From my hometown south of the Yangtze, the region bordering Russia, Korea, and Mongolia felt far away. My first connection to Dongbei was the television set at home. My parents got it in the early 1990s, when most of China had yet to emerge from a planned economy. Acquired through their work unit, the TV was manufactured in Dandong, an industrial hub on the edge of the Korean peninsula. My mother repeated this fact to the envy of our neighbors. For her generation, something “made in Dongbei” meant it was high quality and built to last.
Fittingly, the brand name was juhua, chrysanthemum, the autumn blossom that symbolizes longevity and good health. The bulky metal box remained the centerpiece of our apartment for well over a decade, until one hot summer afternoon when I was in middle school. The screen flickered and went dark. The local repair shop could not fix it.
“This machine belongs in a museum,” said the shop owner.
My mother reluctantly replaced her prized possession with a silver flatscreen, purchased from one of the multistory electronics stores that had sprung up in our city. With a fancy logo, TLC, the set was produced in Guangdong (Canton), the southern province neighboring Hong Kong. An early beneficiary of the market reforms and opening-up policies of the 1980s, China’s southern coast had become the country’s high-tech capital. The future was in the south, while Dongbei appeared locked in the past, with a shrinking population and shuttered factories.
The logic of modernity assumes a linear procession of time and a uniform measure of progress, but the history of Dongbei defies this simplistic notion. The boom and bust of its manufacturing sector is but one of many examples in this region where tribes and nations, governments and corporations, have continually renegotiated their relationships with nature and with each other. The very name of the place is a site of contestation. “Dongbei” implies an enclosure and a hierarchy. A location is defined by a set of directions when the center of power lies elsewhere. For Han-Chinese people over the millennia, the land northeast of the Great Wall was an alien frontier. The Manchu conquest of the Ming dynasty in the 1600s established the Qing dynasty and forced this space into what is known as China today. Japanese occupation of the region early in the 20th century transformed a preserved landscape into one of excavation and exploitation. Successive regimes of imperialists, capitalists, and socialists tested their visions of development on the territory and its people.
The complex stories of Dongbei are the subject of two notable new books, Ruth Rogaski’s Knowing Manchuria: Environments, the Senses, and Natural Knowledge on an Asian Borderland and Victor Seow’s Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia. A professor of history at Vanderbilt, Rogaski is also the author of Hygienic Modernity, an acclaimed study of the evolution of public health in China and how the concept informed modernization efforts in the country as it went through the fall of the Qing empire, the Republican era (1912–49), and the early years of the Communist regime. Exploring parallel themes of knowledge formation by foreign encounters and state power, her new book directs attention outward, from the body to the environment. A beautifully rendered volume, it takes the reader on an epic journey over three centuries from the 1600s and across a vast landscape whose ecosystem is as diverse as its human inhabitants. Han exiles and Manchu emperors, Russian botanists and Korean foragers, soldiers from Imperial Japan and workers on Chinese state farms: all of them faced the harshness and wonders of Manchuria and tried to make sense of the place, creating different visions of native culture, national identity, and natural science.
Compared with Knowing Manchuria’s sweeping scope, Carbon Technocracy, Seow’s impressive debut, adopts a more focused, though equally ambitious, approach. It centers on one city, Fushun. The first Ming-China outpost to fall to the Manchus in 1618, the former fortress and trade site was home to the largest coal-mining operation in East Asia for much of the last century. Foreign and domestic interests battled over the region’s resources. During decades of Japanese control, coal from Fushun powered the Japanese empire’s industrial and military expansion. The reliance on and idealization of fossil fuels gave rise to a governing system that Seow, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, calls “carbon technocracy.” The political beliefs and managerial structures have outlasted the empires that birthed them, and, like the mines and machines in Fushun, are inherited by successor states. We all live in a world made by carbon regimes.
Scholarship on fossil fuels and empire, like work in the history of science and technology in general, have traditionally followed a Eurocentric framework. Western powers are typically treated as the main, often the only, agents of knowledge creation and colonial enterprise. The making and remaking of Manchuria, primarily by Asian actors, complicates this narrative. As a result, these two books are a crucial contribution to the understandings of East Asia, of imperialism and indigeneity, and of science and the modern state. In the third year of a global pandemic, as climate change caused by fossil fuel consumption is reaching the point of no return, the frosty borderlands of Dongbei hold not only lessons from the past but also warnings for the future.
Since before there were humans, there have been trees. At a time when mastodons roamed, in a corner of Eurasia, dense forests of pine and spruce absorbed energy from the sun and stored it in their bodies. Water carried the remains of dead trees to the bottom of lakes, where they softened into peat and, after millions of years, hardened into coal. Over this long stretch of geological time, mountains rose and rivers dried. A new species came into being. They harnessed power from fire, wind, and water. They forged tools out of stone, wood, and metal. They wrote stories on bones and bamboo as well as on paper and parchment. Different stories separated the species into nations and peoples. Land was claimed. Borders were drawn.
