Category Archives: Korea

Rise and Fall of Chinese Silk Trade

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 97-100:

Not long after the time of Christ, the straitlaced Roman philosopher-orator Seneca voiced a frequently heard denunciation: “I see silken clothes, if one can call them clothes at all, that in no degree afford protection either to the body or the modesty of the wearer, and clad in which no woman could honestly swear she is not naked.” If salt was China’s premier domestic product, silk was China’s first international trade commodity. This remarkable textile gave its name not only to the route (the Silk Road) across which it was traded to the Near East and the Mediterranean but also to the Latin name for China (Seres or Serica). Silk was an ideal product for long-distance trade: high in value but low in bulk and weight, and not subject to deterioration in transit.

Before the time of Christ, high quality silk fabrics had made their way westward in sufficient quantities to motivate some of Alexander the Great’s campaigns and then, as we have seen, to become the subject of denunciation in Rome for their extravagance and for their sheerness. Large amounts of silk fabric were periodically exported to the rough nomadic peoples living north of China, as part of the price paid for peace along the Great Wall. From China, the technique spread to Korea in the fourth century and thence to Japan. India probably learned the technology at about the same time. Finally, around A.D. 550, Bombyx mori eggs were smuggled into the Byzantine Empire in hollow canes carried by certain Indian monks who had lived for a long time in the Central Asian oasis city-states on the Silk Road. But the mere possession of eggs did not assure the successful development of sericulture.

Silk has always been an elite product, amounting to less than 1 percent of cotton and 3 percent of wool production in the twentieth century. In world trade, it reached its peak in about 1920, when its major use was for women’s silk hosiery—perhaps the only mass use of silk in its history. Thereafter, artificial fibres—rayon, nylon, orlon, etc.—were developed and replaced silk in many of its previous uses. Although silk technology was developed in China, by the mid-1930s Japan was the dominant Asian and world producer, partly because of aggressive adoption of the best production methods, especially quality control, and partly because Chinese production was seriously disrupted by unrest, revolution, and Japanese invasion.

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China’s Constant Internal Migrations

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 53:

China generates paradox. The Chinese are renowned for their attachment to place, their deep identification with native soil. And yet whenever one looks at Chinese history one finds people everywhere on the move. Migration is part of this movement, the permanent transfer of people from one region to another, sometimes pushed out of their original homeland by overpopulation, poverty, disaster, or war, and sometimes attracted to new lands by real or presumed opportunities for betterment of their lives.

But migrants were not the only travelers across the Chinese landscape. Merchants big and small set forth on business trips; Buddhist monks and devout layfolk made pilgrimages or sought centers of learning; scholars aspiring to prestigious careers in the imperial civil service headed for provincial capitals or Peking to take the most fiendishly demanding examinations ever devised. Officials took up their posts across the far-flung realm, and some were exiled for real or alleged offenses to the most remote and dangerous corners of the empire; corvee labor gangs were sent to work on canals or defensive walls; boatmen and transport coolies moved the goods of the empire; one might even spot a rare travel buff exploring his world out of curiosity or scholarly interest. There were foreign traders, Japanese and Korean monks who had come to learn from Chinese Buddhist masters, ambassadors and their retinues, entertainers, bandits, fugitives. In wartime, armies were on the march. Rebel hordes, angry and desperate peasants headed by ambitious or megalomaniac leaders with their own dynastic dreams, followed the same routes as migrants, merchants, a11d scht1lars. In the mid-1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, urban youth went on an orgy of hitherto prohibited travel, sanctioned by Mao Tse-tung’s revolutionary dictum to “exchange revolutionary experience”; later, beginning in 1969, some fourteen million of these urban youth were sent whether they wanted to go or not to the countryside to “learn from the peasants.”

