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.
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.
“Man cannot control the current of events,” remarked Otto von Bismarck, “he can only float with them and steer.” The great German Chancellor understood that it is much easier to design a grand strategy for international politics than to implement one.
Between September and Christmas 1964, the Dutch sinologist Erik Zürcher undertook a three month visit to China organized by the state travel agency Luxingshe. It was official and exceptional. China was closed for business, isolated and angry at history. Barely more than a decade previously, Dutch troops in UN Command had been fighting the Chinese People’s Volunteers on the Korean Peninsula.