Reluctant pioneers on China’s northern frontier

Over the Chinese New Year holiday I read James Reardon-Anderson’s Reluctant Pioneers, one of the relatively small number of modern English-language histories of China’s Northeast, aka Manchuria. The Northeast is my favorite part of China, so of course I wanted to read the book, but the history of the Chinese migration into Manchuria is fairly amazing and of more general interest. Thomas Gottschang, another historian who has tackled the subject, summarized why in a 1987 article (JSTOR link):

The migration to Manchuria (Northeast China) from the North China provinces of Hebei and Shandong between 1890 and 1942 was one of the world’s largest population movements in the early 20th century. With an average annual flow of 500,000 people and a total net population transfer of over 8 million, the migration was comparable in size to the westward movement in the United States between 1880 and 1950. It was roughly twice as large as the great 19th-century emigration from Ireland, and its peak years in the late 1920s and early 1940s rivaled the heaviest flow of European immigration to the US in the mid-19th century.

Reardon-Anderson’s book argues that while the Chinese migration north of the Great Wall may have been similar in scale to the migration into the western US, the social and cultural dynamics of this Chinese frontier were utterly different. Many of the characteristics Americans automatically associate with frontier life were missing: socially, a pattern of individual homesteads striking far out on their own, and culturally, a sense that “conquering the frontier” transformed both people and the country for the better. I’ve stitched together some quotes to summarize the argument:

Most Chinese who found themselves, owing to the vicissitudes of life, outside the Great Wall were neither happy nor proud to be there. The movement of migrants and refugees was rarely driven by a quest for fortune or adventure or by a religious, political, or ideological calling. Instead, young men were sent out by their families to earn and return, while the punishment for failure was exile. (p.143)

Chinese crossing the Great Wall moved only as far as they had to. Most settled in the south, where natural conditions, previous acquaintances, and established communities made life seem familiar, comfortable, and promising. The earliest arrivals were often successful in renting or reclaiming land, founding new villages or joining communities that were sparsely populated and welcomed new recruits. As these areas filled up, later migrants arrived, adding to the burden of overpopulation and triggering a secondary migration into the next ring of land, which was more sparsely populated and able to absorb newcomers. (p. 137)

The opposite example–pioneers who had moved directly from China proper to some remote location to wrest land and livelihood from the wilderness–is conspicuous by its absence. Figures on the arrival and departure of migrants in northern Manchuria during the period 1921-26 show that only about 7.5% of the new arrivals chose to stay in the north while the remainder returned to southern Manchuria or to China proper. (p. 140)

Why did Chinese migration take this “reluctant” form of incremental moves out from existing settlements, rather than single households striking out into the far frontier? Contemporary observers of the migration to Manchuria in the 1920s favored cultural explanations: the alleged collective spirit of the Chinese as compared to the individualist nature of the American. Reardon-Anderson gives a more a nuanced account of how the social structure of northern Chinese villages affected incentives for migration, but does not entirely dismiss this type of explanation. He does however explain how other factors were also important:

One reason that migrants, even refugees with few choices in life, after traveling as far as the railroads or their legs would carry them, returned home or to densely populated southern Manchuria was that land on the frontier was expensive and tightly held by a minority of large owners who were disinclined to sell or in some cases even rent the land to the new arrivals. The policies of the late Qing to sell land and settle population in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, which were ostensibly designed to raise money and strengthen the nation’s defense, also had the effect of shifting wealth and power to a minority of well-connected landowners. By the early 20th century, the ownership of land in these regions was concentrated in very few hands, and the refugees of the 1920s found little for sale or even for rent at prices they could afford. (p. 153)

Another reason was probably the different attitude of the government toward the exploitation of the frontier:

The Manchus recognized that China proper was the core of their empire and the main source of its wealth and power, while Manchuria was part of a periphery that must serve the function of protecting and preserving the core. Despite their special interest in the Manchu homeland and neighboring Inner Mongolia, the Qing treated these territories as a buffer zone. …Absent from the Qing agenda in Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, or any other border region was an ideological or developmental drive to conquer, convert, and control these territories. (p. 87)

One of the more interesting comparisons in the book is with the Russian settlement of Siberia (the lands north of Manchuria). Here the pattern seems more like the American frontier:

In contrast to Russian settlement west of the Urals, which operated under the thumb of Moscow, favored the landed elite, and kept labor in check, settlement in the east involved greater freedom of movement and choice on the part of peasants and less control by the military, the nobles, and the state. This pattern of migration and settlement produced in Siberia a society and culture with a distinct identity and separate regional character, of a sort unknown among Chinese communities in Manchuria. Russian migrants came to Siberia from throughout the “Black Earth” region, an area more than five times as large as Shandong and Hebei, with the result that settlers in the Russian Far East were more diverse and less likely to share a common identity than their counterparts in Manchuria. Russians moved as entire households, determined to leave the village for good, in contrast to Chinese who sent one or two young men on a temporary mission to find work and return with money to advance the fortunes of the family back home. (p. 164)

The book is clearly organized, reasonably well written, and no longer than it needs to be, all virtues; it is however an overpriced academic-press tome so hard to recommend that the casual reader pick it up. But at least there are things for the English-language reader to read about Manchuria (notably Michael Meyer’s excellent memoir In Machuria from last year). The Scholar’s Stage blog has an excellent discussion (Why Do We Know So Little About China’s WWII?) on the many, many important eras and episodes in Chinese and Asian history for which not a single English-language narrative history exists.

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