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Yanbian, the Third Korea

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 253-256:

Yanji was still the same tightly packed mass of greying apartment and office blocks, divided by the Buerhatong River, I had encountered on previous visits. But if Yanji looks like a typically undistinguished third-tier Chinese city, it feels very different from one. The first hint of its dual nature is the fact that the street signs are in same-sized Chinese and Korean characters. They are symbolic of the way Yanji’s 400,000 people are divided almost equally between Han and ethnic Korean, and how they coexist in a far more amenable atmosphere than is normal for Chinese and minorities in the borderlands.

There is no sense that the city is segregated, as Lhasa and Urumqi are rigidly divided between Han and Tibetan or Uighur neighbourhoods. Stand at a bus stop in Yanji and you will hear Korean in one ear and Mandarin in the other until they seem to blend into one bizarre new tongue. And the longer you stay in Yanji, the more South Korean it feels. Restaurants offering Korean delicacies like dog meat outnumber Chinese eateries. The city has its own TV channels in Korean, along with newspapers and magazines offering the latest updates on celebrity scandals in Seoul.

Security is unobtrusive here too. There are plenty of soldiers in the surrounding Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, the official Chinese name for the region, mounting guard along the nearby border with the DPRK. But in Yanji itself the main hint that the military is around are the jets from a nearby air-force base that scream over the city at regular intervals, coming in so low that the red stars on their fuselages are clearly visible.

Yanbian, Yanji apart, is one of the least densely populated regions of China outside the high plateau of Tibet and the deserts of Xinjiang. Around 2.2 million people live in an area of Jilin Province about half the size of South Korea, which has a population of fifty million. After the packed cities and countryside of eastern and southern China, where every inch of land is utilised, the empty landscape is both a shock and a relief. Forty per cent of the residents of the prefecture are ethnic Korean, the rest Han, with the remaining million-plus Chinese Koreans mostly spread throughout the rest of Jilin, or in neighbouring Liaoning Province.

Ethnic Koreans are known in China as Chaoxianzu [朝鲜族] which translates as ‘North Korean race’ [more literally ‘Chosŏn tribe’ or ‘morning calm tribe’], Chaoxian being the Chinese name for the DPRK [because the DPRK uses the same name]. It is a way of distinguishing them from South Koreans, but also an accurate description of their origins because nearly all Chinese Koreans come from areas that are now part of North Korea. [In current Japanese usage, North Korea is called Kita-Chōsen (北朝鮮 = North Chosŏn) and South Korea Kankoku (韓国 = Hanguk), but the use of “Chōsenjin” to refer to Korean people has a long history of derogatory usage and, at least to my ears, the Sino-Japanese reading of 朝鲜族, Chōsenzoku ‘Chōsen tribe’, sounds even worse.]

By [1945], there were 1.7 million Koreans living in Dongbei. With Japan occupying Korea, almost all supported or fought for the CCP in its battles against the Japanese and the nationalist armies, including Kim Il-sung who would later wildly exaggerate his success as a guerrilla leader, despite having spent much of the Second World War living safely in the Russian Far East. Even after the defeat of Japan in 1945, most Koreans in China chose to stay on, with only half a million returning to their homeland.

As Korea was plunged into the war that formalised the division of the peninsula into two separate countries, another Korea was being created. Beijing didn’t forget the sacrifices of the Koreans in Dongbei during the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War. They were given land and, in 1952, became one of the first ethnic groups to be granted their own official region. Now Yanbian is a third Korea, only one inside China. With its people hailing from North Korea but bound culturally to South Korea, it presages what a reunified Korea might be like.

China’s Koreans enjoy advantages denied to other minorities, which only reinforces the sense that Yanbian is more like a mini-state than just another autonomous area. The most notable of these is the right to education in their own language at school as well as college. Unlike in Xinjiang, where the government has closed down Uighur-only schools, or Xishuangbanna and Tibet, where the only way to study Dai or Tibetan is to become a monk, the Yanbian government actually funds schools that teach in Korean.

