“Knowing Manchuria: Environments, the Senses, and Natural Knowledge on an Asian Borderland” by Ruth Rogaski


The region of Northeast China best known as “Manchuria” has long held a special place in the global imagination. Its geopolitically important location near the borders of Russian, Korea and Japan have seen it inspire Hollywood films and countless spy novels.

However, Knowing Manchuria by Ruth Rogaski takes as its starting point a time when Manchuria was a remote and unknown land seemingly on the outer edges of civilization. Rogaski follows the path of various explorers, scientists and political actors as they apply their respective tools of enquiry to create a picture of “Manchuria” that fits into their own schemas of understanding.


Knowing Manchuria: Environments, the Senses, and Natural Knowledge on an Asian Borderland, Ruth Rogaski (Chicgago University Press, September 2022)
Knowing Manchuria: Environments, the Senses, and Natural Knowledge on an Asian Borderland, Ruth Rogaski (Chicago University Press, September 2022)

The book begins with the tale of several Qing Dynasty Chinese intellectuals as they are exiled to the empire’s far northern frontier—as Manchuria was then. For these poets and scholars, expelled from the cultural center to the empire’s edges, Manchuria was an inhospitable foreign land that almost resisted understanding. Despite being considered an inalienable part of China—indeed the homeland of the Qing royal family—this new world was unfamiliar and confusing to them. This was because few non-Manchu had ventured into this remote land.

In 1644, the Qing had moved their royal court south to Beijing and formalized the borders of Manchuria to prevent intrusion from Han Chinese agriculturalists, Korean foragers and the Russian military. This semi-fortified border became known as the “Willow Palisade”—a replication of the Great Wall in organic form–consisting of ditches, willow trees and wooden fences. The Palisade demarcated the traditional Manchu homeland from the areas of traditional Han settlement and reaffirmed the idea of Manchuria as a mysterious and inaccessible land.

As the exiles trekked further away from China’s cultural center they encountered strange new foreign plants, astonishingly harsh weather and skies that stayed light until midnight. However, despite their unfamiliarity with the harsh and exotic Manchurian environment, the exiles did their best to impose their own sense of understanding on their new home. By drawing on China’s cultural history of poetry and literature they wrote depictions of Manchuria that attempted to locate the region’s flora and fauna within the schema of traditional Chinese knowledge developed over millennia in China’s heartland.

In a foreshadowing of future European and Japanese colonial engagement with Manchuria, the exiled scholars sought to apply order to this wild land through t “universal” systems of categorization and identification. While beyond the borders of traditional Chinese civilization, it was argued Manchuria’s natural environment was still part of the celestial realm and therefore within the boundaries of the knowable. The exiles saw themselves as assuming the crucial role of “creating” knowledge about the Manchurian environment. The exiles assumed that they alone had the authority to accurately measure, categorize and understand nature on the empire’s outer edges. This ability to interpret nature brought with it social capital that was intimately related to political power.

In the case of poets, this often took the form of writing poems that sought to capture the beauty of this new environment by reference to similar literary depictions of nature in classical texts. For those more skilled in the arts of geomancy, Manchuria’s mountain ranges were to be understood in relation to the veins of spirital energy (or qi) that were traditionally seen as connecting the sacred mountains of China’s homeland. However, the fact that these reference points were developed in another time and place complicated the ability to apply them in Manchuria—and revealed the limitations of traditional ways of knowing. These limitations prompted some to question the degree to which the classic Chinese texts that had represented universal knowledge for so long could serve the needs of an expanding empire. The idea of “practical learning” began to gain favor—the using of one’s own eyes and ears to survey and study the environment.

The next major foray into the Manchurian environment covered by Rogaski followed this same belief in the need to physically observe to construct knowledge. From the 17th century onwards, political elites were no longer satisfied with word-of-mouth stories and textual evidence. They required visual verification and proof. As a result, in 1682, Emperor Kangxi undertook a grand tour through the Manchurian homeland of his ancestors. The tour was both a personal pilgrimage to the Emperor’s familial home and a political project aimed at identifying and labeling the Manchurian topography as part of the assertion of authority over these far-flung imperial territories.

