Nianshen Song. Making Borders in Modern East Asia: Tumen River Demarcation, 1881-1919. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 318 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-17395-8.
Reviewed by Enze Han (University of Hong Kong)
Published on H-Diplo (January, 2019)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
Recent international relations scholarship has explored the peculiarities of international relations in East Asia before the imposition of a Euro-centric Westphalian "modern" international system in the mid-nineteenth century as a result of China's military subjugation by the West and Japan. In East Asia Before the West (2010), David Kang analyzed the international system in East Asia before the arrival of the West. He noted that the tributary zongfan system operating between China-based dynasties and their East Asian neighbors helped ensure a long duration of peaceful relations between China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, in striking contrast with the one in Europe, where perpetual warfare defined state-to-state relations for centuries. For Kang, the reason for the long peace among these East Asian states was this internalized understanding of a hierarchical relationship centered on the Confucian world order between China and its tributary states. Within this system, Korea had a special place as the most favored state. Indeed, the relationship between China and Korea before the modern period is critical to explain the logic of the premodern East Asian international system. Changes in Korea's relations with China occurred at a critical juncture when the Sino-centric tributary system came under fundamental threat during the last years of the Qing Dynasty. This is the focus of Nianshen Song's intriguing story of the demarcation of the Sino-Korean borderland at the turn of the twentieth century.
Song's book covers the complex story of Tumen River border demarcation between Qing China and Chosun Korea within the broader context of international structural changes underway in East Asia as a result of the expansion of Tsarist Russia to Manchuria and the rise of Meiji Japan as an imperial force on the East Asian mainland in the late nineteenth century. It provides a detailed temporal analysis of how the borderland area between China and Korea became the target of demarcation, and how the logic of demarcation changed as a result of changes in the bilateral zongfan relationship between the two countries, and because of the involvement of additional actors such as Russia and Japan.
The Manchu court for centuries prohibited migration to and settlement in Manchuria. Especially the Changbai mountain region was deemed the birthplace of the Manchu royal linage, and thus was treated as forbidden to other people. Although an agreement existed between Qing and Chosun that both the Yalu and Tumen Rivers formed the bilateral borderline, where exactly the Tumen River was, was nonetheless not clear. Song's book thus starts with stories of how Qing and Chosun sent joint missions to settle their bilateral border demarcation controversy.
From the very beginning, both governments forbade illegal crossing of the Tumen River borderland area, which remained a wild no-man's-land. However, this area later became the evidence of Terra Nullius, a concept used by Japanese imperialists to justify their territorial expansion into Manchuria. Here Song makes a powerful argument by pointing out that the creation of the seemingly nongoverned status of the region was a deliberate political arrangement by the Qing. That is, the borderland region being a no-man's-land was not because of Qing's lack of political will and ability to control it, but rather the opposite.
The wilderness of the region nonetheless became a destination for poor Korean migrants as a result of flooding and overpopulation in Korea in the mid-nineteenth century. Here Song provides an interesting account of how both Qing and Chosun used the zongfan rhetoric for their own advantage in trying to settle the status of these migrants amid the confusion over the unclear border line. In chapter 2, Song examines the Qing-Chosun border demarcation negotiation through the lens of the history of ideas by focusing on a "dynastic geography" representation of the region from both Chinese and Korean historical geographical works, paying special attention to both rhetoric and mapping technologies used in the demarcation process. One interesting section is the comparison of the simultaneous border demarcation negotiations Qing engaged in with both Russia and French Vietnam. Song points out how the Qing government managed border demarcation with a flexible approach, in that the zongfan hierarchy doctrine was used (with Vietnam) simultaneously and pragmatically with "modern" understandings of an international treaty (with Russia).
