“Beyond the Amur” by Victor Zatsepine

Changes in the Russo-Chinese border in the 17-19th centuries, Library of Congress via Wikipedia Changes in the Russo-Chinese border in the 17-19th centuries, Library of Congress via Wikipedia

In the triumvirate of superpowers, only China and Russia share a border. In Beyond the Amur, Victor Zatsepine discusses how that border, or rather the eastern section of it, came to be.

For it was not always thus: yes, the Sino-Russia border was largely fixed at the 1858 Treaty of Aigun and the 1860 Treaty of Peking in which the Qing ceded large tracts of land beyond the Amur River and down the coast, but the borders themselves remained porous. The border, such as it was, blurred even further with Russian construction and administration of the Chinese Eastern Railway— a leg of the Trans-Siberian that took a short-cut through Manchuria.

Zatsepine defines an “Amur border region” which was

 

a distinct place shaped by geography, climate, migration and trade, where local interests and developments did not always align with state-sponsored expansion initiatives.

 

Beyond the Amur: Frontier Encounters between China and Russia, 1850-1930, Victor Zatsepine (University of British Columbia Press, March 2017)
Beyond the Amur: Frontier Encounters between China and Russia, 1850-1930, Victor Zatsepine (University of British Columbia Press, March 2017)

Beyond the Amur runs from 1850 to 1930, by which time the imperial ambitions of the previous century were transforming into the geopolitics that lead to the Second World War. In

 

a single lifetime, the Amur frontier region experienced unprecedented transformation: new people, ideas, and institutions arrived, and competing claims were made on its rich natural resources.

 

Zatsepine runs through the political and social history of the region, his account characterized being neither Chinese nor Russian, as most such accounts are, but rather both simultaneously. Beyond the Amur is for the most part matter of fact, proceeding chronologically and thematically through the history, with a good helping of statistics on population and trade.

But what stands out from the account is the degree to which the border was ignored by ordinary people. The Chinese crossed the border in considerable number as individuals, as traders, contract workers, and settlers; many built businesses and trade networks and some even naturalized. One, a Ji Fengtai, amassed a fortune of three million rubles. His companies built military fortifications in the Russian territories in China. Russians, however, usually only went the other way as part of the railway or other government initiatives. This pattern is one repeated today: Chinese are much more likely to take business—and themselves—to Russia than the other way around.

In this world of increasingly securitized borders, it is easy to forget that until recently, much of the US-Canadian border was largely unpatrolled and people could (and did) just walk across—and still do in much of Western Europe.

Another take-away is that although both sides had centuries-old claims to the region, their respective parts of it were largely underdeveloped and under-populated until well in the latter part of the 19th century. It might (somewhat uncharitably) be suggested that the Russian part of the Amur region, in contrast to modern Chinese Manchuria, to a large extent still is.

 

Although Zatsepine views the region as a “unified natural economy”, it was hardly all smooth going. Zatsepine devotes several pages to the “Blagoveshchensk Massacre” of 1900. After some border incidents with Qing forces, the military governor ordered that the more than 4000 Chinese residents of Blagoveshchensk be gathered and deported across the river. Boats were not provided. Details are sketchy, but seems only a few made it. Zatsepine gives an estimate of 3500 deaths. Similar incidents followed in other settlements.

Zatsepine has a good eye for illustrations, especially the line drawings from Russian publications of the period—of which he includes all too few.

Chinese traders and Russian soldiers in Liaoyang (from Летопись войны с Японией. - 1904. - № 15)
Chinese traders and Russian soldiers in Liaoyang (from Летопись войны с Японией. – 1904. – № 15)

For those interested in Sino-Russian relations or Northeast Asia generally, Beyond the Amur provides considerable background on a huge, yet still largely undocumented, region. More generally, it serves as a reminder that our current world of highly securitised borders, with strict control of passage, is relatively recent and perhaps anomalous.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books; he worked closely with the Russian Far East in the 1990s.