“Empire and Environment in the Making of Manchuria” edited by Norman Smith

Detail of 1851 John Tallis map Thibet, Mongolia, and Mandchouria via Wikipedia Detail of 1851 John Tallis map Thibet, Mongolia, and Mandchouria via Wikipedia

The recurring themes of Manchuria’s history—and Empire and Environment in the Making of Manchuria, edited by Norman Smith—are colonization and the environment.

Over centuries, Manchuria—the region covering the remote northeast of modern-day China—has been fought over by competing imperial powers. Its geographic location at the intersection of three of the 20th century’s most powerful empires—Russia, China and Japan—has seen Manchuria play host to a series of conflicts (both hot and cold) from the 1600s until the end of the Chinese civil war in the mid-20th century.

Empire and Environment in the Making of Manchuria, Norman Smith (ed) (University of British Columbia Press, January 2017)
Empire and Environment in the Making of Manchuria, Norman Smith (ed) (University of British Columbia Press, January 2017)

These vast empires’ interventions in Manchuria were motivated by a vision of the region as largely virgin open space awaiting civilisation and exploitation. This idea of a terra nullius echoes many of the experiences of western colonial powers into the new world. This comparison is made explicit in several of the chapters, including that of Diana Lay who draws parallels between the exploitation of Manchuria and the Canadian Prairie provinces during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Lay’s chapter, among others in the book, argues that Manchuria’s distinct environment has shaped its relationship with its people and the empires who have fought over it. The harshness of the winters, the wildness of its people and the vastness of its emptiness marked Manchuria as a region needing to be civilised. The first attempts to do so were made by rail—with Russian and Japanese both building railways across the region to best other claims to the remote area. However, with Japan’s military defeat over Russia in the first decade of the 20th century, Russian influence in the region receded and the Japanese colonial enterprise progressed at a pace.

Annika Culver’s chapter details the propaganda efforts of the Japanese Government to promote Manchuria as a rural utopia for Japanese colonial settlers and their families. Promotional publications such as Manchuria Graph attempted to lure colonists with idyllic scenes of productive farmers tilling their fertile fields in a peaceful new land of promise. Scant attention was paid to the land’s original inhabitants and their claims-moral, legal and historical-over the land which would become the Japanese puppet regime of Manchukuo.

However, this omission would reach its tragic conclusion after the Japanese capitulation in World War II, as thousands of Japanese settlers were forced to flee their new homes for fear of retaliation. Ronald Suleski’s chapter includes an account by one young Japanese settler of the action taken by the female settlers in his community in Manchuria, which makes for tough reading:

 

Infants were choked to death first; the small children were next. Things got more difficult when the women tried to kill their school-age children because those children were physically mature enough to resist being killed. One boy, about eight years old, cried, “I don’t want to die. Don’t kill me mom.” His mother replied, “Don’t be so difficult. Your dad has already died in the war, and we are going to where your dad is. Kneel down on the ground and hold your hands in prayer. There is nothing to be scared of. Your dad is waiting for you”.

 

With the departure of the Japanese, and the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the country’s civil war, Manchuria was reinvented as the “breadbasket of China”. As detailed in Chinese researcher Sun Xiapoing’s chapter, immediately after the war agricultural production was prioritized, and national resources redirected towards reinvigorating Manchuria and its farmlands. Once again the region’s promise of vast open lands and inexhaustible resources lured thousands of new settlers—this time Chinese—to contend with Manchuria’s harsh environment in service of the nation.

And yet, Manchuria’s place in world history remains contested. Its loss to the Japanese is a key touchpoint for the official Chinese government narrative of “one hundred years of humiliation”. Similarly, Imperial Japan’s brutal colonial conquest of Manchuria—including the inhumane biological and chemical warfare research conducted by its notorious Unit 731—stains the Japanese national character to this day. For Russia too, its story in Manchuria ends in imperial over-reach and eventual defeat.

Perhaps given the sensitive nature of this history, the region and its history remain largely under-researched. This book is therefore a welcome addition to the field. However, the book was the product of an academic workshop, and this is reflected in the eclectic choice of topics. While ostensibly focused on Manchuria from an imperial and environmental perspective, not all of the selected contributions fit neatly within this theme. Yet even those chapters which sit outside of the main themes presented by the book help provide a more well-rounded analysis of Manchuria, and its imperial legacy.


Dr Joshua Bird is an international development professional working across the Asia-Pacific and the author of Economic Development in China's Northwest: Entrepreneurship and identity along China’s multi-ethnic borderlands (Routledge, July 2017).