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.
In addition, economic pressures have made it prone to internal unrest, with worker protests common and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots that is threatening to become a chasm. Redressing this imbalance is tourism, a good portion of it domestic, which 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.
Furthest south of the Dongbei provinces, Liaoning boasts the busy port of Dalian; the provincial capital Shenyang, home to China’s “other” Forbidden City; and Dandong, which sits right on the North Korean border. Moving north is Jilin province, whose capital Changchun sports the Puppet Emperor’s Palace, home to Puyi during his reign as “emperor” of the Japanese state Manchukuo. Lastly, and hogging most of China’s border with Russia, is Heilongjiang: the province’s capital and major city, Harbin, is a thoroughly likeable place, and world-renowned for its amazing Ice Festival.
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 Wu Sangui, a Ming general who surrendered to the Manchus because the warlord Li Zicheng (whose assault on Beijing had driven the last Ming emperor to suicide) had captured his concubine.
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; alarmed by Japan’s victory and the quantity of Chinese territory it had taken, European nations forced the Japanese to hand Liaodong back to China. China then turned 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. Japan’s 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. Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II finally drew a line under all of this, 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 full control of the northeast.
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 buying up consumer goods to take over the border.
After forcing minority communities to embrace official communist culture during the 1950s and 60s, the Chinese government now takes a more enlightened – if somewhat patronizing – approach to the nations of the north. The Manchu people, spread across Inner Mongolia and Dongbei, are the most numerous and assimilated. Having lived so long among the Han, they are now almost identical, though Manchus tend to be slightly taller, and Manchu men have more facial hair. Manchus are noted for an elaborate system of etiquette and will never eat dog, unlike their Korean neighbours, who love it. The “three strange things” that the southern Chinese say are found in the northeast are all Manchu idiosyncrasies: paper windows pasted outside their wooden frame, babies carried by their mothers in handbags and women smoking in public (the latter, of course, can be a habit of Han and every other ethnicity in large cities).
In the inhospitable northern margins of Dongbei live communities such as the Hezhen, one of the smallest minority nations in China with an estimated 1400 members. Inhabiting the region where the Songhua, Heilong and Wusuli (Ussuri) rivers converge, they’re known to the Han Chinese as the “Fish Tribe”, and their culture and livelihood centre around fishing. Indeed, they’re the only people in the world to make clothes out of fish skin: the fish is gutted, descaled, then dried and tanned and the skins sewn together to make light, waterproof coats, shoes and gloves. More numerous are the Daur, 120,000 of whom live along the Nenjiang River. They are fairly seamlessly assimilated these days, but still retain distinctive marriage and funerary traditions, and have a reputation for being superb at hockey, a form of which they have played since the sixth century.
However, perhaps the most distinctive minority are the Oroqen, a tribe of nomadic hunters living in patrilineal clan communes called wulileng in the northern sub-Siberian wilderness. Although they have recently adopted a more settled existence, their main livelihood still comes from deer-hunting, while household items, tools and canoes are made from birch bark by Oroqen women. Clothes are fashioned from deer hide, and include a striking hat made of a roe deer head, complete with antlers and leather patches for eyes, which is used as a disguise in hunting.
Top image: Tianchi Lake © WaitForLight/Shutterstock