31 January 2019

Missionaries in China after 1860

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 153-154:
In the second treaty settlement [after the 1856–1860 Opium War], prohibitions to inland travel were removed, and Chinese authorities were made responsible for the safety of such travelers. Ten additional treaty ports were opened to trade, including Nanking, Hankow, and two other Yangtze River ports. It was further stipulated that since foreigners might reside in such treaty ports, the powers would have right of gunboat as well as commercial navigation on inland waters. Moreover, the country was opened to missionaries, who were now permitted to travel at will throughout the empire, and to be at all times protected by the Chinese government—a provision often impossible to enforce against popular anti-Christian sentiment. Missionary cases, usually called "outrages" by the foreign community, were enormously troublesome throughout the nineteenth century. The French, presenting themselves in the 1860s as the protectors of Catholicism in China (despite anti-Catholic measures at home) and insisting that the Chinese government not establish direct relations with the Vatican, also demanded that the Chinese government permit the Catholic church to own property and to guarantee the return of all property that had ever belonged to it, referring specifically to those missions that had been established by Matteo Ricci and his successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Until the second treaty settlement, the Catholic church in China had maintained a tenuous but stubborn toehold as an illegal, underground religion. It had been proscribed in 1724 by the Yung-cheng Emperor, except for a few authorized clerics in imperial service at Peking. At this time there were roughly 300,000 converts in China, declining by the end of the century by perhaps half or two-thirds, served by forty or so foreign clerics and twice that number of Chinese priests. Despite the risks, religious orders continued to smuggle priests into China and to smuggle a few Chinese out for training and ordination. Foreign priests had to be secreted at all times, usually in the homes of believers, going out only at night or in covered sedan chairs or boats. This was a harsh and dangerous business. If discovered, foreign priests might be attacked by hostile mobs or bandits. Official punishment might range from deportation to imprisonment to execution. Chinese Catholics often came in for even severer treatment.

The most active mission arena was the southwest, comprised of Szechwan, Yunnan, and Kweichow provinces, where vicariates apostolic had long existed in Chungking and Chengtu, both under the French Société des Missions Ètrangères. Rough estimates—the only ones available—suggest that in the early nineteenth century, there were perhaps 70,000 Chinese Catholics in these three provinces. This region was far enough removed from Peking so that the prohibitions rested a bit more lightly there than in the eastern provinces; but by the same token, the protections of the second treaty settlement were less well-known and enforced. Although some Chinese Catholics had renounced their faith, as directed by imperial edict, many others remained loyal despite repeated persecution.

Against this background, a few Westerners embarked upon explorations of the Yangtze River, and their books began to appear before a curious public. These explorers were not, of course, the first nineteenth-century Europeans to travel on the Yangtze River. In 1841–1842, and Anglo-French naval force had penetrated far enough to blockade the Grand Canal, thus demonstrating the capacity to strangle the capital by preventing vital grain shipment, and to take Nanking under its guns. There the first of the Unequal Treaties, the Treaty of Nanking, was concluded in 1842. A decade later, during the T'ai-p'ing Rebellion, several Europeans visited the dissident capital at Nanking, and left behind fascinating accounts of their experiences. But these men had little interest in the Yangtze River itself, except as a means of access to the interior. Even more reticent were the Catholic missionaries who began to take advantage of the concessions wrung from the second treaty settlement but tried to remain invisible, like their illegal predecessors, by wearing native dress and going concealed in sedan chairs or boats.

29 January 2019

Lifeboats on the Upper Yangtze

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 118-119:
Two other special purpose boats are worthy of brief mention. The first was the fleet of about fifty post-boats that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries carried the mail between Chungking and I-ch'ang, making faster and more dependable passage than any other type of craft. And finally there were the lifeboats, the so-called "red boats" of the Three Gorges and the upper Long River. Apparently instituted for the first time in the 1850s by a benevolent merchant who lived near New Rapids (Hsin-t'an), they found favor with a number of high officials (Li Hung-chang and Ting Pao-chen among them), who gave money for their maintenance and stationing at other dangerous points. In the 1880s, the service became a suboffice of the I-ch'ang Circuit Intendant. In 1899, according to Worcester, they saved 1,473 lives from 49 wrecked junks, and the next year 1,235 lives from 37 wrecks, including 33 foreigners and 285 Chinese taken off the first foreign steamer to be sunk in the river, the German-owned Suihsing. These figures, incidentally, suggest how many lives were lost each year prior to the introduction of the red boats. In the early 1900s, there were nearly fifty red boats on station, one or more at each danger point, manned by three or four sailors who "only receive about sixpence a day wages, but are rewarded by 1000 cash for every life saved, and by 800 cash for every corpse—irrespective whether it be male or female—so the lifeboat regulations state." Not even the most jaundiced traveler had anything but praise for the skill, bravery, and honesty of the red-boat crews. It was even possible to hire a red boat to accompany one's passage through the Three Gorges, a precaution recommended by Cornell Plant, the most knowledgeable foreign sailor of the upper river.

