Dongbei (东北, dōngběi) – or, more evocatively, Manchuria – may well be the closest thing to the “real” China that visitors vainly seek in the well-travelled central and southern parts of the country. Not many foreign tourists get up to China’s northernmost arm, however, due to its reputation as an inhospitable wasteland: “Although it is uncertain where God created paradise”, wrote a French priest when he was here in 1846, “we can be sure he chose some other place than this.” Yet, with its immense swaths of fertile fields and huge mineral resources, Dongbei is metaphorically a treasure house. Comprising Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, it is economically and politically among the most important regions of China, and, for much of its history, the areas has been fiercely contested by Manchus, Nationalists, Russians, Japanese and Communists.
With 4000km of sensitive border territory alongside North Korea and Russia, Dongbei is one of China’s most vulnerable regions strategically; as well, economic pressures have made it prone to internal unrest, with worker protests common and a widening gap between haves and have-nots that is threatening to become a chasm. In the heady days of a planned economy, Dongbei’s state-owned enterprises produced more than a third of the country’s heavy machinery, half its coal and oil and most of its automobiles and military equipment. Since market reforms, however, lay-offs have been brutal, with unofficial statistics suggesting fifty percent unemployment in some areas.
Tourism – what there is of it (a good portion of it is domestic) – has become the leading growth industry. The region is cashing in on its colourful history, seen most vividly in the preservation of long-ignored Russian and Japanese colonial architecture, some of which you can actually stay in. In Liaoning, the thriving port of Dalian sports cleaned-up beaches, a cliffside drive, and restored Russian and Japanese neighbourhoods. Dandong, the country’s window on North Korea, features a promenade on the Yalu River and a fascinating Korean War museum. China’s other Forbidden City – the restored Manchu Imperial Palace – and the tombs of the men who established the Qing dynasty draw tourists to Liaoning’s otherwise bland capital, Shenyang. To the north in Jilin province, Jilin city is famed for the ice-coated trees that line its riverfront in winter, and ski resorts dot the outskirts of town. In the provincial capital, Changchun, the Puppet Emperor’s Palace memorializes Puyi’s reign as “emperor” of the Japanese state Manchukuo. Evidence of Heilongjiang province’s border with Russia can be seen throughout its capital, Harbin: a restored central shopping district preserves the city’s old architecture, while a museum set in an Orthodox cathedral ensures China’s northernmost metropolis is known for more reasons than its world-famous Ice Festival. Beyond Harbin, Dongbei’s northeast is little visited by Western tourists, with the main draw being the Zhalong Nature Reserve, near Qiqihar. If you’re journeying any further, it’s likely you’ll be on the Trans-Manchurian train and on your way to Russia, via Hailar and Manzhouli, both in Inner Mongolia ( for more on sights there).
Visitors to these parts tend to come for quite specific reasons. Dongbei’s geography, a terrain of fertile plains, rugged mountains and forests, is itself an attraction, and hikers and birdwatchers will both find places to indulge their passions. Although long derided by Han Chinese as “the land beyond the pale”, the region “outside” the Great Wall is home to several protected reserves, most famously the mountainous Changbai Shan Nature Reserve in Jilin province near the Korean border, where a huge lake, Tian Chi, nestles in jaw-dropping scenery. Zhalong Nature Reserve, in Heilongjiang, is a summer breeding ground for thousands of species of birds, including the rare red-crowned crane. Some visitors call in for study purposes, too. Foreign students find an environment free of thick accents – perfect for practising Chinese – and scholars of recent Chinese history couldn’t choose a better place to explore: Dongbei’s past one hundred years of domestic and international conflicts have heavily influenced the shape of the PRC today. Those interested in the Russo-Japanese War can follow the route of the Japanese advance from Port Arthur (now Lushun, near Dalian) to Mukden (today’s Shenyang); check out The Asian Writings of Jack London, which contains the columns he wrote on assignment for the San Francisco Examiner, and Thirty Years in Moukden by Scottish missionary Dugald Christie. Puyi’s autobiography, From Emperor to Citizen, lends insight to Manchukuo, and Ha Jin’s Ocean of Words shows what life was like patrolling the Heilongjiang–Siberian border in the tense 1970s.
