[REVIEW] “The Buried Past Revealed: Reading π‘€π‘Žπ‘›π‘β„Žπ‘’π‘˜π‘’π‘œ π‘ƒπ‘’π‘Ÿπ‘ π‘π‘’π‘π‘‘π‘–π‘£π‘’π‘ β€ by Yu MΓΌller

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Annika A. Culver and Norman Smith (editors), Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approach to Literary Production, Hong Kong University Press, 2020.

Miserable human mouths are born on each ink drop. The paper gets crowded with such mouths.
β€”Yi Sang, September-October 1935.

Three years before Yi Sang wrote this sentence, the Japanese government recognised β€œManchukuo” (Man Zhou Guo in Chinese; ManshΕ«koku in Japanese) as an independent state, covering an area corresponding to the three northeast provinces in the present-day People’s Republic of China. Under Japanese domination, it was decreed that five officially recognised races would live and thrive in harmony (Minzoku kyō wa in Japanese). Thus began a tentative utopia, one which would in time have a profound effect on people’s lives.

Manchukuo’s existence (1932-1945) was referred to in the People’s Republic of China’s official narrative as the β€œBogus Manchukuo” period. Thus, for a long time, its literature was buried, and oral history that might have otherwise been passed down within families was even constrained out of a fear of being associated with Bogus Manchukuo. Fortunately, writers from various backgrounds continued to write both in Manchukuo itself or in exile, and after several decades, the truth about the promised utopia has attracted numerous scholars, in addition to those Manchurian writers themselves.

Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approaches to Literary Production, edited by Annika A. Culver and Norman Smith, is a product of such scholarship and delves into Manchurian literary and media history to unroll this buried scroll, bringing the β€œcultural and linguistic borderland” to the surface, and showing how people who lived through Manchurian times felt about this β€œpseudo-utopian space”. The book provides readers with comprehensive insights from scholars’ research on Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Korean and Manchurian writers and creators, casting new light on β€œeach ink drop” from β€œthe miserable human” of the period.

I imagine many people whose grandparents or relatives lived in Manchuria have similar intentions to the authors of this book when it comes to approaching the Manchurian past in the printed word. Reading Manchukuo Perspectives certainly brought me a lot closer to a small part of my own possible family history. Scholars have talked much about the ordeals faced by Chinese, Manchurian, Korean proletarians, as well as Soviet diaspora writers in the period after 1945. Many encountered persecutions in China and North Korea; others were sent to labour camps in the Soviet Union. This decolonisation brought to an end a flourishing literary period in Manchukuo. What’s worse, the possibilities of oral history have been reduced to β€œthe grand aunt who could still speak Japanese”—to take an example from my own family’s experience. Manchukuo Perspectives provides a long reading list of writers, both renowned and unknown from the Manchukuo period, and offers a glimpse of a vivid world and of ordinary life in those extraordinary times.

When a White-washed / Painted Future Meets Reality

National fairy tales were thus born, leading to the genre’s post-1937 flourishing.
β€”Chen Shi

While building Manchuria as a new nation with a new capital, Hsinking (today Changchun), the Japanese government poured many resources into newspapers and other print forms to promote its propaganda. However, numerous poems and short stories showed a still-nascent ideology, where the rigid racial hierarchies imposed by the Japanese were replaced by a promised equality. The first part of Manchukuo Perspectives charts both the mainstream narrative of the new Manchuria in print as well as resistance literature, which emerged before or after the Japanese government imposed severe censorship on publications.

When it comes to buried pasts, we tend to consider them collectively as a whole, ignoring personal choices. Scholars in the first part of the book show us writers’ personal preferences in terms of whether to embrace or resist the new promised ideology, and retain the pain in the agrarian (xiāng tΗ”) literature of a reminiscent bygone homeland.

Chinese proletarian writer such as Yuan Xi β€œnot only wrote resistance literature but also engaged in resistance activities involving bombings and burning a Japanese military wool factory”. In addition to revisiting Xiao Hong’s famous work, I read Yuan Xi’s short stories, which, as the book says, portrayed a cruel and lawless reality in Manchukuo, where working class people witness violence on a daily basis, much of which is documented in Yuan Xi’s work.

Borderless Writers, Hybrid Words

We must be forever linguistic adventurers.
β€”Gu Ding

The second part of the book examines the choices of various writers and provides some in-depth cases studies. They are from different social classes and backgrounds, and their works are essential to obtaining a fuller spectrum of Manchurian literary scene.

