The Politics of Chinese Historiography

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ASIAN PERSPECTIVE, Vol. 32, No. 3, 2008, pp. 39-58.


Jungmin Seo

This article contextualizes the emergence of the Chinese claim over the historical ownership of Koguryo in the politics of historiography in China. Contemporary Chinese historiography from which the Chinese state and populace draw core identities has never been fully fixed or stabilized. Regardless of the temporal distance from the present, Chinese pasts are continuously constructed and re-memorized based on contemporary sociopolitical needs. Compared to the pre-reform eras, broadened social spaces in China have made the Chinese Communist Partys monopoly over historiography untenable. In that sense, the future of East Asian regional order or SinoKorean relations is highly unpredictable, if not unstable, due to the continuously changing Chinese national identity. With radical nationalization of Chinas imperial past, the next generation in China may favor actions to alter the status quo. National and state identities informed by historical facts are hardly negotiable or changeable.Key words: China, nationalism, Communist parties, East Asian politics* The author would like to thank the University Research Council and Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa for their support; Mikyoung Kim, Kiwoong Yang, and Terrence Roehrig for their invaluable comments. All errors and shortcomings are the authors alone.


Jungmin Seo

The controversy over the historical ownership of Koguryo, an ancient state in northeastern China and northern Korea, has created diplomatic tensions between Korea and China since 2002.1 In spite of rapidly increasing human, economic and governmental interactions between the two countries, the Chinese claim over Koguryo produced unprecedented emotional reactions in Korean society. The claim came about via the Northeastern Project (Dongbei Gongcheng) at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, which attempted to incorporate ancient nomadic histories in inner Mongolia and three provinces in northeastern China into a unilinear Chinese national history. Triggered by Korean popular reactions, young Chinese netizens expressed their anger over a Korean cultural invasion (a Korean wave: hanliu) of Chinese television channels and a Korean citys successful register of the Kangnung Tano Festival with UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in 2005 as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.2 Most observers agree that the issue of Koguryo is less severe and damaging to regional stability than the territorial disputes over the Tokto/Takeshima and Senkaku/Diaoyudao island groups or the textbook controversies over the comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre. Nevertheless, this controversy, I argue, can be a potential threat to regional stability in case of radical changes in the North Korean regime and/or continued intensification of Chinese popular nationalism. In this article, I will contextualize the emergence of the Chinese claim over the historical ownership of Koguryo in the politics of historiography in contemporary China.1. For a complete account of the diplomatic dispute between Korea and China, see Terence Roehrig, History as a Strategic Weapon: The Korean and Chinese Struggle over Korea, Journal of Asian and African Studies, forthcoming; Yonson Ahn, Competing Nationalisms: The Mobilization of History and Archaeology in the Korea-China Wars over Koguryo/ Gaogouli, Japan Focus, February 9, 2006, online at http:/ /japanfocus. org/products/details/1837. 2. The city of Kangnung registered the festival as a regional/local event on Dano Day, which is May 5 on the lunar calendar. The Chinese mass media reported it as the registration of Tano, which is a holiday for the spring harvest in East Asian rural communities.