At the start of the 17th century, from that corner of Eurasia, a Jurchen chief reorganized local tribes and consolidated power. His army charged south and waged war against the Chinese Ming empire. The fortress city of Fushun was their first major victory. The chief’s son renamed his people “Manchu” in 1635 and established the Qing empire. The Ming collapsed several years later. From its new seat of power in Beijing, the former Ming capital, the Qing controlled the central plains of “China proper,” as well as non–Han-Chinese regions of Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. The Manchu authorities also extended their homeland in the northeast well beyond the original tribal territories, incorporating other Indigenous peoples of the region. The Qing gave Manchuria a name and a shape, but the geography, like the identity it represented, was never a fixed entity. As a specially administered preserve of a minority people who ruled over a majority culture, Manchuria rejected the binary categorization of metropole or colony. One’s perception of the place depended on one’s position in the Qing multiethnic empire.
When a young poet from the Yangtze River Delta, Wu Zhaoqian, was banished by the Qing court, his journey to Manchuria was, as Rogaski notes, along the same path but in reverse order of the Manchu invasion of China. The road north traversed a terrain of profound loss, where Han troops had battled non-Han “barbarians” for centuries. Displaced from political power, the Han exiles nevertheless believed that they, not the locals, were the only ones capable of deciphering the nature of Manchuria. They mapped the snow-capped mountains into traditional Chinese cosmologies. By applying the same set of principles from the heartland to the frontier, the Han literati extended the reach of their cultural kingdom.
In 1682, two decades after Wu Zhaoqian’s venture into alien territory, the Kangxi Emperor, one of the earliest and most important rulers of the Qing era (1644–1912), left his palace in Beijing and embarked on a grand tour of his ancestral land. Where Wu and his compatriots saw wilderness and ruin, the imperial expedition “sensed, celebrated, and even measured an energy” of triumph. In the words of Rogaski, the 80-day mission was an “exercise in inscribing power and victory” over the Manchurian landscape. It was also a search for the dragon. The mythical creature was both a conduit of cosmic energy and the embodiment of imperial charisma. The dragon was discovered as much as it was created. Its body was imagined into the ridges surrounding the former Manchu capital of Mukden and the burial site of the Qing’s founders. Kangxi’s successors banned mining in the region, which included Fushun, to preserve the “dragon veins.”
Among Kangxi’s entourage was Father Ferdinand Verbiest, a Flemish Jesuit who observed the night sky and calculated coordinates for locations on the trip. With technical assistance from Catholic missionaries such as Verbiest, the Qing ruler launched an empire-wide mapping campaign at the beginning of the 18th century. Delineating borders with Korea and an increasingly aggressive Russia was crucial to the Qing’s survival. However, as Rogaski points out, cartography in East Asia should not be seen only as a rational tool of territorial management: the measurements were infused with myth, comprising a sophisticated belief system. Pinpointing the Long White Mountain, or White-Head Mountain in Korean, carried strategic significance, but the icy peak between Manchuria and Korea was also seen as the sacred birthplace of both the Qing royal clan and the Korean people, and as a living ancestor to indigenous tribes that dwelled in its vicinity. Knowledge and techniques from Europe were accepted on Chinese terms. Another century would go by before Western science assumed supremacy, propelled by an ancient source of concentrated energy.
When Li Hongzhang boarded a British steamship down the Yangtze in 1862, heading toward Shanghai to help suppress the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), the Qing general and later diplomat from my hometown of Hefei witnessed firsthand the West’s technological might. The last Chinese empire was crumbling under foreign invasions and internal upheaval, while European powers had leapt ahead in wealth and military strength. The Great Divergence, as historian Kenneth Pomeranz dubbed this shift, was fueled by coal.
The people of China had been using coal for domestic heating and metalworks for centuries. Constrained by the cost of transportation, coal consumption “was very much bound by place,” Seow writes. This was similar to the case with wind or hydropower and was not unique to China. As Andreas Malm argues in Fossil Capital, the rise of the steam engine over water mills was neither natural nor accidental; instead, it was compelled by the interests of capitalist production and imperial expansion.
In the new industrial age, the black rock deep underground was seen as both exterior to the surface landscape and outside of time: a robust and inexhaustible source of energy waiting to be extracted. The mass consumption of coal in turn transformed the human relationship with time and space. Earth’s geological history was converted into units of heat and measured by values in production. Railroads carried coal as well as labor into urban factories. Steamships remade the ocean, once a formidable barrier, into “a system of highways,” as observed by American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who in 1890 published an authoritative study of Britain’s maritime empire, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783.
