China, Great Wall, and Korea
By Bernard Rowan
Benedict Anderson, in the important work on nationalism entitled “Imagined Communities,” discusses the use of media and other symbols and technologies to create nationalism in the 19th century.
Just as we know the Great Wall’s “new segments” are a particular extension of China’s nationalist project, other nations have used similar constructions supported by institutional power to create or reflect their imagination of a unified people across a more complex space.
The United States with its “melting pot” neo-conservatism as a representation of “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one) is another example. In the case of China, the Northeast Project is an explicit strategy of the Chinese government and its academic apparatchiks to rationalize the unity of a country that comprises dozens of different peoples.
And the problem is that no amount of fealty to the meta-idea of “zhonghua minzu” (loosely, Chinese nation) can paper over the fact that the current Chinese nation, as a land and as a collective of peoples, comprises the histories of many cultures that are not Chinese.
These histories and the peoples they represent, regardless of their existence in contemporary China, deserve to be treated with integrity and to be preserved, indeed cherished, for the part they play in explaining the evolution of 21st century China as a nation-state.
What actually is a resource for the development of this country is being treated as a matter of defensiveness and suspicion, something to hide and to rationalize away.
The issue of the extended Great Wall is an illustration of imagined community. The Chinese state and its institutions are formulating a grand narrative to provide the basis for a nationalism that can resist centrifugal influences. Note this discussion in Wikipedia:
Professor Suisheng Zhao, University of Denver, using extensive reading of primary sources noted that because "Chinese" or Zhonghua minzu as a conscious national identity (zijue de minzu shiti) only arose in the 19th century, since nationalism in the modern sense only appeared with the emergence of the nation-state system (Westphalian system) in Europe. Although the Chinese empire stretched back two millennia, it was largely a universalistic empire and not a nation-state before the 19th century.
And of course, once the narrative is posited and made normal thinking in China, those who agree with it are “with-China” and those who do not are not. This should sound familiar to students of history, and there are dozens of equivalents that could be adduced.
It really needs to be understood that long ago in what are today called Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces, ancestors of people who now understand themselves to be Koreans and Chinese interacted as Mohe, Buyeo, Koguryeo, Balhae, Qin, Min, etc. During these times, the areas near some of the “newly discovered” sections of wall would not have been understood to be “parts of China”, however we wish to understand China at that time. There were various independent peoples, and at times they controlled sizable parts of China. More generally, they existed side-by-side and interspersed in a less geographically defined and cartographically rule-governed sense than do nations today. This is hardly to say that they did not define boundaries or concern themselves with jurisdictions and areas of control and influence and trade. But the idea that they would freely accept that they were parts of one another would be pure fantasy. The idea, for example, that what Koreans term Bakjak Tower would have been viewed as a Chinese fortification is illogical, even laughable.
There is another angle that must be considered. The Chinese actions in pronouncing the Great Wall’s extension to as far as Tiger Mountain (Longhushan), as upsetting as they may be to others, really bespokes fear, fear of the changes that China faces, in particular fear about the future of Korea and the Korean people, when North Korea changes. So much of Manchuria or Northeast China is Korean. Many Chinese there are ethnic Koreans. Many Koreans there are Chinese nationals. The Great Wall extension claims of China, its imagined community, are a wall and defense against fears of mass exodus or separation. China does not want another Tibet or Xinjiang problem. Unfortunately, it is possible that they will have to face this problem, and it is my opinion that the Great Wall construction only increases that likelihood since it seems to or actually does minimize and disregard the histories of Korean peoples such as Goguryeo.
Furthermore, great sadness exists in the areas of the Tibetan people and the Uighurs, just to name a few. There are peoples who form part of China today who do not wish to be part of China tomorrow in the same way they are today. They wish to determine their own peoples’ destinies to a greater degree; indeed, they wish to be their own semi-autonomous regions or nations. They long for the relations of the past and seek their future analogues. From the perspective of the Chinese government, should ethnic Koreans have the imprimatur to claim that areas of Northeast China and elsewhere were once “Korean” areas, it is a form of encouraging internal division. And the Chinese worry about internal division mightily. It reeks from their websites and nearly any kind of official pronouncement about Tibet or Xinjiang.
