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Looking North toward Manchuria
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The South Atlantic Quarterly 99.1 (2000) 219-240

Writing in 1908, prominent Korean historian Sin Ch’aeho decried that his countrymen were “sitting on the sidelines happily looking on with folded arms” as the fate of Manchuria was determined. What concerned Sin was the intense rivalry over Manchuria between China, Russia, and Japan since the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, a rivalry in which Korea played little active part. Like Sin, many other Koreans in the opening years of the twentieth century closely followed these events, since in the opinion of more than one newspaper editor, the fate of Korea had always been determined by the political status of Manchuria. Yet these geopolitical concerns also caused many Koreans to reflect on other aspects of their peninsula’s relationship with Manchuria. Indeed, writings concerning Manchuria became a primary site for examining and even challenging the limits of Korean national space.

Prominent in these discussions was a sense of loss, as some writers remembered a time of a grander realm, while others feared a future of abridged territory. This sense of loss was not new. Prevalent among writers of geography in the last two centuries of the Choson dynasty (1392–1910), it came to be rearticulated at the outset of the century, producing contrasting yet not exclusive visions of territorial limits. One of these visions focused on the border, while a second featured an irredentist claim on all of Manchuria.

* * *

The years at the turn of the twentieth century were troublesome times along the Sino-Korean border. Korean officials and newspapers constantly reported border-crossing incidents, be it a group of Russians crossing into Korean territory and illegally cutting timber or mapping and surveying the area or, more commonly, Chinese bandits raiding Korean homes, killing residents, and kidnapping people for ransom. Nor did Koreans remain untouched by this spirit of cross-border comradery, as evidenced by the large number of protests lodged by the Chinese ambassador in Seoul. For many observers on the southern side, this alarming activity required resolute action. As one newspaper warned, these troubles might appear for now as little more than the “incursions of mice,” but if not dealt with quickly, they would become the “disturbances of tigers.” Never before had there been such frequent reports of border violations. This increase in reports was partly the result of an increased population in the frontier region. It was also partly due to the greater emphasis given questions of territory with the emergence of nationalist discourse.

Nationalism thrives on crisis. And crises of the nation are generally of a spatial order: where something happens determines its national significance or insignificance. This explains the centrality of territorial sovereignty to nationalist discourse and the significance of removing any ambiguities in the delimitation of national boundaries. One Korean newspaper captured this impetus by calling upon its readers to build an “82,000 mile fortress of independence.” But in the northeast of the peninsula, along the upper reaches of the Tumen River in what Koreans at the time called Kando and what today constitutes much of Yanbian prefecture in Jilin province, the limits of territory were far from clear. Enforcement of the border was not so much the issue as was the very location of the border itself. “Where’s the Tumen river?” appears to be a simple enough question, answerable by looking at any map. But what the easy spatial representation of the map conceals is the history of border contestation in this part of Northeast Asia, a history that in the early years of the twentieth century was headline news in the three countries of East Asia and, at least from the perspective of many on the Korean peninsula, remains an issue to this day.

In the tumultuous climate of the last years of the nineteenth century, a nationalist press arose in Korea, beginning with the Tongnip sinmun in 1896 and followed by the Hwangsong sinmun and Cheguk sinmun [Imperial post] in 1898. It was in the pages of these newspapers that territorial questions were made into issues of public concern rather than just administrative matters of the state...

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