The intrigues over the Tumen River borderland became more complex as a result of the Japanese annexation of Korea in the early years of the twentieth century and its subsequent imperial designs on Manchuria. Here Song provides a detailed analysis of Japanese imperial knowledge production regarding Manchuria, as well as the making of the Tumen River borderland of Kando/Jiandao both as a concept and a region. The author provides an account of how the Japanese imperial projects were conceived and propagated by some nationalist/pan-Asianist/colonialist knowledge regime society groups, such as the Black Dragon Society (Kokuryukai). It was these groups that produced numerous research reports that justified the incorporation of the Tumen River borderland into the existing Japanese colony of Korea. Most interestingly, Song analyzes how Japan used international law most effectively to justify its colonial expansion into Korea and Manchuria. For example, in supporting Korean migrants' settlement in the Tumen River borderland, Japanese officials used the justification to protect the Koreans as Japanese subjects to advance a claim on Manchuria. Indeed, Song's coverage of the knowledge production regime in Japan as part and parcel of its empire-making is extremely enlightening.
Treating the Koreans as Japanese subjects and using them to extend its imperial penetration of Manchuria set up the institutional foundation of Japan's colonial expansion. The Japanese consulate in Kando/Jiandao, for example, claimed jurisdiction over the Koreans and confronted the weak Chinese republican government over public security affairs in the region after 1915. Japanese financial agencies and commercial companies likewise facilitated the physical control of land and properties by Koreans as Japanese subjects. All these measures taken by the Japanese to extend their imperial reach to Manchuria using the Koreans as human subjects became a contentious issue with the Qing and later the Chinese republican government.
The Qing Nationality Law of 1909 established Chinese nationality on the jus sanguinis basis. At least part of the rationale for determining citizenship on the basis of descent was that it served the Qing's, as well as later the republican government's, claim over the large number of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the Qing's Nationality Law generated a direct response from countries such as Siam. Given its economic clout because both Chinese business and labor contributed heavily to its modernization projects, the Siamese government under Rama VI Vajiravudh was prompted to issue its own Nationality Act of 1913, which was based on jus soli and recognized anyone born on Siamese territory as a Siamese citizen. This was done so that the Siamese government could take possession of their Chinese subjects. Ironically, a similar logic also compelled the Qing but also later republican governments to try find ways to deal with the Koreans in Manchuria. Because the Chinese Nationality Law has already set the jus sanguinis principle, it means a series of Chinese governments would have to find a naturalization mechanism for the Koreans to become Chinese citizens. To compete with the Japanese infiltration, the republican government set the residency requirement for Chinese citizenship as five years to facilitate the naturalization process. Yet the Japanese government forbade the Koreans to take on Chinese citizenship on the basis that the Koreans had no right to denounce their Japanese nationality. Song's analysis of the competition over the Korean migrants provides a most intriguing angle to look at the relationship between imperial expansion and subjects of empire.
Song's book also provides nuanced descriptions of the positionalities of the Koreans, and different political relations they had with Korea, Japan, and China. He describes on the one hand how many Koreans benefited from Japanese colonial expansion, yet there were also many who took up resistance against Japan in Manchuria. Later, many of these Korean migrants and their descendants would be granted Chinese citizenship and categorized as an ethnic minority group in China. The separation of the geo-body of both Koreas as well as the large number of ethnic Koreans in China were indeed tragedies of Japanese empire-making in East Asia.
To sum up, Song's book is an excellent and extremely informative study on state formation in the borderland between China and Korea. Using extensive archival materials in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, Song weaves together a multilayered narrative about the demarcation of the Tumen River borderland, while situating it within the broader structural transformations of East Asia as a result of imperial competition and nation-state building and consolidation. It is a must-read for people who are interested in Japanese colonialism in Manchuria as well as the transition of Qing China from an empire of its own to a target of conquest. The book also provides a direct intervention into the historical complexities of contemporary territorial claims over Kando/Jiandao made by some Korean nationalists. Furthermore, its expansive coverage of rich historical materials would certainly benefit international relations scholars seeking to learn more about the intricacies of international system transition in East Asia at the turn of twentieth century. Song also writes beautifully and has a gripping command of how to weave together complex historical materials into a consistent and easy-to-read narrative. I highly recommend this book.
. George W. Skinner, Chinese Society in Thailand an Analytical History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1957).
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