[Overseas view]Cultural amnesia for Koreans in China

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[Overseas view]Cultural amnesia for Koreans in China

At a Korean restaurant in the city of Hunchun in northeastern China, the proprietress was telling her rosy-cheeked son to stop holding the front door open and to return to her side. “Hana, dul... set,” she counted, using a gentle but stern tone of voice. Even so, the boy chattered on in his ethnic language of Korean. But I had to wonder how much longer it would remain his primary language.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Dalai Lama’s flight to Northern India, and one year after the civil unrest and the brutal Chinese clampdown in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, and the attention of Beijing and the world is fixed on the plight of Tibet.

Less dramatic but equally significant, though, are the situations of other minority peoples throughout China. These other minorities are experiencing varying levels of give and take with the government. They are also incorporated into the Chinese nation to differing degrees.

Outside of Tibet, most attention is accorded to the Uighur of China’s far west Xinjiang Province. Some speculate that China has used the low-level Uighur resistance as a pretext for a tightening of the screws. There are also the cases of the Mongol people of Inner Mongolia, the hill tribe ethnicities of the southern provinces, and the Koreans living in the Yanbian Chaoxian (Korean) Autonomous Prefecture.

The literal meanings of the two Chinese characters for “Yanbian” are “stretch” and “boundary.” The Yanbian zone stretches along the North Korean border to link up with Russia near the small village of Fangchuan, cutting off China from a potential East Sea port by just a few kilometers.

Koreans have had a history in present-day Jilin Province for thousands of years. In the Three Kingdoms Period, Goguryeo held a significant swath of territory north of the Yalu and Tumen rivers. Much more recently, Koreans began moving north - mainly from the remote and mountainous North Hamgyong Province - to escape the double burden of droughts and overtaxation.

A second wave of Koreans flowed into the Yanbian area during the period of Japanese colonial rule in Korea. Later, with the formation of their puppet state of Manchukuo, the Japanese forced Korean migrations in order to cultivate this wild land and render it productive.

Until the Japanese gained a strong foothold in Manchuria, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung (under the command of the Chinese Communist Party) was based in the Yanbian territory.

After the Korean War, many settlers moved back to North Korea, but a greater number stayed on in China. These Korean emigrants are now known as Joseon-jok.

Like the Han Chinese that dominate China’s population, Joseon-jok are limited to one child per family. Also, within the autonomous zone all signage is required by law to use Korean as well as Chinese. In Hunchun, however, Russian Cyrillic writing is beginning to crowd out Korean on many signs.

In the dining tent of the only Xinjiang-style mutton stand in Hunchun I met two Joseon-jok women of 24 and 26 years of age. Both have attended university in Beijing, thus achieving the educational goal of most Joseon-jok students.

In order to enter university, though, they had to attend a Chinese-language high school. The numbers of ethnic Koreans attending Korean schools has been dropping precipitously as members of the community seek educational opportunities and economic advancement through integration with Chinese society.

When I asked the women about their original hometowns, they both insisted that their hometown was Hunchun, China. Other Joseon-jok I met admitted that they did not know their ancestral hometowns. This is significant, considering the importance of hometowns in Korean culture.

In Yanji, the rapidly growing capital city of the Korean autonomous zone, very few people seem to understand basic Korean. Even on Yanji’s Korean culture street, decoratively lined with Korean-style archways, Korean greetings were answered only with puzzled expressions.

Over the past few years, Yanji’s Korean population has been increasingly outnumbered by Han Chinese.

The city’s Korean inhabitants are now estimated to be at around 40 percent of the total. This decline throws into question the appellation “Korean Autonomous Zone.” Still, the ethnic Koreans are not nearly as outnumbered as the Mongolians of Inner Mongolia, who now make up only about 15 percent of their province’s inhabitants.

But China is not the only source of Yanji’s problems. It has also inherited in good measure some of the seedy side of South Korean culture. After dark in downtown Yanji, a proliferation of neon signs advertise hostess coffee shops, massage parlors, and “room salons.” Trade and exchange seems to be lively, as the shops are also well stocked in South Korean products, including soju and instant noodles. There is a conspicuous dearth of North Korean products.

Hunchun is also booming economically. As the gateway to a special Chinese economic zone, the city has been singled out for heavy investment. This economic zone works in concert with North Korea’s Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic and Trade Zone. Customs procedures for goods flowing between China, North Korea, and Russia are minimal, and all trade is exempt from import and export taxes.

Yet when it comes to the situation of the Hunchun Joseon-jok, some of whose families have been in China for generations, the amount of wealth trickling down varies drastically. A Korean restaurant just off the main street sees business from Russian patrons and moneyed locals, and offers these parties private rooms to dine in. Just a few blocks away a series of less prosperous Korean eateries can be found along the first floor of a decaying tenement building.

In one of these restaurants, the doors opened to a cramped corridor kitchen, with only a single room in the back for dining. This was a bare, dim space with just one round floor table. Of the elderly women working here, one was glum and silent, while the other spoke a northern dialect of Korean.

As Hunchun and the rest of Yanbian expand, backroom restaurants like this will become a thing of the past. For better or for worse, the successors to these women will have embraced the benefits of speaking Chinese in China, and if they do speak Korean as a second language, it will be in the Seoul dialect popularized through cable television.

The writer is a freelancer who recently visited China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture..

by Matthew C. Crawford
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