28 January 2019

Sichuan's Ancient Salt Industry

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 95:
While the whole Yangtze Valley east of the Three Gorges was supplied with salt from the Liang-huai district, Szechwan produced its own salt in an industry of great antiquity and technological sophistication. Salt in Szechwan is the result of its geological history. As we have seen, prior to the collision between Indian and Asian crustal plates, Szechwan was submerged by a great primordial ocean. As the land uplifted, Szechwan became an inland sea, then finally took on the mountain-girt basin character it has possessed throughout historic times. This process, dating from Triassic times 250 million years ago, produced large underground brine or solid salt deposits and, from the dense vegetation of many millions of years, large pockets of natural gas and extensive beds of coal.

The underground deposits lie at various depths, though a few brine pools can be found on the surface. We do not know when this salt was first exploited, but the earliest wells are claimed for the third century B.C. and attributed to Li Ping, the engineering genius who conceived All-Rivers Weir above Chengtu.... In early times, these wells must have been quite shallow, but within a few hundred years records indicate dozens of deep wells in the most productive regions. The brine obtained from these wells was evaporated by boiling, with wood (or charcoal) from the abundant forests as the principal fuel. At a later date, coal was also used for this purpose. In a few fortunate locations, even shallow wells brought in natural gas as well as brine. This enabled the brine to be boiled with gas carried by bamboo pipes.

27 January 2019

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.

26 January 2019

China's Tung Oil Exports, 1918-1937

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 106-107, 109:
If tea and silk are full of history and romance, familiar to all and identified with China, tung oil is a blue-collar product few have ever heard of. But tung oil resembles these more aristocratic products because its properties, like theirs, are unmatched by any other natural substance and because it was produced almost nowhere else. Although used in China for millennia, it did not attract international attention until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The tung oil trade grew spectacularly in both volume and unit price between 1918 and 1937, with about 70 percent of the product shipped to the United States. In 1937, the first year of the Sino-Japanese War, over 20,000,000 gallons were exported (at about $1.40 per gallon), making it China's most valuable single trade product. In just a few years, tung oil had soared past tea, cotton yarn, metals, eggs and egg products, skins and furs, and raw silk. War devastated this trade and U.S. chemical industries, impelled to invent alternatives for many products now unavailable, developed petroleum-based substitutes to take the place of tung oil in most uses. In this, too, tung oil resembles silk, which also fell victim to the chemical industry's rayon and nylon.

Tung oil is classified as a "drying oil," by which is meant that when exposed to air it oxidizes readily, forming a tough, hard, waterproof film. Tung oil can be applied alone as a waterproofing varnish, and this is one of its main uses in China. The Chinese also use tung oil for preparing caulking materials (chunam), dressing leather, waterproofing paper, making soap, treating skin afflictions, and producing lampblack for solid inksticks.

But perhaps its most important function is (or was) in the manufacture of paint.... For this purpose, tung oil is superior to linseed oil, traditionally the most widely used drying oil in Europe and the United States; tung oil dies faster and produces a harder, more durable film.

Tung oil (sometimes also called wood oil) is obtained from the nut of the tung tree (Aleurites cordata) [now Vernicia cordata], which is native to China. Almost all commercially grown tung trees are found in the central provinces, north and south of the Long River, particularly in Szechwan and Hunan. As the demand grew, more and more trees were planted, particularly on hilly, otherwise unproductive land along the navigable tributaries of the Long River, in order to reduce the cost of overland transport—usually by shoulder pole—which could quickly erode the profits to be made.
Had the war and war-induced substitutes not intervened, tung oil would almost certainly have had a bright future. Indeed, so valuable was the product that in the 1930s efforts were made to experiment with tung plantations along the Gulf Coast of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but DuPont's chemists made them unnecessary just as they were beginning to produce a little oil.

25 January 2019

Sichuan's Drastic Population Changes

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 63-64:
The Ch'ing conquest and subsequent rule illustrates another type of migration in China, one in which opposite ends of the Yangtze Valley were key locales. Thus far, we have discussed what might be called "expansive" and "consolidative" migrations, the former referring to the outward movement of large numbers of Chinese into territory that they had not previously settled, rather resembling the westward expansion of the white race across the North American continent. Consolidative migration fills in the spaces left behind expansive migration.

A third sort of movement, recurrent throughout Chinese history but particularly visible during the Ch'ing dynasty, can be termed "replacement" migration. In this case, a settled population is so decimated by famine, disease, war, or rebellion—or some combination of these—that serious underpopulation results: few are left to cultivate the fields, while cities are ravaged and largely deserted. Into this partial vacuum come new populations, replacing the dead and often surpassing earlier population levels. The history of Szechwan province demonstrates both consolidative and replacement migration.

