Nationalism, Resistance and Collaboration in Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

  • Young, Louise. Japan’s Total Empire [Electronic Resource]: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Yutian Chen is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Before she returned to academia, she was a journalist based in Beirut and Damascus.