As a writer and translator, Gu Ding has expressed a love for his native Han language and also shone a light on the emerging β€œadventure of language”—the vernacular. Many writers from Manchuria, even those in exile such as Xiao Hong, retained a certain vernacular in their writings. These writers also recorded their love for their native land, the bitter memories of colonial rule as well as individual gestures of resistanceβ€”either in self-exile or in violent acts of resistance.

In contrast to proletarian writers, Mei Niang in her early writing portrayed the life of the bourgeoisie. Born into a wealthy family, Mei Niang was educated both in Hsinking and Osaka, and later established herself while still young in Japanese-occupied Beijing’s literary scene. She translated from Japanese to Chinese and her writing had a certain Japanese aspect. Mei Niang would later suffer persecution at the hands of the Communist Party, after deciding to stay in Beijing when her husband drowned trying to flee to Taiwan, which led to her not writing for decades.

Of all the authors, I enjoy Mei Niang and Yuan Xi’s work the most. Each imbues their writing with a keen sensitivity and records lives mired in misery from very different perspectives and social classes.

Émigré Life Behind the Façade of Harmony

It is quite a revelation to discover that the place you wanted to escape to is the exact same place you escaped from.
β€”Matt Haig

Russian, Japanese and Korean writers in Manchukuo are discussed in the third part of Manchukuo Perspectives. All three groups of Γ©migrΓ©s had particular ordeals in Manchukuo.

According to Olga Bakich, Russian Γ©migrΓ©s experienced a total disappointment while resettling in the new landβ€”Manchukuo. β€œInitially, many Γ©migrΓ©s welcomed Japanese occupation in naΓ―ve hopes of gaining Japanese support in their struggle against Soviet Russia and getting Japanese protection against Chinese authorities, who incurred Russian resentment for their recovery of sovereignty and diminishment of Russian power in Northeast China.” But soon they realised that β€œdespite having escaped their homeland’s totalitarian regime, they found themselves living under yet another such regime, but a foreign one”. Under these circumstances, many Russians turn to poetry to reminisce, to chant about their β€œRussia, Russia, my golden homeland” and β€œThis dear yellow sea is / Golden and hungry China” (Valerii Pereleshin).

However, Korean Γ©migrΓ©s were more repressed than the Russians. Writers active in the Manchukuo period all experienced the repression of not being allowed to write in their native language, only few managed to bypass the Japanese censorship. Don Mee Choi writes about the prominent poet Yi Sang’s stories and poems written in Korean: β€œBut writing and publishing in Korean was even more of a radical thing. Writing and publishing in Korean signalled a political opposition, a literary resistance to the Japanese colonial rule.” Other Korean writers from the early Manchukuo period made their literary work a place that could carry the unbearable weight and pain for them in their native language. Conflicts between Chinese farmers and Korean immigrants are a frequent topic, and the struggles in an often hard environment are evident in the writing.

Japanese writers were different to their Russian and Korean counterparts. Living among the locals offered them the opportunity to witness situations that their colleagues and friends faced in work as well as in their personal lives from a more privileged position. One short story depicts a Japanese worker’s dilemma as to whether to help his Chinese colleague get a job transfer to Beijing, given the worsening situation in Manchukuo. Understanding the unfairness prevailing in Manchukuo businesses, the Japanese worker eventually decides to help the colleague, but he finds himself torn between his privileged as a Japanese and his personal beliefs in this unequal putative utopia.

In addition to Manchukuo Perspectives, I read the complete collection of Bogus Manchukuo Literacy Materials Compilation and Research Collection published recently with generous Chinese government funding. Various scholars shed light on the broad spectrum of the Manchurian literary scene, giving us a precious opportunity to know this hidden past. Reading numerous stories produced by writers of various descent makes it easier to understand the lives of people during the Manchuria period. Almost a century on, some of the thoughts and observations of writers back then remain pertinent, and race is still one of the most debated topics of our day, and the record of how different peoples live during war in occupied territories is one that continues to be kept.

How to cite:Β MΓΌller, Yu. β€œ”The Buried Past Revealed: Reading Manchukuo Perspectives”.Β Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 16 Apr. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/04/16/manchukuo-perspectives/.


Yu MΓΌller is an interpreter and translator. Occasionally she trains machines to replace herself but, more regularly, she is an irreplaceable Mandarin Chinese teacher. Her poems are seen in Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, Just a Coin’s Worth of Blue, and her literary translations includes Li Qing Zhao: Spring Hides in the Little Room. She has lived in furnaces across China, Middle East, and is currently chilling in Germany. Visit her website for more information.

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