Today, Szechwan is China's most populous province, consisting of 110,000,000 people. If Szechwan were an independent nation, it would possess the seventh largest population in the world, exceeded only by the rest of China, India, the USSR, the USA, Brazil, and Japan. Since early times, Szechwan has always been a part of China proper, yet even late into China's imperial history, the Szechwan Basin and the upper Yangtze region were only lightly inhabited. About A.D. 1640, with the Ming dynasty about and the Manchu conquest about to roll over China, Szechwan contained perhaps five million people.

For the next forty years, warfare became a way of life in Szechwan. First came the depredations of a murderous invading warlord, then the ruthless Manchu armies determined to crush all resistance. By about A.D. 1680, the province was finally "pacified," but only about two million survived; one is reminded of Tacitus's sad comment on the Roman conquest of Britain, "They make desolation, which they call peace." The richest areas of the regional core were worst affected, and whole cities were turned into ghost towns.

During the following three centuries, Szechwan came to be populated far beyond its previous highs by steady immigration from other parts of (as well as from natural increase): 9 million in 1750, 27 million in 1850, 64 million in 1980.

24 January 2019

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."

China's Repeated Unity

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 50:
Unlike Europe, where the Holy Roman Empire was but a faint echo of Rome's glory, China's medieval period was one of the most powerful and resplendent eras of her history. Once again a short unifying dynasty (the Sui) was followed by a powerful and long-lived inheritor the T'ang. In many ways, the T'ang was even more glorious an era than the Han had been, but after roughly two centuries, its lustre was rapidly dimming. By the end of the T'ang, the frontier marches were virtually independent, and the succeeding Sung dynasty was never able to solve its border problems. In the twelfth century, frontier defenses collapsed. North China fell once again into the hands of barbarians, this time from the region we today call Manchuria, and once again a refugee Chinese regime the Southern Sung was driven south to the lower Yangtze, the lands of Ch'u and Wu, where it made its "temporary" capital in the lovely city of Hangchow.

After the Southern Sung the late empire there were interregna but never again a long period of disunity. Ironically, however, this unity was twice imposed by non-Chinese peoples from beyond the Wall: the Mongols of Genghis and Kubla Khan, to whose court came Marco Polo; and then the last dynasty, and in some ways the culmination of the imperial process, the Manchu Ch'ing dynasty, which occupied the Dragon Throne from 1644 until 1911, when in one of history's greatest not-with-a-bang anticlimaxes the abdication of a six-year-old boy emperor ended not only that dynasty but all dynasties, and more than 2,000 years of imperial history came to an end. These two alien dynasties the Yuan (1279-1368) and the Ch'ing (1644-1911) were the only two periods of foreign rule over all of China.

This very brief chronological survey introduces the names of the principal dynastic periods, and provides a reference chart, since I will be moving back and forth in time through most of the essays in this book. Periods of disunity also influence the story directly, since it was under the impact of barbarian onslaughts that Chinese influence was pushed into the Yangtze Valley more rapidly and forcibly than would otherwise have been the case. Indeed, during the three and a half centuries between the Han and the T'ang, refugee populations and exile dynasties so developed the lower basins of the Long River that by the time of the Sui-T'ang unification this region had replaced the North China Plain as the economic center, the grain basket, of China. A similar developmental pulsation took place again during the Southern Sung dynasty approximately A.D.1100 to 1300 when the north was lost to the Chin, before both were overwhelmed by the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and his grandson, Kubla.

19 January 2019

African vs. Indian Experience in Mauritius and Seychelles

From "Slavery and Indenture in Mauritius and Seychelles" by Burton Benedict, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 154-168. Both colonies depended very heavily on imported labor for their sugar plantations. Watson attempts to explain why Indian cultural traits survived better in the two island groups than did African cultural traits. The following summaries are closely paraphrased.

1. ORIGINS: African slaves came from all over the continent and lacked common cultures or political systems. Indentured Indians came from diverse cultures that had nevertheless all coexisted within a more or less unified political and economic system ruled by the Mughals and then the British.

2. RECRUITMENT: African slaves were nearly all unwilling recruits who had usually passed through many hands in many markets. Indentured Indians were volunteers recruited by men from their own culture and often from the same village, caste, or tribe, even though they usually had no idea about their destination or working conditions, and their voyaging conditions were hardly better than that of the African slaves.

3. FAMILIES: Most Africans arrived as isolated individuals, with no guarantee that any surviving relatives would be sold to the same plantation. Indentured Indians left their wives behind during the early years, but were later assigned as family units, whose marriages were recognized by the local courts. They were better able to preserve family life.

4. YOUTH: Many African slaves were kidnapped as children, and children were favored over adults by plantation managers. They received little education and adapted to local French culture. Most Indians came as young adults, some with children, who learned Indian customs and values at home and at vernacular schools.