Nor are the Koreans as obviously subordinate to the Han as most other ethnic groups, being well represented among local officials. Apart from during the Cultural Revolution, when the Chaoxianzu suffered along with all the minorities, the Han have always maintained a mutually respectful relationship with the Koreans. On the surface at least, the Han approach in Yanbian seemed to me to be a model which if followed elsewhere would certainly reduce, while not eliminating, tensions between the Chinese and the most restive minorities.

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Russians in Outer Manchuria

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 279-281:

In 1858, the Treaty of Aigun formalised the division of Manchuria. Everything north of what the Russians call the Amur River and the Chinese the Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River, was assigned to Russia. Two years later, more Manchu lands went north under the Treaty of Peking. In all, Russia acquired a million square kilometres of Outer Manchuria. It is a massive area. Stretching from the present Sino-Russian border to the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, it includes what are now the major cities of the Russian Far East – Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk – yet the tsar’s army barely had to fire a shot to attain it.

Faced with internal rebellions and in the midst of the Second Opium War with the British and French, the Qing dynasty was so enfeebled by the late 1850s that Russia was able to take Outer Manchuria simply by threatening Beijing. The once mighty Manchu, who had expanded China’s frontiers in the west and south-west, conceded the territory in the bitter knowledge that they were now unable to defend even their own homeland.

With the western colonial powers establishing themselves in China’s major ports in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, Russia’s takeover of northern Manchuria was supposed to be the prelude to it conquering all of Dongbei. The extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway, first to Harbin and then south to Port Arthur, now known as Lushun, was another step towards that goal. From 1897, Russian workers started arriving in Harbin, then not much more than a fishing village on the Songhua River, to build the new rail line. So many Russians came over the border that they dominated Harbin for the next couple of decades.

Russia’s dreams of turning Dongbei into a colony were dashed by its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Instead, it would be Japan which occupied Manchuria from 1931 until the end of the Second World War. But Harbin remained primarily a Russian city. Like the Koreans who escaped the Japanese occupation of their country by moving to Yanbian during the same period, Russians sought refuge in Harbin from the chaos at home.

Well over 100,000 White Russians arrived after the Russian Revolution of 1917, joining 20,000 or so Russian Jews who had fled tsarist pogroms a decade earlier, making Harbin the largest community of Russians anywhere outside the old country. Far outnumbering the Chinese population, and with the new rail link boosting the local economy, the Russian residents, known as Harbinets, created a city which imitated distant St Petersburg and Moscow.

Harbin’s main shopping street, Zhongyang Dajie, offers an architectural history lesson. Art Nouveau hotels and department stores sit alongside baroque-style buildings, and once grand houses with large arched windows and iron balconies line the streets running off it. Former Russian Orthodox churches, as well as synagogues with window frames in the shape of the Star of David, are scattered throughout the city.

Along with other Chinese cities which have an extensive foreign heritage, such as Shanghai and Tianjin, Harbin is ambivalent about its cosmopolitan past. The buildings, even the crumbling houses which have been chopped into apartments, are much more distinctive and impressive than anything built in the communist era. Yet they are also evidence of how Harbin was more Russian than Chinese until 1949. To admire them is unpatriotic, and locals claim to be indifferent to structures like the former St Sophia Cathedral, regarding them only as unique backdrops for wedding photos.

Most Harbinets returned home after the Second World War or emigrated to the west. By the 1960s only a handful remained, although Harbin’s last Russian resident didn’t die until the early 1980s. But the city attracts many tourists from across the frontier – enough for the Chinese to assume that any foreigner in town is Russian. They come on shopping trips from Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, in search of a far wider and cheaper range of products than are available in the Russian Far East. There are also many Russians studying Mandarin, the language which may one day be the lingua franca of the former Outer Manchuria. Others arrive in search of work, prompted by the slump in the Far East’s economy that was precipitated by the break-up of the old USSR in 1991 and continues today.

