Sinews of Revolution on the Edge of Chinese and North Korean History

Peripheries are everything in the study of China, because they are so dangerous. Whether social peripheries or geographical, those who dwell on the margins — so tangibly aware of the possibilities of flight or of wresting away control from the guardians of order — pose a challenge to hegemonic structures.  When the social and geographical elements combine,  creating revolutionaries, powers residing in urban metropoles such as Beijing or Nanjing intensify that process of control governed by fear that is by now so familiar.

What prompts these thoughts? For the past week or so, I’ve been piecing through a text which I had picked up a few years back from a little used book shop in Yanji, near the North Korean border, on the subject of revolution in Yanbian, the extreme eastern edge of Manchuria, the ethnic-Korean region of China on the border with what is today the DPRK, or North Korea:

中共延边州委党史工作委员会,中共延边州委党史研究所 编,延边历史事件党史人物录 (新民主主义革命时期),[吉林省内部资料] (延吉:中共延边州委机关,1988), otherwise known as Catalog of Personalities and Events in the Party History of Yanbian, published in Yanji [I think] in 1988 by the local CCP Committee on Historical Research for “internal circulation only”.

We have spent virtually all of our lives in the backwash of the two great revolutions that sprang out of this region — the North Korean and the Chinese.  It now seems to be taken for granted by Sinologists and Koreanists trained in the West that the weight of the propaganda that has emerged since 1945 obscures rather than highlights the sacrifices made at the time, the genuine acts of nationalistic heroism undertaken by Koreans and Chinese and Chinese-Koreans to overthrow both Guomindang-linked warlordism and Japanese imperalism.  Call it the Sea of Blood effect.  We know how heavily North Korea in particular leans on these stories.  And why not resist the state-sponsored narratives, representing as they do the acrid stench of steel being welded into unnatural shapes, the rise of the monuments across Northeast Asia like cankers, the repetitious lifting of volumes hewn out of totalitarian imagination by committee in rooms choking with carbon wherein the leaders exercise not so much influence as levitate like executioners outside? Banquo has a mighty arm.  The amount of analysis levied at Kim Jong Il’s attempts to recapture the heroism of the anti-Japanese fighters overmultiplies attempts to capture the original acts of violence and intellectual bravery or audacity which brought Kim Jong Il (and his first post-colonial generation) into being in the first place.

But the narratives of resistance in the Sino-Korean borderlands in that earlier era are still worth delving into, and they demand our attention. This work is to be done by scholars who, like artists who hop around in dead factories, dwell at the junctures of creative destructions. Both the historian and the urban spelunker from their gargoyle perches on the peripheries, above the pedestrian status quo of master narratives or factual inevitability, suggest a new future.

Allow me then, to suggest this: North Korean history is about more than Kim Il Song and his offspring.  Kim’s acceptance and his life was made possible by an entire matrix of interactions and global occurences, which included revolutionary movements in what is today Yanbian, what then was known as Jiandao (间道).  The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the final massive phase of the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) in Manchuria was made possible not simply by superior strategy by Lin Biao and Mao Zedong, and that victory was far from inevitable.

To arrive, then, at the individual narratives that sparked this short moment of reflection: Two biographies.

Han Leran [韩乐然], 1898-1947

Han was born in 1898 (the same year as Zhou Enlai) in Longjing, a small city near the Korean-Russian frontier in the extreme eastern edge of Manchuria.  In 1919, Longjing underwent the so-called “March 13 incident,” the violent suppression of an anti-Japanese demonstration by Japanese police.  As a young man, Han Leran experienced the incident as a kind of crisis, witnessing how in the aftermath of the March 1 1919 demonstrations in nearby Korea — a rather exciting statement of peaceful and democratic rebellion against the Japanese occupiers — ended in bloodshed, with demonstrations being broken up by Japanese police with guns, killing 14 people in Longjing.

Han quickly left for the maritime provinces of the Soviet Union, which were far closer than the vermillion roofs of Beijing, but by no means solidly Bolshevik in 1920. After less than a year in Russia, Han hopped a steamer in Vladivostok and went to Shanghai in that fertile year of 1920. It took him three years to become accustomed to the giant city (outstripping pre-Manchukuo Changchun, the nearest big city to his hometown, exponentially) before he joined the young Chinese Communist Party.  His Manchurian roots and artistic interests made him useful to the Party, and he was sent to Shenyang, Liaoning, in 1924, and after a year, on north to Harbin, where he continued to study art  [pp. 43-45].