5. LANGUAGE: African slaves spoke many different languages, and had to communicate among themselves in Swahili, Arabic, or the languages of European traders. On the plantations, they learned the local French Creole. Most of the Indians came from three major language groups (Bhojpuri) Hindi, Tamil, and Telegu. Employers relied on bilingual overseers and the Indians preserved their home languages, in which they transmitted their home cultures. Many man but far fewer women learned Creole, even into the 1960s.

6. NAMING: African slaves were given European names, usually French or English for given names. Over time, African surnames were replaced by French or English ones. Indians retained their Indian names and gave their children Indian names, although some Christian converts took European names.

7. RELIGION: The dominant religion in Mauritius and the Seychelles was Roman Catholic, from when they were French colonies, and African slaves were heavily evangelized. Catholic and Protestant churches were controlled by Europeans. The Indians were generally Hindu or Muslim, and Europeans made little effort to convert them to Christianity. Moreover, temples, mosques, and religious ritual and education were controlled by Indians, not Europeans.

8. MUSIC AND DANCE: Africans lost not just their traditional religious rites of passage, but also music and dance connected with them. The latter became entirely secular, adapted to European and Creole cultures. Indians retained Hindu and Muslim ceremonies for rites of passage, along with their musical and dance components.

9. OVERSEAS CONNECTIONS: African slaves were completely cut off from Africa. Those who went overseas for training went to France or Britain, not Africa. Indians were also cut off from home, but many of those indentured returned to India, the Indian government took frequent interest in their welfare, and Hindu and Muslim missionaries came to preach to them. Many went to Europe for training but others went to India.

10. ECONOMIC BASE: Africans lost their kinship organizations, which had been their principal units of production and consumption. The sugar plantations produced cash crops, not subsistence crops, and individual workers purchased what they consumed. Indians came from highly stratified societies with complex, caste-based divisions of labor that produced goods and services. They were used to sharecropping and wage work (which was why indentured themselves), but the family remained the basic unit of consumption.

11. ENDOGAMY: Marriage in both European and Indian societies was very much about property; brides came with dowries. Both groups also tended to marry within their race, class, or caste. In African societies, marriage was more about building alliances; brides required bridewealth. African social stratification was much more fluid; chiefs could marry commoners.

Watson concludes "that there was a concatenation of factors which militated against the retention of African cultural traits (or conversely which fostered the adaptation of European cultural traits) and that these factors did not operate in the same fashion for Indians" (p. 167).

18 January 2019

Three Gorges Dam in Historical Context

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 108-110:
The truth is that the disruption of the dam, which seems massive to an outsider, is really nothing out of the ordinary when one considers recent history in the local context. Within the last fifty years, China has experienced Liberation, the radical (and disastrous) collectivization of the 1958–1961 Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Reform and Opening.

Fuling and the other Yangtze River towns have the additional experience of being a focal point of Mao Zedong’s Third Line Project, which had an especially large influence on the region during the 1960s. The early preparations for this project started in 1950, when Mao sent Deng Xiaoping to the southwest so he could research the feasibility of moving Shanghai’s military industry to remote mountain areas in Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. The American atomic bomb triggered this plan, as Mao became increasingly concerned that China’s heavily concentrated defense industry was too susceptible to a U.S. attack. The Korean War accelerated the project, and eventually three-quarters of China’s nuclear weapons plants were incorporated into the Third Line, as well as more than half of its aeronautics industry. The project was, as Harrison Salisbury describes it in his book The New Emperors, “something like that of picking up the whole of California’s high-tech industry and moving it bodily to the wilds of Montana as they existed, say, in 1880.”

In comparison it seems a small matter to turn the river into a lake. Much of Fuling’s economy had originally come via the Third Line Project, which made the locals accustomed to massive changes. The local Hailing factory, which now produces combustion engines for civilian use, had formerly been a defense industry plant moved from Shanghai. A few miles upstream from Fuling is the Chuan Dong boat factory, which in the old days made parts for nuclear submarines. All of the local Chang’an-brand cabs—the name means Eternal Peace—are made by a Chongqing factory that originally produced firearms for the military.

Many of the old Third Line factories had been converted in this way since Deng Xiaoping came to power and started dismantling the project in 1980. With China’s foreign relations rapidly improving, the American threat seemed less serious (and, in any case, it was clear that there wasn’t much protection in putting factories in places like Fuling). The Third Line had always been a huge drain on the economy; in some years as much as 50 percent of China’s capital budget was spent on the project. Never before had such a massive country reorganized its economy on such a scale—even Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan couldn’t compare—and according to some estimates, the Third Line did more damage to China’s economy than the Cultural Revolution.

Despite its enormous scale, the project had been developed and dismantled in remarkable secrecy, as few locals in Fuling and the other Third Line towns ever had a clear notion of what was going on. They knew that commands were coming in from Beijing, and that these commands were bringing factories from Shanghai; and they also knew that all of this had a military sensitivity that required secrecy. It wasn’t something you asked questions about, and after four decades of that it seemed natural enough not to ask questions about the dam. These things just came and went—just as the Chuan Dong factory, which arrived to build nuclear submarines, was subsequently converted to a boat plant, and eventually would disappear forever beneath the waters of the new Yangtze.