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Early Meiji Relations with Korea, 1873

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 541-543:

Previously trade with Korea had been carried out through Tsushima Han. With the abolition of the han system, however, the Tsushima envoys in Korea were replaced by officials from the Foreign Ministry. The officials sent to Korea displayed an arrogance and ignorance not shown by the more familiar Tsushima samurai in the past. The Koreans naturally reacted with aversion. In May 1873 (Meiji 6), Korean officials in Pusan erected a billboard claiming that Japan had violated its three centuries-old agreement with Korea by sneaking merchants into Pusan to conduct illicit trade without permission from the Korean government. The breach of protocol, the billboard said, would not be tolerated. Included in the billboard was language to the effect that Japan had sold out to the Western barbarians by shamelessly imitating Western culture and that the perpetrators of such action were unfit to be called Japanese. Japan was offended, needless to say. The Emperor himself was extremely upset, as was his prime minister, Sanjō Sanétomi, while many in the government—including Saigō and his militarist faction—considered Korea’s attitude downright insulting.

Saigō’s alleged advocacy of a Korea invasion presents yet another enigma regarding his thinking and actions during this period, with historians divided as to whether or not he actually called for war. Most historians believe he did, many of whom argue that Saigō was motivated by the anti-Western ideology of Mito and Chōshū Loyalists of the past—i.e., that Japan must conquer Korea to fend off Western encroachment in the region. Supporting this argument is a statement, attributed to Shimazu Nariakira and quoted by Chinese historian Wang Yün-shêng in the early 1930s, laying out the reasons why Japan should occupy China. Masakazu Iwata, Ōkubo Toshimichi’s biographer, provides an English translation of this statement. After alluding to China’s internal rebellion and invasion by foreign powers since the Opium War, Nariakira is quoted as saying that Japan, in order to avoid the same fate, must “take the initiative” and “dominate” China, otherwise:

… we will be dominated. We must prepare defenses with this thought in mind. Considering the present situation, it behooves us first to raise an army, seize a part of China’s territory, and establish a base on the Asiatic mainland. We must strengthen Japan without delay and display our military power abroad. This would make it impossible for England or France to interfere in our affairs despite their strength.

Nonetheless, Nariakira asserted that his purpose was not to bring about “the liquidation of China, but rather to see China awaken and reorganize itself in order that together we might defend ourselves against England and France”—which resembles Katsu Kaishū’s vision of a Triple Alliance with China and Korea. But, Nariakira was quick to add, based on China’s self-proclaimed superiority over Japan, it was doubtful that China would agree to cooperate with Japan. “Consequently, we must first undertake defensive preparations against foreign encroachment…. The initial requirement is the acquisition of both Taiwan and Foochow [Fuzhou].” It would not be too much to presume that after the “initial requirement” was met, Korea might follow. And as we know, Saigō most certainly would have acted on Nariakira’s dictum—as soon as the opportunity availed itself. During the final years of the Bakufu and the first few years of the Meiji era, Japan was simply not prepared to expand into East Asia. But in 1873 things were quite different, and it is by no means farfetched to assume that Saigō was now ready to act.

It is also argued that Saigō called for a Korea invasion as a means of providing a livelihood and career to dispossessed former samurai throughout Japan. The argument follows that in a foreign adventure Saigō perceived a way to overcome the divisiveness within the government.

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Korean-Japanese POW in India

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), p. 191:

The last Japanese POW challenge to Allied prison authorities took place in the spring of 1945 at the British-run facility at Bikaner, located on the edge of the Indian desert some two hundred forty miles west of Delhi. In this camp, originally constructed to house German prisoners of the First World War, the first prisoner was Senior Sergeant Aoki Akira, whose plane was shot down over Rangoon and crash-landed. He eventually became one of the POW section leaders. Although a Japanese citizen, as were all Koreans at the time, Aoki was a member of the royal house of Korea. Mizui Hajime, a Japanese fellow prisoner deeply imbued with the justice of Japan’s cause, paid Aoki the ultimate tribute of noting that he possessed “a high degree of military spirit as well as strong leadership qualities,” even though he spoke Japanese with a heavy accent.

