The northeast of China used to be called Manchuria. Another name was “the cockpit of Asia.” Many wars were fought there. A French priest who traveled through the region in the 1920s wrote: “Although it is uncertain where God created paradise, we can be sure He chose some other place than this.” The quote is from Michael Meyer’s splendid book In Manchuria.
Manchuria must be one of the bleakest places on earth, hot and dusty in summer and freezing in the long winter months. Although perhaps not quite as blood-soaked as some other places—Ukraine, say, or Poland—Manchuria has had more than its share of violence. On the southern tip lies Port Arthur, once a Russian town. Japanese troops massacred thousands of Chinese civilians there during the Sino-Japanese War in 1894. A vicious modern war—with trenches, bombs, machine guns—between Russia and Japan left about 170,000 men dead in 1905. When the Japanese clashed for three months with the Soviet Red Army on the Mongolian border in 1939, roughly 30,000 men were killed or maimed, most of them Japanese (the Soviets had tanks). And in 1948, during the Chinese civil war, more than 200,000 people were systematically starved to death in the siege of Changchun by the People’s Liberation Army.
Much of Manchuria is flat and rural, but heavy industry has polluted the skies for nearly a hundred years. The Japanese used Chinese slave labor to exploit vast strip mines of coal from the early twentieth century till the end of World War II; they also built aircraft and automobile factories and steel plants. Poppies were cultivated before the war to supply the opium trade in China monopolized by the Japanese. In Harbin, one of the main cities on the South Manchurian Railway line, White Russian thugs preyed on a large Jewish community (30,000 at its peak), and Japanese Imperial Army doctors performed gruesome experiments with deadly viruses on mostly Chinese prisoners.
After the Japanese defeat in 1945, the Red Army looted as much as it could from what the Japanese left behind. It even carted off to Russia the wooden ties from the tracks of the Manchurian railway. But under Chairman Mao’s rule, the northeast continued to be an industrial powerhouse, where model workers supposedly accomplished staggering feats of productivity. The most famous Maoist hero, known for his relentless self-sacrifice for the Revolution, was a fellow named Comrade Lei Feng, who died after being struck by a falling telephone pole at the age of twenty-one. He may in fact never have existed. But a gigantic Lei Feng Memorial Hall with vast marble-floored rooms was built near the old Japanese coal mines in Fushun to commemorate his exemplary life.
When I first saw Shenyang, the city that used to be known as Mukden, in…
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