But even with all of this history in mind, I still found the lack of interest and concern about the dam to be remarkable.

17 January 2019

When Chinese Was a State Secret

From God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan D. Spence (W. W. Norton, 1996), Kindle Loc. 240f.
Language might seem a problem, since in all of Canton and the foreign hongs there is no Chinese who can read or write in English or other European languages, and only a few Westerners who know enough Chinese to write with even partial elegance. This has not always been the case. In the 1810s and 1820s, when the East India Company was at its peak of power, there were a dozen or more young men from England studying Chinese in the Canton factories. They translated Chinese novels and plays, and even the Chinese legal code, so they could assess the equity of the government’s rules more carefully. Though the local officials on occasion imprisoned Chinese for teaching their own language to foreigners, and even executed one, and Chinese teachers often had to shelter privately in their pupils’ lodgings, the East India Company representatives fought back. By tenacity, they won the right to submit commercial documents in Chinese translation, rather than in English, and to hire Chinese teachers, for study of classical texts as well as Cantonese colloquial dialect. And though the company directors never won official acknowledgment of their right to hire Chinese wood-carvers, they went ahead anyway and block printed an Anglo-Chinese dictionary using Chinese characters; in addition, they managed to accumulate a substantial library of four thousand books, many of them in Chinese, which they housed in their splendidly appointed hong, with the company’s senior physician doubling as the librarian.

With the termination by the British government in 1834 of the company’s monopoly of China trade, these glory days were over. Most of the language students and experts were reassigned to other countries; their finest teacher, Robert Morrison, died the same year; and the great library was scattered. Only three young men, who had been classified on the company’s roster as “proficient” enough to receive an annual student’s allowance, are left in Canton by 1836, and their main role is to be caretakers of the company’s former buildings and oversee their closing down. Nor are there any established bookshops to be found in the foreigners’ restricted zone of residence, for specific laws forbid the sale of Chinese books to foreigners, and even make it a crime to show them one of China’s local histories or regional gazettes. Those who wish to search out books must walk some distance to the west, where two bookshops on a side street (a street with gates locked and barred at night) will break the law to the extent of selling novels, romances, and “marvellous stories” to the foreigners, and sometimes arrange for purchases of other titles from the larger stores within the city.

Speaking Latin in Sichuan

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle p. 330:
We met Father Li and chatted in his sitting room. Politely he spoke to my father, with me serving as the translator, and I mentioned that the priest still used Latin during weekday Masses.

“Tell him that I used to be an altar boy for Latin Mass,” my father said. Father Li nodded and said that nobody else in Fuling still understood the language. I asked my father if he still remembered the traditional service, and he nodded.

“In nomine Patris,” he said, “et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

“Introibo ad altare Dei,” responded the priest. “I will go in to the altar of God.”

“Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam,” my father said. “To God, Who giveth joy to my youth.”

For a few minutes they went through the beginning of the service. I had been translating for nearly a week, and now it was strange to sit silent, listening and not understanding a word between these two men that I knew so well. The priest’s Latin was tinged with Sichuanese; my father spoke with an American accent. Theirs was a rote, formal dialogue in a rusty old language, but it was clear that something about the conversation changed the way the two men saw each other. After they were finished, Father Li kept forgetting himself, addressing my father directly in Sichuanese, as if he would understand. But as we left he used Latin once more. “Dominus vobiscum,” he said. “The Lord be with you.”

“Et cum spiritu tuo,” my father said.

11 January 2019

Female Suicides in China

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 273-274, 281:
DURING OUR FIRST YEAR IN FULING, Adam’s best freshman student had been a girl named Janelle. She was so far ahead of the others that there was no comparison, and something about this intellectual distance also set her apart socially. She had no friends in the class and spent her time alone, often talking with Adam or me to practice her English. At the end of the school year, she seemed depressed, and then for some unknown reason she went home early, missing her final exams.

At the start of the second year, Adam had class for the first time and called roll. Everybody was there except for Janelle, and Adam asked if she was sick. A few students shook their heads. Nobody said anything.

“Will she be here later?” Adam asked.

“No,” said Shannon, who was the class monitor.

“She will not come back this year.”

“Why not?”

“She is dead,” Shannon said, and then he laughed. It was a nervous and humorless sound, the sort of Chinese laugh that was simply a reaction to an uncomfortable situation. It wasn’t difficult to distinguish these laughs from normal ones, but nevertheless they always sent shivers down a waiguoren’s spine. The students had their heads down and Adam quickly changed the topic. On that day class was a long two hours.