In a curious historical footnote, Aoki, reverting to his family name Rhee, achieved a measure of renown in 1949 when he became the first commandant of the Republic of Korea’s nascent air force academy. In the following year, shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War, it was Colonel Rhee who took possession of a shipment of ten American P-51 Mustang fighters at Itazuke Airfield on Kyushu. After only three days of training on the new planes, Colonel Rhee, still full of the old fighting spirit, led a formation of three P-51s in a low-altitude raid on a North Korean concentration of T-34 tanks south of Seoul. Hit in the exchange of fire, Rhee crashed his plane into the enemy formation on a suicidal dive and was posthumously promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

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Koreans, Taiwanese, and Okinawans Among Japanese POWs

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), pp. 196-199:

Allied forces also captured roughly ten thousand ethnic Koreans and Taiwanese working for the Japanese. Although some Koreans were integral members of the Japanese armed forces, most had either volunteered for or been drafted into labor battalions ordered into combat only when the tactical situation became desperate. Then they became little more than cannon fodder, along with the Japanese soldiers. The Koreans and Taiwanese in the labor battalions, however, did not share the Japanese preference for death over capture and surrendered to Allied forces in droves whenever it became feasible to do so. It was Allied policy to separate out captured Koreans and Taiwanese, assigning each group to its own enclosure. Cowra, in Australia, was the exception, in that it kept Japanese and the few ethnic Korean officers in the same enclosure. Koreans and Taiwanese were not imprisoned any further east than Hawaii, and many remained in the general area of their capture. Once the war ended, they were among the earliest to be repatriated.

There was never much love lost between the Japanese and Koreans, and imprisonment did nothing to change that fact. Japanese POWs felt genuinely appalled, almost betrayed, to discover that the Koreans thought of themselves as victors once the war ended and looked down on the Japanese. Some Japanese POWs, including Takahashi Shigeru, realized that Japan had discriminated against Koreans and Taiwanese and that the Koreans’ gleeful attitude when Japan lost therefore “could not be helped.” In the few instances when Japanese were erroneously placed into an enclosure with Koreans, they were beaten up in revenge for earlier treatment at the hands of their colonial masters.

Most ethnic Koreans who had served as integral members of the Japanese military chose to maintain their Japanese identity in the prison camps. They may well have feared the wrath of fellow Koreans who had been pressed into the labor battalions and believed they would be more secure in the Japanese section. One of the reports from Cowra noted that Koreans caused no trouble for the Australians, except for a small minority who were “very pro-Japanese.” This element compelled the rest to face east and bow reverentially after every roll call. When fellow Koreans disregarded this courtesy to the emperor, they were manhandled.

Taiwanese hostility toward the Japanese POWs was substantially less than that of the Koreans. American comments about Taiwanese prisoners, who never created problems, were entirely positive. When interrogated about possible American landing sites on Taiwan, they were uniformly eager to provide all the information they had.

On Okinawa the American army split up Japanese POWs in yet another way, separating not only Japanese and Koreans but Okinawans as well. Initially somewhat resistant to the idea of being distinguished from Japanese, Yamada Yuko soon became rather pleased to be called Okinawan rather than the pejorative “Jap” that was in common usages by Americans during the war. Given the Okinawans’ widespread disillusionment with the Japanese military, especially its ruthless treatment of tens of thousands of civilians needlessly exposed to the hazards of war, it is hardly surprising that Okinawans relished this separate treatment, a difference manifested in a number of ways. Noting that Americans were eager to obtain Japanese swords as souvenirs, Okinawan POWs volunteered to help them find some. On several occasions they were even allowed to leave the prison camp without guards to search for souvenirs. Such complete trust was so greatly appreciated that the Okinawans could not think of betraying it. Nevertheless, when news of Japan’s defeat filtered into the Yaka stockade, Yamada felt humiliation, and when the Koreans held their victory celebration, he thought that his own feelings were no different from the feelings of those who came from other Japanese prefectures.

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