China's Koreans, Part II: Lost to History
Koreatown in Shenyang, China.
Image Credit: Flickr/ Prince Roy

China's Koreans, Part II: Lost to History


Koreans in China have become a new people in a new land and like any birth, theirs was full of pain and beauty. But after more than a century they’ve finally made themselves a home. The problem they now face isn’t one of place, but identity.

Koreans often like to speak of themselves as though they were one family, as if the many clans—Gyeongju Kims, Gimhae Kims, Miryang Baks—and all the nationalities—North Koreans, South Koreans, Korean Chinese, Korean Americans, Zainichi Koreans—are really, at the end of the day, more Korean than anything else.

Chinese have a similar habit of mind, fueled by “great unity” and “harmonious society” tropes promoting a cloud cuckoo land account of China in which any talk of ethnic tension is considered moonshine. See, for example, former Vice-Chairman of Xinjiang Zhang Zhou saying of his province in 2000, “ethnic discrimination doesn’t exist.”

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As a result, Korean Chinese are considered Korean by many Koreans and Chinese by most Chinese. For their part, Korean Chinese cast their lot with the latter; China is the land where their grandparents are buried, where their children attend school, and where their grandchildren will be born. It may not be their motherland, but it’s their homeland.

Yet an increasing number view themselves as neither Korean nor Chinese, but uniquely Korean Chinese, and this emerging identity has inspired historians. Historical revisionism and historicity are often the same in China, and so it is with Korean Chinese as well.

As Min-Dong Paul Lee explains, the Dictionary of the History of Chinese Ethnic Minorities claims that Korean Chinese originated in northeastern China and integrated into the Han nationality upon returning from Korea after the fall of the Goryeo dynasty in 1392, making them more Han than Korean. Yet we know from genetic analyses that Koreans are descended from Siberians and Mongolians and are genetically unrelated to Chinese. We also know from historical records (see Part I) that Korean migration to China didn’t begin in earnest until the 1800s. As for integration into the Han nationality, no such process ever fully took place and Korean Chinese today remain a distinct ethnic group within Chinese society.

So why this distortion? One purpose might be the reconciliation of inconvenient historical truths with contemporary political narratives.

The Forgotten Heroes

Beginning in the 1890s, Chinese rulers allowed people to flood into Manchuria, hoping their numbers would frustrate Russian advances in the region. This mass migration, known as Chuang Guandong or the “Guandong Rush” (Guandong is an old name for Manchuria), saw a staggering 25 million Chinese enter Manchuria from Shandong and Hebei. But ultimately the real threat proved to be Japan, not Russia; after the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, Japanese victors took southern Manchuria, and after the Russian Revolution in 1907, Japan extended its hold on the region.

Manchuria in the early 20th century was a land overrun by bandits known as honghuzi or “red beards,” the most prominent among them being the ruler of Manchuria himself, the fierce warlord Zhang Zuolin. But rather than defend the region against foreign incursions, Zhang served as a proxy for Japanese power. Then in 1927 Hebei communist officials sent a young man named Chen Weiren to Manchuria to establish what would later become the Manchurian Provincial Committee (MPC) with anti-Japanese resistance as its primary objective.

The MPC were a doughty lot but were fractured by ethnic tensions when Chinese members executed 1,000 of their Korean comrades in 1930 on false charges of collaboration with the Japanese government. This is particularly tragic as Koreans were actually the strongest anti-Japanese forces in Manchuria. As one report notes, they initiated a “rampage of violent actions against the Japanese,” targeting consulates, police stations, railways and storage facilities (they also earned a reputation for aimless cruelty and the slaughter of innocents).

Koreans weren’t simply the most zealous members of the resistance movement in Manchuria, they were by far the most numerous too. According to Chong-Sik Lee’s Revolutionary Struggle in Manchuria, in 1930 the Communist Party in the former Chientao District comprised 3,800 Koreans and 150 Chinese. And Paul Lee writes, “virtually all of the 10,000 organized peasant families were Korean families. Even as late as 1934, more than half of all CCP members in Manchuria were Korean, and over 95 percent of guerrilla armies consisted of Koreans.”

In short, the MPC was Manchuria’s anti-Japanese resistance, and overwhelmingly it was a Korean resistance. This is the inconvenient truth of Korean history in northeastern China. Chinese leaders like Zhang Zuolin and Henry Puyi (the last emperor of China and ruler of Manchuria under Imperial Japan) supported or capitulated to Japanese colonization, while Chinese resistance fighters were a minor force. Meanwhile Koreans raged against colonial rule and, for their effort, suffered a massacre at the hands of their Chinese associates.

The official Chinese narrative has attempted to address this problem either by claiming Koreans are actually Han or by ignoring the history altogether. Chinese scholarship is “astonishingly silent on the subject,” writes Lee, pointing out that most historical dictionaries don’t even contain an entry for the MPC, while its prominent role in the anti-Japanese struggle is essentially ignored. Furthermore, the massacre of 1,000 Korean MPC members was officially denied until 1981 when they were declared innocent by the Yanbian government.

The Model Minority

The project of Korean Chinese academics is therefore incalculably important. In addition to resolving politicized historical narratives, it confronts a current crisis of woolly terminology. As we’ve seen, “Chinese” and “Korean” are unworkably vague terms. But the emergence of oral literature scholarship has done much to solidify Korean Chinese as a people in their own right, using the Mandarin term Chaoxianzu or “Choson ethnicity,” a reference to North Korea (whose official name is properly translated as Democratic People’s Republic of Choson).

But here’s the catch: cleaving too closely to one’s ethnic identity can be harmful. As elsewhere, ethnic Koreans are a people of the book (the Confucian Analects, to be precise) who prize education and, as a result, enjoy high rates of literacy and have earned the nickname youxiu minzu or “model minority.” As Fang Gao writes, compared to other Chinese ethnic groups, including ethnic Han, “their illiteracy rate is the lowest and their college attendance rate is the highest.”

But the “model minority” badge has stirred up difficulties, both for Korean Chinese and others. For one thing, it’s caused officials to view education as a panacea, and ethnic groups are therefore too readily seen as being in need of education, whatever the problem. Furthermore, as in the West, the “model minority” label is as much a curse as a blessing. As one study shows, it downplays the obstacles Koreans face and legitimizes arguments claiming ethnic minorities control their own fate. In other words, if the Koreans can do it, then why can’t you?

Even if Korean Chinese reject such characterizations, however positive they seem, strong ethnic identification has other drawbacks. A 2009 study indicates correlation between the success of Koreans who adopt Mandarin and the struggles of Tibetans who cling to their native tongue, while a 2015 study shows Korean language preservation hinders acculturation. Choi Woo-Gil of Sun Moon University writes:

Koreans in China have cherished ethnic pride by using their own language, keeping their ethnic traditions and attending ethnic schools, which were allowed by the Chinese minority policy. However, this policy has erected obstacles for Koreans to enter the mainstream of Han Chinese society.

All these factors make a difficult balance and it is made more difficult by the sheer number of people involved. The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs records 2.56 million Koreans living in China as of September 2013. More than 2.22 million are Chinese citizens and almost half of them live in Jilin alone. Their story is stunning, and far from over, yet their patriotic determination inspires hope. They haven’t had it easy in China, but they’ve never given up. And in many ways, the song of Chinese history has a suitable refrain in the story of these people.

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