The subject was difficult to broach and we never heard much about it, because none of the students had known Janelle well. All they could tell us was that during the summer she had jumped off a bridge in her hometown. When the Chinese commit suicide, it’s common for them to jump off things—bridges, buildings, cliffs. Sometimes in the countryside they eat pesticide. They tend to do a much more thorough job of killing themselves than Americas do, especially American women, who often take pills and are saved by having their stomachs pumped.

Chinese women are more likely to commit suicide than Chinese men. More than half of the female suicides in the world take place in China, where the suicide rate for women is nearly five times the world average. China is the only country on earth in which more women kill themselves than men.


Fuling women lived under complicated expectations, and the economic pressures of Reform and Opening seemed to weigh particularly heavily on them. In the countryside, many of the men had left to work in urban areas, and for every stick-stick soldier or construction worker in the city, there was a peasant wife back at home, tending the farm alone. A total of 66 percent of China’s agricultural workers are female. Social scientists believe that this imbalance is partly responsible for the high female suicide rate, which occurs predominantly in the countryside. Rarely do these rural deaths seem to be the result of poverty; in fact, most happen within a relatively affluent and well-educated class of peasants. Adam’s student Janelle was a textbook example of this trend: she wasn’t poor, and she had academic opportunities that were unusual for peasant girls. But Janelle’s career path most likely would have involved returning to her hometown to teach, which probably had been a depressing prospect for somebody so bright. I suspected that she had recognized clearly her own potential, as well as the bleakness of her future: to become a rural schoolteacher, marry young, raise a child. In the end it was more—or less—than she could bear.

09 January 2019

Two Major River Projects in China

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 115-116:
The history of such projects in China has two different aspects. The country has been controlling and harnessing water for centuries—no other civilization on earth has such a long and successful history of turning rivers to man’s use. The development of central Sichuan province was originally sparked by the construction of Dujiangyan, a brilliantly designed irrigation project that was constructed twenty-three centuries ago and even today still functions perfectly, turning the Chengdu Basin into one of the most fertile rice-growing regions in the country. Even the Yangtze has been tamed before, albeit on a much smaller scale; the Gezhou Dam was completed in 1981 on a site downstream from the location of the current project.

But there is also the history of Henan province, where heavy rains in 1975 caused sixty-two modern dams to fall like dominoes, one after another, and 230,000 people died. Although the scale of that particular disaster was unique, the poor engineering was less unusual: 3,200 Chinese dams have burst since 1949. In this [= 20th] century, the failure rate of Chinese dams is 3.7 percent, compared to 0.6 percent in the rest of the world.

08 January 2019

Grendel the Revolutionary

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 35-36:
Other days I gave them writing assignments; for Beowulf we talked about point of view, and they wrote about the story from the perspective of Grendel, the monster. Almost without exception the boys wrote about what it was like to eat people, and how to do it properly; while the girls wrote about how cold and dark the moor was, and how monsters have feelings too. One student named Grace wrote:
The warriors said I am a monster, I can’t agree with them, but on the contrary I think the warriors and the king are indeed monsters.

You see, they eat delicious foods and drinking every day. Where the foods and drinking come from? They must deprive these things from peasants.

The king and the warriors do nothing but eat delicious foods; the peasants work hard every day, but have bad foods, even many of them have no house to live, like me just live in the moor. So I think the world is unfair, I must change it.

The warriors, I hate them. I will punish them for the poor people. I will ask the warriors build a large room and invited the poor people to live with me.
In college I had been taught by a few Marxist critics, most of whom were tenured, with upper-class backgrounds and good salaries. They turned out plenty of commentary—often about the Body, and Money, and Exchange—but somehow it didn’t have quite the same bite as Grace’s vision of Grendel as Marxist revolutionary. There was honesty, too—this wasn’t tweed Marxism; Grace, after all, was the daughter of peasants. She didn’t have tenure, and I had always felt that it was better if people who spoke feelingly of Revolution and Class Struggle were not tenured. And I figured that if you have to listen to Marxist interpretations of literature, you might as well hear them at a college where the students clean the classrooms.

The truth was that politics were unavoidable at a Chinese college, even if the course was foreign literature, and in the end I taught English Literature with Chinese Characteristics.

07 January 2019

Fuling: City of Steps

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 27-28:
THERE ARE NO BICYCLES in Fuling. Otherwise it is similar to any other small Chinese city—loud, busy, dirty, crowded; the traffic twisted, the pedestrians jostling each other; shops overstaffed and full of goods, streets covered with propaganda signs; no traffic lights, drivers honking constantly; televisions blaring, people bickering over prices; and along the main streets rows of frightened-looking trees, their leaves gray with coal dust, the same gray dust that covers everything in the city.

There are no bicycles because Fuling is full of steps, and the city is full of steps because it is squeezed close on the mountains that press against the junction of the Wu and Yangtze Rivers. Narrow streets also rise from the riverbanks, switchbacking up the hills, but they are cramped and indirect and too steep for bicycles. Automobile traffic tangles on the sharp corners. And so the long stone staircases are the true boulevards of Fuling, carrying most of its traffic—shoppers descending the stairs, pausing to browse in stores; porters climbing up, shoulders bowed under the weight of crates and bundles.

