- Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: Manchuria 1900–1945 by Thomas David DuBois, and: War and Geopolitics in Interwar Manchuria: Zhang Zuolin and the Fengtian Clique during the Northern Expedition by Chi Man Kwong
These two volumes, Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia and War and Geopolitics in Interwar Manchuria, despite their different research agendas, together underline the need to contextualize and reassess the complex history of Manchuria during the first half of the twentieth century. The region, presently termed China's Northeast, was once deemed the "cockpit of Asia," as noted by Chi Man Kwong (p. 21). As evidenced in the currently fast-growing body of first-rate scholarship on Manchuria, the region held great relevance as a crossroads of Asia. It was formerly considered not just another "Chinese" territory. Rather, it was heavily contested by multiple ethnic groups, imperialist empires, states, and Chinese political and military figures. As these two studies demonstrate, significant developments there belie the "backwater" (p. 1) status that, Thomas David DuBois notes, was often ascribed to the region. Post-Mao reforms may have rendered the region China's so-called rustbelt. But during the early twentieth century, it was one of the most industrialized regions in Asia and, despite multiple imperialist occupations, one of the least wracked by war. Unprecedented waves of migration brought transnational knowledge, culture, politics, and weaponry—each of which was alternately enriched or tainted by local and external factors. DuBois and Kwong both raise important questions of political, military, and cultural influences in their assessments of the modern past of Manchuria, China, and Northeast Asia more generally.
Two main goals are set forth in Empire and the Meaning of Religion in Northeast Asia: DuBois aims, first, to "reorient discussion of religion as a global phenomenon" (p. 9) and, second, "to use the history of religion [End Page 321] in Manchuria as a way to understand the circulation and elaboration of ideas," while broadening understandings of their application (p. 11). The volume begins with an overview of the region's modern history before leaving a linear historical narrative to focus on the ambitions and activities of missionaries, social scientists, jurists, and the press. These chapters form the backdrop for DuBois's analysis of transpired sociocultural changes before he finally assesses relations between the Vatican and the Japanese client state of Manchukuo 滿洲國. Through his focus on religion as "both a self-contained and self-identified entity, and as a counterpoint to various ideas of state building and social reform," DuBois carefully details how Manchuria became "a laboratory of new ideas and practices" (p. 4). DuBois demonstrates how "Western ideas of religion" entered Manchuria "via pathways of circulated knowledge, layered indigenization, and conscious manipulation of concepts and institutions" in the "very Western context" of imperialist treaty demands, which motivated "modern" reforms in Meiji Japan and, later, in the Qing empire and subsequent Chinese regimes (p. 10). DuBois interrogates the local application of religious beliefs amid aggressive expansion of the Japanese empire and the reforming of China as a nation-state. His analysis underlines how, in Manchuria, Japan's imperialism developed differently from how it did elsewhere—through official promotion of specific social ambitions to unify and renew Asia, in theory at least.
DuBois's foremost focus is on religion and charitable institutions as well as on their roles in the region that reflect "larger questions of social value and civilizational development" (p. 83). DuBois notes that the Chinese and Japanese terms for "religion" are an invention of the late nineteenth century, a time when religious life in Manchuria was "very typically Chinese," yet cosmopolitan and reflective of "the unique pressures of life on the frontier" (p. 29). From 1908, a Christian "Manchurian Revival" spread across the region (pp. 53...