Dongbei’s climate is one of extremes: in summer, it is hot, and in winter it is very, very cold, with temperatures as low as ?30°C and howling Siberian gales. But there is skiing, sledding and skating all winter, plus January ice festivals in Jilin and Harbin.
Thanks to Dongbei’s export-based economy, there’s an efficient rail system between the cities and an extensive highway network. The region’s food is heavily influenced by neighbouring countries, and every town has a cluster of Korean, Japanese and, up north, Russian restaurants. The specialities are also quite diverse, ranging from fresh crabs in Dalian and luzi yu river fish in Dandong to silkworms in the countryside (a mushy, pasty-tasting local delicacy).
The history of Manchuria proper begins with Nurhaci, a tribal leader who in the sixteenth century united the warring tribes of the northeast against the corrupt central rule of Ming-dynasty Liaoning. He introduced an alphabet based on the Mongol script, administered Manchu law and, by 1625, had created a firm and relatively autonomous government that was in constant confrontation with the Chinese. Subsequently, Dorgun was able to go a stage further, marching on Beijing with the help of the defeated Ming general Wu Sangui. In 1644, the Qing dynasty was proclaimed, and one of Nurhaci’s grandsons, Shunzhi, became the first of a long line of Manchu emperors, with his uncle Dorgun as regent.
Keen to establish the Qing over the whole of China, the first Manchu emperors – Shunzhi, Kangxi and Qianlong – did their best to assimilate Chinese customs and ideas. They were, however, even more determined to protect their homeland, and so the whole of the northeast was closed to the rest of China. This way they could guard their monopoly on the valuable ginseng trade and keep the agricultural Han Chinese from ploughing up their land, a practice that often resulted in the desecration of the graves of the Manchus’ ancestors. But isolationism was a policy that could not last forever, and the eighteenth century saw increasing migration into Manchuria. By 1878, these laws had been rescinded, and the Chinese were moving into the region by the million, escaping the flood-ravaged plains of the south for the fertile northeast.
All this time, Manchuria was much coveted by its neighbours. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894 left the Japanese occupying the Liaodong Peninsula in the south of Liaoning province, and the only way the Chinese could regain it was by turning to Russia, also hungry for influence in the area. The deal was that the Russians be allowed to build a rail line linking Vladivostok to the main body of Russia, an arrangement that in fact led to a gradual and, eventually, complete occupation of Manchuria by the imperial Russian armies. This was a bloody affair, marked by atrocities and brutal reprisals, and was followed in 1904 by a Japanese declaration of war in an attempt to usurp the Russians’ privileges for themselves.
The Russo-Japanese War concluded in 1905 with a convincing Japanese victory, though Japan’s designs on Manchuria didn’t end there. The Japanese population doubled between 1872 and 1925, creating the perceived need to expand its territories; this, coupled with a disastrous economic situation at home and an extreme militaristic regime, led to their invasion of the region in 1932, establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo. This regime was characterized by horrific and violent oppression – not least the secret germ-warfare research centre in Pingfang, where experiments were conducted on live human subjects. Rice was reserved for the Japanese, and it was a crime for the locals to eat it. It was only with the establishment of a united front between the Communists and the Guomindang that Manchuria was finally rid of the Japanese, in 1945, although it was some time (and in spite of a vicious campaign backed by both Russia and the USA against the Communists) before Mao finally took control of the region.
Relations with Russia dominate recent history. In the brief romance between the two countries in the 1950s, Soviet experts helped the Chinese build efficient, well-designed factories and workshops in exchange for the region’s agricultural products. These factories laid the foundation for China’s automobile industry: the First Automobile Works (FAW) in Changchun, for example, began production then, and now has a joint venture with VW and Audi. In the 1960s, relations worsened, the Soviets withdrew their technical support and bitter border disputes erupted, notably around the Wusuli (Ussuri) River, where hundreds of Russian and Chinese troops died fighting over an insignificant island in the world’s first military confrontation between communist states. An extensive network of nuclear shelters was constructed in northeastern cities. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, military build-ups around the border areas and state paranoia have lessened, and the shelters have been turned into underground shopping malls. Russian faces can again be seen on the streets, often traders, legal and otherwise, buying up consumer goods to take over the border now that Russia’s own manufacturing industry has almost collapsed.