The Politics of Historiography in China


Problems of Spatiality and Temporality in ManchuriaIn 1905 a young Chinese revolutionary, Sun Yat-Sen, urged his fellow Chinese: Drive out the Tartars: The Manchus of today were originally the eastern barbarians beyond the Great Wall. They frequently caused border troubles during the Ming dynasty; then when China was in a disturbed state they came inside Shanhaikuan,3 conquered China, and enslaved our Chinese people.4 In this manifesto, there is a clear distinction between Chinese (us) and Manchus (them). Sinicization of the Manchu people was still in progress in 1905, as the Qing imperial courts ban on moving to Manchu, a sacred reservoir of the Manchu heritage, was fully lifted in 1902. Due to the landhungry Chinese farmers and the Qing courts unofficial encouragement of Sinicization of the Manchus out of fear of Russian influence, the region dramatically changed its complexion. Sun Yat-sen soon replaced his earlier position with a well-promoted notion of Five Peoples of China: the Han, Man (Manchu), Meng (Mongolian), Zang (Tibetan), and Hui (Muslims). But he always recognized the Han race as the foundation of the Chinese nation.5 Nevertheless, Manchuria as a part of China had not been settled as an indisputable fact until the end of World War II. After the Manchurian (Mukden) Incident in 1931, followed by the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932, the northeastern part of China became a contested region in which different sovereignty claims collided. Noteworthy is the Chinese claim over Manchuria in this period. Without much academic interest or well-established historical claims, Chinese scholars and politicians emphasized the3. Shanhaiguan in the pinyin system. Shanhaiguan is located about 300 kilometers east of Beijing and is historically acknowledged as the front defense line of the Chinese dynasties against the Manchurian tribes such as the Khitan and the Jurchen. 4. Sun Yat-Sen, The Manifesto of the Tung-meng-hui, 1905, cited in Ssuyu Teng and John K. Fairbank, Chinas Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, 1839-1923 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954), pp. 227-28. 5. John Fitzgerald, Awakening China: Politics, Culture, and Class in the Nationalist Revolution (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 87-88.


Jungmin Seo

colonization of Manchuria by massive Chinese immigration in the nineteenth century. According to Chih Meng, one of the best-known Chinese scholars in the United States in 1930s, the Manchus in Manchuria today are somewhat in the position of Indians in the United States, except that the Manchus have been entirely assimilated into Chinese culture.6 Here, China is not presented as a unity of nations but as a homogeneous racial and ethnic entity that could colonize and claim the territories of the colonized following the logic of social Darwinism in the early twentieth century. Against the Chinese claim that is largely based on the migration/colonization formula, Japanese and, to some extent, Korean perspectives on Manchuria were fundamentally different. The Japanese sought to establish the racial and historical links of Japanese and ancient tribes in Inner Mongolia and Northern Manchuria. This served dual goals: first, to sever Japan from Chinese civilization, and second, to justify Japanese control of Manchuria.7 At the same time, Japan claimed that the ban of the Qing imperial court made Manchuria an empty space, especially in terms of sovereignty. Manchus having supposedly been assimilated with the collapse of the Qing dynasty, Japan argued that Manchuria became an autonomous space but without sovereignty in the modern sense. In a similar context, Korean settlers in Manchuria in the early 20th century largely subscribed to two perspectives. Following Japanese claims, Manchuria was seen as an empty territory that would provide unlimited opportunities. As shown in the history of settler colonialism or migration in the age of imperialism, demographic emptiness is not significant as a determinant of settlers political legitimacy. In the era of Western adventurism in the New World, the American continent was not empty at all in terms of demography but very much vacant in terms of the politics of sovereignty. In that sense, many Koreans saw moving to Manchuria, compared with the colonized Korean6. Chih Meng, China Speaks: On the Conflict between China and Japan (1932); cited in Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), p. 55. 7. Stefan Tanaka, Japans Orient: Rendering Pasts into History (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1993).

The Politics of Historiography in China


peninsula, as an opportunity to establish a new political/historical subjectivity in this symbolically empty space.8 At the same time, romantic nationalism, initially promoted by Shin Chae-ho, saw Manchuria as a lost territory of the Korean nation.9 Imagining a once-glorious past is a key component of modern nationalism. When a nation-state claims the right to represent all its people, its essential discursive strategy is to produce the rhetorical longing for lost virtue and past glories, in other words, structural nostalgia.10 In the discursive structure of Korean nationalism, the masculine, conquering, and expansionist image of Koguryo has been an indispensable part of the master narratives of Korean nationalism. For advocates of Korean nationalism in the early twentieth century, the depiction of a colonized Korean nation as feminine and a helpless victim of imperialism was the exact antithesis of Koguryo, which was a failed but legitimate ancestor of the national lineage. In that sense, for many Koreans, the denial of Korean ownership of Koguryo is tantamount to the rejection of Korean nationalism itself. Overall, Manchuria was a politically and culturally contested space until