Virtually every necessary good or service can be found along these stairways and their landings. There are shops and restaurants, cobblers and barbers. One of the lower stairways is lined with Daoist fortune-tellers. Another staircase is home to a group of three dentists who work at a table covered with rusty tools, syringes in mysterious fluids, and pans of cruelly defeated teeth—a sort of crude advertisement. Sometimes a peasant will stop to have his tooth pulled, after haggling over the price, and a crowd will gather to watch. Everything is public. A haircut comes with an audience. The price of any purchase is commented on by the other shoppers who pause as they pass. For medical problems one can sit in the open air and see a traditional Chinese physician, who has a regular stand near the top of one of the stairways. His stand consists of a stool, a box of bottles, and a white sheet with big characters that say:
To Help You Relieve Worries and Solve Problems! Particular Treatments: Corns, Sluggishness, Black Moles, Ear Checks. Surgery—No Pain, No Itching, No Bloodletting, No Effects on Your Job!
Fuling is not an easy city. Old people rest on the staircases, panting. To carry anything up the hills is backbreaking work, and so the city is full of porters. They haul their loads on bamboo poles balanced across their shoulders, the same way freight was carried in the south of China in the 1800s, when the English referred to such laborers as “coolies”—from the Chinese kuli, or “bitter strength.” Here in Fuling, as in all of the eastern Sichuan river towns, the porters are called Bang-Bang Jun—the Stick-Stick Army. They have uniforms (the simple blue clothes of the Chinese peasantry), and the weapons of their trade (bamboo poles and loops of cheap rope), and they tend to gather in packs, in companies, in battalions. To bargain with one stick-stick soldier is to bargain with a regiment. Their jobs are difficult enough without cutthroat competition, and they look out for each other; there is no formal union but the informal bond of hard labor is much closer. During midday, when most people rest, the stick-stick soldiers can be seen along the midtown streets, sitting on their poles, smoking, chatting, playing cards; and in their leisure there is an air not so much of relaxation as of a lull in the battle.

06 January 2019

The Hospitality Girls of Fuling

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 5-6:
For many of the students, especially the freshmen, the college was an exciting place. Campus was just across the Wu River from the main city of Fuling, and few of the students had ever lived near a city that large. The college had movies, competitions, and dances on the weekends. Often there were political rallies and assemblies like the one to welcome the Long Marchers, and the students buzzed with anticipation as they milled around the plaza.

A group of eight women students stood at attention near the gate. They wore white blouses and black skirts, and across their chests were red sashes emblazoned with the name of the college. They were known as Hospitality Girls, and they had been carefully selected from the student body. All of the Hospitality Girls were tall and beautiful, and none of them smiled. They represented the college at official functions, standing in perfect formation, walking gracefully, pouring tea for dignitaries.

That was something else I had heard about Fuling: its women had a reputation for being beautiful. At least that’s what I had been told in my Chinese class in Chengdu. One of my teachers was from Manchuria, a wisp of a woman with high cheekbones who had a gentle, skittish way of speaking. Even in summer she clutched a bottle of tea in both hands as if for warmth. Her name was Teacher Shang, and though she had never been to Fuling she said with conviction that the women there would be beautiful.

“It’s because of the river and the mountains,” she said. “All places with mountains and water have beautiful women.”

And in Chengdu I had met a Fuling native who told me the same thing. “But sometimes the people there have bad tempers,” she warned. “That’s because it’s so hot, and because they have mountains there.” I often heard remarks like this, and they suggested that the Chinese saw their landscapes differently than outsiders did. I looked at the terraced hills and noticed how the people had changed the earth, taming it into dizzying staircases of rice paddies; but the Chinese looked at the people and saw how they had been shaped by the land. During my early days at the college I sometimes thought about this, especially since nearly all of my students had grown up close to the earth, and I wondered how the rugged Sichuan landscape had affected them. And at the same time I wondered what it would do to me in two years.

05 January 2019

Where Religion Preserves Language

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 181-182:
‘Many young Dai can’t read our language and don’t really understand our culture or Buddhism. A lot of Dai people can speak Dai, but they don’t teach it in normal school any more so you have to become a monk to learn how to read and write it,’ said Zhang Wei. As in Tibet, the monasteries have become the only place in Banna where locals can get an education in their native language. But unlike Tibet, and in another sign of the Dai’s success in convincing the CCP of their essential affability, novices in Banna are allowed to participate in the regular school system as well.

‘You can study Dai here in the morning and go to normal school in the afternoon,’ said Zhang Wei. He believed that was behind the recent rise in the number of monks. ‘A lot of young Dai were put off becoming monks because they thought it was a hard life and what they learned wasn’t useful in the outside world,’ he told me. ‘Now it’s not as strict a life as before. When I was a young novice, the teachers would beat you if you disobeyed them. But we’re not allowed to do that any more.’