In 1929, he went with Party support to Europe.  For two years he knocked around in southern France (mainly Lyon and Nice) before getting accepted in 1931 to an art institute in Paris (巴黎艺术学院).  For the next six years, he worked and exhibited in Paris and traveled around Europe, reading the French press about the “Manchurian Incident” and the futile attempts at the League of Nations in Geneva to extract Japanese troops from northeast China via diplomacy.

In 1937, with the outbreak of all-out war in China, Han returned to China, but not before doing some work for Paris Soir to propagandize the Chinese war effort.  (It is rather interesting to consider how those inveterate readers of the Parisian press, Jean-Paul Sartre [obviously not the only reader of said press, but an important one, with an editor’s impulse] and Simone de Beauvoir regarded Han’s work, if they saw it at all.  Nevertheless the very notion of a coincidence of a meeting of minds like this can come full circle with Sartre and de Beauvoir’s trip to Manchuria in 1955, when Sidney Rittenberg said they were “taken with how China had made {them} think more about life and less about death.”)  Finished forever with France, Han sped back to the Chinese front.

He arrived in the wartime center of Wuhan, where he plunged into work with a group of artists with roots in the northeast of China, focusing their artistic fury on the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and attempting to inspire Chinese audiences with tales of the resistance movement there.  In this period, particularly following the fall of Nanking, Wuhan was a temporary capital, and was crawling with foreign reporters, many of whom Han met, certainly charming them with the type of linguistic pastiche he had surely developed after his time in eastern Russia and more than half-decade in Europe.  Among his acquaintances was Edgar Snow.

In 1938, Han came to the attention of Zhou Enlai, who recommended that he move to Yanan.  As Wuhan was in danger of falling to the Japanese, Han followed through, spending the summer of 1938 in the remote Communist HQ.  However, within a few months, he was back in the intellectual and international hothouse of Chongqing, in spite of the fact that Yanan was rather safe from Japanese air raids and Chongqing was being bombed with rather savage regularity.

In 1940, for reasons that are not entirely clear — perhaps a response to the New Fourth Army Incident? — Han was arrested by Guomindang police and jailed for two years.  In 1943, he moved through Xi’an and Lanzhou, farther from the front.  After the war, he moved even further west, to the remote province of Xinjiang, where, physcially unphased by the outbreak of the Chinese civil war,  he went on a spurt of creative productivity (the subject of cultural production in its relation to the war being a rather unresearched terrain).  In April 1946, he went to Turpan [吐鲁番市] in Xinjiang, where in the space of a few short months he did more than 50 oil paintings and took more than 500 photographs to exhibit.  In October of that year, he turned up in Lanzhou to exhibit his new works and connect with the left-wing Guomindang general Zhang Zhizhong [张治中, who had led the defense of Shanghai and later went over to the CCP] to to “united front work,” a unified Nationalist-Communist government still being a nominal, if doomed, dream in that year of Chinese intellectuals.  Han set up the Northwest Arts Museum [西北艺术馆,今天大西北艺术馆 ], and was on his way to becoming a key part of postwar national cultural revival in Xinjiang.  His background of foreign study, early ties to the Chinese Communist Party, and active postwar activities bode well for a place in the burgeoning cultural hierarchy of the world after 1949, but Han never made it back to Beijing, much less Paris: less than thirty years after leaving his hometown, the ethnic Korean artist died in a plane crash in Xinjiang in April 1947.

Codetta: This past August 2011, local governments broke through and found Han’s example worthy of patriotic education, setting aside a hefty sum (2680万, seemingly a standard sum from the central government for civic projects) for a park in his name.  A small (65 sq. meters) museum space is underway to honor him in Longjing, for which local historians went to 20 archives around China.

Zhou Dengzheng [周东郊], 1907-1978 — fuller bio TBA, but this involves the set up of the first CCP Eastern Manchuria committee, work under cover of teaching Chinese to Koreans on the border, an arrest in Dalian that leads to eight years in a Xinjiang prison, propaganda work for the Nationalists in Xinjiang for four years after 1945, a peaceable transfer by the CCP to the Bank of Beijing in 1949, a 1956 revelation of his “history problem,” and an old man teaching middle school during the Cultural Revolution.

Related Reading

Adam Cathcart, “Reading Kim Il Song’s Memoirs,” Parts One and Two, Sinologistical Violoncellist, August 6 and 20, 2010.

Adam Cathcart, “Nationalism and Ethnic Identity in the Sino-Korean Border Region of Yanbian, 1945-1950,”  Korean Studies, vol. 34 (2010): 25-53.

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