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.
While the brightness of China’s economic and geopolitical future is a subject of recurring debate, the prospects for the “China book” industry seem undiminished. Toh Han Shih’s recent Is China an Empire? is, the title notwithstanding, one of the more straightforward and restrained entrants.
Taiwan’s top court just recently ruled in favor of gay marriage, culminating in what could be Asia’s first jurisdiction to allow members of the same sex to marry. Despite many challenges that still persist politically with the ruling, it indicates a more liberal attitude toward non-heterosexual relationships than when Qiu Miaojin published the novel Notes of a Crocodile in the early 1990s.
After the collapse of the Manchurian empire, Japan was keen to expand its holdings in Korea and the Pacific into Manchuria and eventually into Mongolia and the Russian Far East. Their argument was that Japan had to feed its huge population with scarce resources, so imperialist expansion was a matter of life and death.
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.
One need look no further than Britain’s impending departure from the European Union for an example of how once apparently dormant elements of a nation’s self-image can be reawakened. An abiding historical sense of aloofness and suspicion of Europe, which seemed to have been quelled by the forces of globalisation in recent decades, has emerged in the last year with renewed vigour. Evident also in the appeal of Trump to persistent American notions of exceptionalism, the flattening of specific cultural characteristics engendered by globalisation seems not to have greatly shifted the fundamentals of how these countries view both themselves and the outside world.
Western commentators are wont to complain that China doesn’t always seem committed to “international norms”. Robert Bickers’s new book Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination helps explain why: “international norms” were used for a century to justify encroachments on Chinese sovereignty.