Less welcome has been the diminishing of Banna’s role as a key centre of Buddhist learning for Dai people across South-east Asia, a result of the devastation wrought on Banna’s monasteries during the Cultural Revolution. Large numbers of monks fled across the frontiers, while villagers buried scriptures and icons in the jungle so the Red Guards couldn’t destroy them. Many of the temples have since been restored, but Wat Pajay’s status as a spiritual university has been superseded by monasteries outside Banna.

‘Before the Cultural Revolution, Thai and Burmese and Lao monks came to Wat Pajay to study. Now, we go to Thailand and other places. It’s a complete change,’ said Zhang Wei. Fluid borders mean Banna’s monks can visit monasteries in Myanmar and Laos unofficially. But the Dai’s position as a model minority makes getting permission to go abroad far easier than it is for Tibetans or Uighurs. Zhang Wei had already spent a year in Yangon, as well as three in Singapore.

Wat Pajay’s links with overseas monasteries are a crucial element of the cultural and religious networks that tie the Dai of different countries to each other. Da Fosi is an irrelevance in that scheme; its imposition on Jinghong just another instance of Dai culture being appropriated by the Han for the purposes of tourism. And, inevitably, pretty Dai women act as the guides there. But out in greater Dailand, in Banna’s villages and across the borders, the Dai are quietly getting on with worshipping their way, while keeping their language and traditions alive.

04 January 2019

Joys of Travel in Tibet

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 132:
From here on, we were in the real Wild West. After Lhatse, there are no more conventional hotels, just shared rooms with dirty, damp beds, concrete floors and no heating. The electricity comes and goes and showers are scarce; in most settlements the only way to wash is with a thermos of hot water. During my time in Ngari, I got to shower just once and grew used to matted hair, a week’s worth of stubble and clothes stained with mud and dust. Smoking furiously in the pit toilets in an effort to disguise their stink became second nature.

Only the food defeated me. China’s cuisines are as diverse as its people and most are superb. Tibet is the exception. Tsampa, thugpa (a noodle soup) and momo (yak-meat dumplings) are the principal national dishes, all accompanied by endless glasses of yak-butter tea. Every morning, Tenzin and the driver Lopa would happily pull out the cloth bags which contained their tsampa, before mixing it with butter tea or water and, sometimes, yak cheese. It was a breakfast I tried just once, and the remorseless meals of momo and thugpa soon began to pall.

I had been spoiled for choice in Lhasa, where there are Nepali places and Tibetan ones that cater to westerners; the finest meal I ate in Tibet was a spicy yak-meat pizza with a yak-cheese base. I was able to vary my diet in Gyantse and Shigatse too, thanks to the restaurants run by migrants from Sichuan. Eating Chinese food induced feelings of guilt, given the way Han culture is encroaching in Tibet, but I blamed Tibetan chefs for their lack of innovation rather than admit my own hypocrisy.

Those meals were a distant memory now. The higher we climbed, the worse the food got. For much of the time, only basic fried rice or thugpa was on offer. Fruit became scarcer and much more expensive. Along with vegetables, it has to be transported down [highway] 219 from Xinjiang, and it is common in Ngari to see Uighurs selling bruised apples from the back of a truck. Even yak meat is hard to find, as the animals are slaughtered only at a certain time of the year and the meat has to last for months.

03 January 2019

Notable British Consuls in Kashgar

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 59:
Kashgar’s consulate was the most remote of Britain’s diplomatic outposts in Asia, a three-week ride on horseback from India. The people who passed through included some of the most remarkable figures from the colonial past. The half-Chinese Sir George Macartney, whose same-named ancestor was Britain’s first ambassador to China in the eighteenth century, served as consul here between 1890 and 1918. Sir Percy Sykes, who effectively ran Persia during the First World War, relieved Macartney briefly in 1915.

Great Game players, both legendary and unsung, were regular visitors. Francis Younghusband stayed a winter. He went on to lead a British invasion of Tibet in 1903–4, only to experience an epiphany on the roof of the world that transformed him from an empire-builder into a soldier-mystic. In 1918, Colonel F. M. Bailey was at the consulate en route to an extraordinary series of adventures in central Asia. They included helping to propagate the revolt among Muslims which resulted in so many Kyrgyz crossing into Xinjiang after the Russian Revolution.

Bailey was such an effective spy that he was recruited by the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, to hunt himself, the British agent who was stirring up the peoples of central Asia against their new communist masters. He was also a noted naturalist, just as Sykes and Eric Shipton, the last British consul in Kashgar, were part-time explorers. In the days of empire, it was possible to serve your country and collect rare butterflies on the Tibetan plateau, conquer unclimbed mountains or cross unmapped deserts.

02 January 2019

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.

01 January 2019

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.