This mapping project extended beyond the recording of physical measurements to include identification of the sacred powers of the land. To this end, the Emperor enlisted a Han Chinese historian-cum-geomancer and a European priest to identify and record the Manchurian landscape. Their data gathering activity required respectively the use of traditional Chinese ways of knowing (ie geomantic divination of spiritual energy) and Western ones (ie modern surveying and map-making). Together they were able to measure the height and latitude of a mountain as well as trace its links to the “dragon vein” of sacred energy.


For Rogaski, each party represents a different way of knowing Manchuria—and using the generation of knowledge as a tool of authority. Western ways of knowledge were used to accurately ascertain the physical dimensions of the emperor’s domain, Chinese ways to place it within an historical and mystical context. In doing so, Manchuria became a knowable place and a core part of China’s physical and spiritual territories—transformed from remote outpost to the “birthplace of emperors”.

However, the sacred importance of the Manchurian landscape was not something recognized by China alone. Manchuria’s Long White Mountain (or Changbaisan in Chinese) in particular has been a focus of Korean national reference since at least the time of the Koryŏ kingdom (932-1392). Known as Paektusan in Korean (literally White Head Mountain), it is still referenced in the national anthems of both North and South Korea. While both China and Korea had identified the mountain as an important spiritual site for centuries, up until the 17th century there had been no apparent need to verify its location or dimensions. However, the shift towards a focus on practical knowledge required scientific and spiritual verification of the mountain’s location. By this time, the gathering of empirical evidence had become key to the performance of imperial power.

Again, Rogaski follows a dedicated team of government officials—two this time, Korean and Chinese—as they undertake a journey to build knowledge through direct observance. Both missions were successful in achieving their goals. Chinese officials could now draft a map which clearly plotted out the “’dragon vein” of qi energy running from the Long White Mountain to China’s heartland. Meanwhile, similar techniques of observation and divination had been used by the Koreans to make related claims on the mountain’s sacred powers. The potential for larger scale conflict which this situation created was ultimately addressed by a political compromise between the two powers. The mountain was split down the middle, with the northern side belonging to China and the southern side to Korea. While the ownership of the mountain was split, its spiritual power remained undimmed—under the new arrangements Koreans merely venerated the mountain from one side, the Chinese from the other.


By the late 19th century, the emerging threat of Russian imperial expansion forced the Qing to open Manchuria for settlement by Han Chinese to strengthen its claims over the region. The discovery of fossil fuels beneath Manchuria’s surface had led to competition between regional powers for control over its mineral wealth. Thus began Manchuria’s transition from the homeland of its imperial rulers to a site of great power conflict.

While previously, subterranean excavation was restricted by the Qing, due to fears about upsetting the region’s “sacred geomancy”, the Qing’s decline in authority over its territories left it no longer able to prevent foreign exploitation. Russian, Japanese and Western powers all saw the potential of this new asset and greedily eyed its lands and resources. Later, Chinese geologists too would seek to discover new mineral deposits in the region to service the new Chinese republic.

Manchuria’s increased geopolitical importance had several other unexpected outcomes covered by Rogaski in the book. One of the most devastating for the region was the endemic spread of the plague. The new railways and other transport infrastructure built by colonial powers to siphon off Manchuria’s mineral resources now served as a distribution channel for the region’s previously self-contained plague outbreaks. Plague had long been a feature of Manchurian life, but now it had the perfect means of transporting itself beyond the region through the transport infrastructure of empire. As the author notes,


Within the short space of a few years at the turn of the twentieth century, the once-remote northern stretches of the Manchurian-Mongolian grassland ecosystem became connected to a global transportation network. The entire world was now linked, through coal and steel, to the home territory of yersinia pestis.


By the time of Japanese annexation of Manchuria, outbreaks of plague were occurring on an almost annual basis. The intersection of the plague with the unique environment of Manchuria led to the development of a place-based approach to responding to the plague. Japanese investigators focused their energy on the potential adverse effects of Manchuria as a whole—its air, land and its people. In fact, one of the primary official recommendations for colonial settlers was to avoid illness was to minimize contact with Manchuria’s local people.