Recently, we have heard about the migration of the Han, mainly workers, into the hinterlands. The Han people are looking for prosperity and for opportunity. They are “Chinese” and the people and areas into which they move are “Chinese” but there are conflicts. We can see that the Chinese government and its peoples today must face the reality of geographic mobility, arising from economic inequality, relative expectations, perceived opportunities, and discontent. They must worry, to put it mildly, about how everything will shake out. Forging a common understanding that everyone is Chinese would do much to alleviate social tensions. The problem is that the disaffected are unlikely to accept this construction in any monotonic or moronic way.
By virtue of the technologies of modernity, the current Chinese leadership thinks there needs to be a string or thread of symbolic unity amongst China’s many peoples. So the Northeast Project and the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences have created a symbol of the “reality” needed to rationalize the “Greater Chinese state”, reading into the past a unity and continuity among the divergent streams of peoples, cultures, and political entities for the purpose of centralizing national energies and loyalties and propping it up with a new “Greatest Wall” of China.
The more I think about this debate, the more I fear that it has become the vehicle for reciprocal expressions of crude nationalism, and not just Chinese nationalism. I shared the fact that I would be writing this story with some of my friends. Americans didn’t know anything much about it at all; my Korean friends say that China is wrong; my Chinese friends say that Korea is wrong. Far better would it be to remind ourselves of the thinking of Shin Ji-Ho, whose idea of nationalism allows for other nations and values freedom and mutual understanding more than ringing denunciations and histrionic disputations of history, peoples and cultures. We very much need a spirit of “patriotic globalism” (애국적 세계주의).
To be honest, rather than attempt to rewrite history or construct fake greater and greatest walls in China, the Chinese government would do better to attend to the needs of its many peoples, beginning with basic human rights that entail sustenance, education, and employment opportunities. Its zenith will be reached according to its empirical ability to do so. From this perspective, we who care about Korea should neither be overly impressed nor unduly worried by the Chinese resort to inventions of nationalist technology, the existence of which are ubiquitous, as rationalizations of national anticipated failures to provide equality and freedom the world over, and as propaganda for domestic audiences and local elites. They are the stuff of nations and states everywhere.
A summary of the arguments for and against the inclusion of Korean history in Chinese history is presented at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goguryeo_controversies. That summary ends with a comment that I could not better:
Controversy over Goguryeo history illustrates the rigidity of national history in East Asia. The strong distinction between "self" and "other" drives many scholars to accept only exclusive possession of history and its artifacts. Disputes over such claims are often laden with terms like "stealing." Many scholars focus on pure Chineseness or Koreaness, a perspective that ignores the permeability of ancient borders and the abundant cultural exchange that occurred.
To become a stronger nation of diverse peoples, China must learn to value difference as well as unity. The failure to do so will cost China more than it will ever gain. All concerned global citizens know this, just as we know it from our own failure to follow this admonition. To the people and government of China, do not neglect the complexity for your history and the integrity for your people that the Chaoxianzu (Simplified Chinese: 朝鲜族) or Joseonjok (Korean: 조선족 represent. They must be recognized, and their histories as well. Otherwise, you will cease to really know yourself, from which ignorance will come no good. I personally begin to question the existence of the value of the idea of nations, since so many reify themselves. I pray for a new form of organization that will bind us all together as equal peoples in a shared fate that can fulfill the hopes of those who can understand, but that is another story.
Bernard Rowan is professor and coordinator of political science and international studies at Chicago State University, where he has taught for 18 years. A former fellow of the Korea Foundation, Rowan is an advisor to the Korea Institute of Public Administration and a former visiting professor of the Graduate School of Local Autonomy, Hanyang University.