Borderlands in Asia and Beyond: Readings

Moving toward a text dealing with the Chinese-Korean border region, I have been catching up on my borderlands studies literature readings, some of which I aim to share in this post and update from time to time. — Adam Cathcart

C. Patterson Giersch, “Why Kham? Why Borderlands? Coordinating New Research Programs for Asia,” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, E-Journal No. 19 (June 2016), 202-213. 

The literature on China’s border space with Tibet (as opposed to the frontier with India) is caught up in the notion of westward expansion of the Han. Kham (known as Kang/康 in Chinese) has been on the frontlines of this expansion.

In this sense, the Chinese-North Korean border region is rather unlike Kham. Expansion into the region of Yanbian has been both Han Chinese and ethnic Korean, overlaying Manchu political and military dominance in the seventeeth through nineteenth centuries.  More recently, we ought to be mindful that the Chinese-North Korean border region is only formally an “ethnic borderland” in Yanbian and parts of Heilongjiang, and is far less permeated with the imperatives of minzu zhengce, or ethnicities policy, in the Liaoning border space.

“For insiders,” the author explains, “Kham might be understood as a coherent space and a source of belonging, while, for many outsiders, it simply never existed as a single unit but has always been an incoherent hodgepodge of rugged terrain and divided loyalties” (Giersch 2016, 204). Aligning the history of our preferred border with this question, we might label the Sino-Korean border region in the early 20th century as “incoherent”, particularly the time around the Russo-Japanese War, when loyalties were likely highly varied in the regions, not to mention business interests such as Romanov-linked lumber concessions along the Yalu. Coherence arrives, to a large extent, after the Korean War, a period during which the region was contested internationally — recall the debate over whether or not the Yalu consisted of a boundary to a “Manchurian sanctuary” and MacArthur’s explicit desire to bomb beyond that frontier. Today, the region is contested neither formally nor informally at the bilateral level between China and the DPRK, the territorial issues having been settled in the early 1960, but the international contestation of the border region comes from the United Nations, a body which is largely powerless today to examine, much less exploit, the space between the two countries for reasons of sanctions enforcement.

For scholars of borderland studies more generally, one of the more interesting aspects of this essay is its critique of “newly reified concepts such as Zomia.” These were to have moved away from state-based modes of analysis but which have, in the author’s view “saddled [the inhabitants of this conceptual region] with ‘immobile aggregates of traits'” (Giersch 2016, 203). This caution is particularly apropos when trying to decide whether or not to apply the term “borderlanders” to Chinese or North Koreans operating on either side of the frontier, a label which Brantley Womack suggests has its uses and analytical imperatives.

Finally, Giersch encouragingly endorses an “extremely open-ended approach” to studying Kham, in order to allow more scholars and readers with different disciplinary fluencies into the topic (Giersch 2016, 204). Working with political scientists, anthropologists, and others on the Chinese-Korean border region, it is hard to disagree with the merits here.   

Photo credit: Franc Pallarès in Kham. 

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