Hyun Ok Park’s History of the Cultural Revolution in Yanbian

This review was originally published at SinoNK.com, as part of a roundtable including contributions from Andre Schmid (University of Toronto) and Robert Winstanley-Chesters (Australian National University). 

Paradoxically, scholarship that attempts to explode the frame of the nation-state can be most useful for scholars concerned precisely with what occurs within state boundaries. In the case of The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea, the ardent drive to reframe the nation results in an exquisitely useful chapter for scholars concerned with the history of ethnic Koreans, or Chosonjok, in eastern Jilin province, whose intellectual forays into neighboring North Korea tend to be fleeting.

Scholarly writings about the experiences of “minority nationalities” during the Cultural Revolution on the frontiers of the PRCs are still relatively few, although growing. Among the best entrants are Kerry Brown’s The Purge of the Inner Mongolian People’s Party, 1967-69 (which originated as a PhD dissertation at Leeds University), and Melvyn Goldstein’s galvanizing 2009 book on Nyemo, a Tibetan county taken over by a charismatic spiritual medium woman, and where the intersection between ethnic nationalism, traditional religion, and Maoism became extraordinarily violent in 1969.

When it comes to viewpoints on the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture during the Cultural Revolution, few works have shed much light; or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that light has been shed from a small number of works which have been rendered dim by virtue of their isolation. An early fieldwork report, “The Effects of the Cultural Revolution on the Korean Minority in Yenpien,” was Setsure Tsurushima’s useful effort to unpack his 1976 fieldwork to the region, but was more geared toward travelogue and institutional history than unpacking the full brunt of how the Cultural Revolution had fallen upon interpersonal relations in the region, much less a cataloging of cadre who had been struggled against. A more recent addition in Korean Studies, published in 2010, “Nationalism and Ethnic Identity in the Sino-Korean Border Region of Yanbian, 1945–1950,” looked forward to the Cultural Revolution via a biographical template of Chu Dok-hae. Dr. Park’s chapter easily surpasses these works, resulting in the most in-depth treatment of the Cultural Revolution in Yanbian yet to appear in English, describing the impact that the Maoist revolution had on Korean minorities in China and in the subsequent diaspora.

The formation of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in 1952 is often marked as a defining moment in the Chosonjok as a minzu, or nationality, within the boundaries of the PRC. But, as Park shows, the back story and the tensions within it are more interesting. The designation of Koreans as a “model minority” in China went beyond levels of education; there were revolutionary behaviors and struggles against Japan dating back to the colonial era. As in her previous work, Park is impatient with dominant narratives, and thus moves beyond the historiographically monolithic themes of anti-Japanese guerrilla resistance and the Korean War.

Park focuses on Chu Dok-hae, the secretary of the Party and arguably the most prominent political Chosunjok since 1949. Chu had been at Yenan in the 1930s, was a friend of Zhou Enlai and did much to help the CCP consolidate eastern Jilin province in the late 1940s. He also was a pivotal link for the Central Committee with the Northeast — along with the controversial Gao Gang (the Chinese equivalent of Pak Han-yong, whose purge in Pyongyang preceded Gao’s by a year). From a newly-socialist Yanbian, Chu supported the war effort in Korea, providing Korean interpreters for the Chinese People’s Volunteers in the battlefield and also creating linkages with North Korean institutions like Kim Il Sung University.

A large new permanent museum exhibition for Chu, on the top floor of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region History Museum, mirrors the official histories in Yanbian by emphasizing Chu’s work in the 1940s and 1950s, and leaving his Cultural Revolution trauma out of the frame entirely, since, presumably, everyone local knows what happened anyway, and the notion that foreign visitors need not be bothered with scars caused by the Chinese Communist Party.

To borrow a phrase from Park’s title, there is nothing particularly “unconscious” about the way that Chu Dok-hae was destroyed; the Party which he had helped to build tore him apart. Chu was accused of ethnic nationalism, and finally lost his ability to shape events or soften punishments for Chosunjok accused by Han cadre or Red Guards of having been collaborators with the imperial Japanese or the Kuomintang. Park describes these fissures, but, like Melvyn Goldstein, does not seem interested in recreating binary treatment of ethnic victimization. Indeed, the Cultural Revolution served as a screen for their fellow ethnic Koreans to attack one another, often for colonial-era slights, a point brought out skillfully by Park in her interviews. (pp. 147-149)

Along the way, Park reveals how memories of the Cultural Revolution are lingering (often unconsciously) in South Korea, and discusses the difficulties encountered by ethnic Koreans during the collectivization leading to the Great Leap Forward. She also draws from a large number of official histories and biographies published in the mid-1980s in Yanji or Changchun, a time of relatively greater academic openness. (Fortunately for Sinologists who are not fluent in Korean, most of these materials are also available in Chinese). Some of the newest writing about Chu Dok-hae published in the northeast is not referenced, but this is to be expected in a book of this size and scope. Perhaps the Chinese state representatives will at some point make the full run of Yanbian archives available, or open a few more doors in their extraordinary museum. In the meantime, we all have more reading and re-reading to do, not least of this extraordinary chapter.

Image: Mural painting of Chu Dok-hae in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture History Museum, 2014. Photo by Adam Cathcart. 

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