Furthermore, as Rogaski explains,


In investigating the plague, the bodies or animals and humans became one and the same—merely territories with the potential for providing safe haven for the plague. The bodies of Manchuria’s animals and people were once again an environment to be discovered, analysed and classified.


This willingness to see humans as sites of disease, rather than individual victims of it, lay the groundwork for the atrocities committed by Japan’s infamous Unit 731 during its biological warfare experiments on Chinese civilians during World War Two. Ironically, as the author recounts, a decade later building an evidence base for allegations of the use of biological weapons by the United States in Manchuria during the Korean War would be used as a platform for the newly established People’s Republic of China to assert their own absolute authority of knowledge regarding the region’s existing flora, fauna and animals. This use of knowledge generation in service of imperial authority is one of Knowing Manchuria’s strongest recurrent themes.


Ironically, another identifiable theme of the book is the devaluing of local forms of knowledge generation. In one example Rogaski provides, a local Manchurian hunter is able to explain the distance to the closest mountain based on how many days it took them to carry a heavy deer carcass there. However, this information—though crucial to everyday survival in this harsh region—was considered worthless in terms of generating the kinds of knowledge needed to project imperial authority. And yet, the generation of imperial knowledge of the region depended on the knowledge and labor of its local inhabitants. Almost all Chinese, Korean and Japanese mapping relied on the guidance provided by the diverse knowledge and skills of its indigenous inhabitants. As the author notes of the expeditions to map the Long White Mountain:


Both Manchus sent from Beijing and Koreans sent from Seoul were neophytes … unable to gauge distances or find paths in spite of their command of maps, treatises, and telescopes. The unlettered local guide … was the one who possessed accurate knowledge of the mountain’s geography, flora, and fauna.


However, for the government officials and scientists the purpose of knowledge was to categorize it and apply a system of order to the unruly Manchurian environment. Only then could this remote region be truly known—and thus ruled.


Knowing Manchuria is a book with a wide focus. Although the subject is nominally “Manchuria”, Manchuria itself  is merely the canvas upon which Rogaski expresses her theories regarding how societies generate knowledge and to what ends. As such, she uses a variety of different areas of knowledge to paint her portrait of Manchuria as a place of contesting concepts of knowledge generation and imperial ambitions. This includes drawing from the fields of botany, geology, cosmology and cartography. Similarly, given that Manchuria played a central role in the national myth-making that accompanied the imperial rise of China, Korea and Japan, Rogaski manages to include stories and perspectives of each of their relationship to knowledge-making. At one point in Knowing Manchuria, the author perceptively refers to her book as a “collaged image”. A collection and collation of disparate themes, characters and depictions in an attempt to create a larger unified impression. This reflects both the great strengths of the book and what could be seen as its main flaw.

The book’s broad scope is impressive and the constant shifts in time, place and perspective keep  readers on their toes. However, one is sometimes tempted to ask whether the author would have been better served by applying a tighter focus. Although the concept of “knowing” is used by the author as a thread to hold the book together it is quite generously applied to everything from writing poems to undertaking hard physical labor. As it currently stands, the book would not satisfy a reader from any of the specialized scientific fields from which it draws—but is also often so technically specific that the casual reader will find themselves often lost.

The book is at its most accessible when following the journeys of individuals from history as they assert their own claims over Manchuria through knowledge generation and capture. In these sections, Rogaski’s joy in rediscovering and sharing their stories is clearly evident. However, when it descends into lists of latin botanical terms or similar the effect can be to overwhelm.

Ultimately, perhaps it is not the book itself that is at fault but rather the unknowable nature of “Manchuria” itself? It may be that a place with such a diverse history and natural environment can never truly be captured as a cohesive whole. As Rogaski asserts in the book, for centuries “knowing the nature of Manchuria was central to claiming possession of it.” In this regard, her latest book certainly represents an enviable attempt to assert her own claim.

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).