Shortly after arriving in Shanghai, Li wrote to his mentor Zeng Guofan, using for the first time a phrase that soon became pervasive in progressive intellectual and government circles: ziqiang (self-strengthening). The Self-Strengthening Movement, which was led by Li, Zeng, and other reform-minded officials, advocated for the use of Western science and technology to fortify China against foreign foes. Qing authorities expanded coal production in the country, but it was not until 1901 that mining was permitted in Fushun, the fort city located on “dragon veins.”
“Self-strengthening” could not save the Manchu empire. It was forced to cede part of its northeastern homeland to Russia. Li, as the Qing’s senior diplomat, negotiated the concessions. Soon after, coal mines in Fushun fell under Russian control. When the Imperial Japanese Navy struck the tsar’s Pacific Fleet in 1904, the battles took place in Manchurian waters. The region’s railways and natural resources were the prize. Japan won.
Decades later in my middle school classroom, Japan’s rapid industrialization was presented in stark contrast to the Qing’s failure. China’s eastern neighbor had succeeded in modernization, so the narrative went, while our country was hampered by “feudal superstition.” The following lectures focused on Imperial Japan’s military aggression from the 1890s to the 1940s. Little was said of the connections between the two: just like coal-burning pollutes the air, the blind worship of science and fervent pursuit of mechanized power can poison a society.
To manage mining and transportation in Manchuria, the Japanese government set up a company known as “Mantetsu” in 1906. This was a semipublic, semiprivate corporation, similar to the British East India Company. Mantetsu promoted “scientific colonialism,” as Seow points out, and conducted extensive geological surveys in the area. It advertised the deposits in Fushun as “the best steam coal in the Far East.”
As Seow details, coal-powered manufacturing in Japan made its mark everywhere from light industry to munitions, while the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and pursuit of autarky further incentivized its colonial expansion. After the fall of the Qing in 1912, the newly founded Republic of China was too weak and fractured to hold on to the vast territory the Manchus had made part of their empire. The country fragmented into regions run by rival military strongmen. Manchuria was ruled by the warlord Zhang Zuolin, who collaborated with and was initially supported by Japan. As Zhang’s personal ambitions ran afoul of Japanese interests, he was assassinated by a Japanese military officer in 1928. Japan invaded and formally occupied Manchuria three years later, establishing the puppet regime of Manchukuo and installing Puyi, the last Qing emperor, as its figurehead leader. More than a site of brute extraction and exploitation, the region was, as Seow characterizes it, “a laboratory of empire,” where Japanese authorities experimented with new tools of industrial engineering and new modes of technoscientific governance. The managed economy in Manchukuo, like that in the rest of Japan, was geared toward military buildup. Coal from Fushun and elsewhere in the empire fed into an accelerating war machine, whose appetite grew with the escalating conflict, and whose demands became “increasingly impossible to meet.”
In the morning of August 9, 1945, three days after the decimation of Hiroshima and hours before the United States military dropped the second atomic bomb over Nagasaki, the Soviet Union declared war against Japan and marched into Manchukuo. Japan soon surrendered, but Manchuria went through another form of plunder, as Soviet troops dismantled factories and looted machinery, before reluctantly handing over the territory to the Nationalist Party government of Chiang Kai-shek that would soon be locked in a battle for control of China with Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.
The Nationalists’ time in Manchuria was short-lived. By the fall of 1948, Mao’s People’s Liberation Army had taken over Fushun and, a year later, declared victory over all of China. In the newly formed People’s Republic, what remained of Manchuria’s industrial infrastructure was still the most advanced in the country. In 1952, Dongbei produced 40 percent of the young country’s electricity, 70 percent of its steel, and one-third of its coal. Despite “all its rhetoric of revolution,” the new socialist state “did not (or perhaps could not)” reimagine the “markers of national progress,” Seow writes. Industrial capacity powered by fossil fuels, in its simplistic, quantifiable form, gauged regime legitimacy. Surpassing capitalism would validate ideological superiority. When oil was discovered in Dongbei in 1959, decades after American and Japanese experts had failed to do so, the field was named Daqing, “Grand Celebration.”
In his landmark study Carbon Democracy, which Seow’s book title invokes, Timothy Mitchell made the case that the concentration of labor at urban centers and coal plants’ vulnerability to collective action, like strikes or sabotage, were critical to the rise of mass democracy in Europe and North America. Oil production, on the other hand, with its long supply chains of pipes and pumps, as well as carefully engineered social structures, has undermined democratic politics in the Middle East while sustaining ostensibly democratic Western economies.
Citing Mitchell’s work, Seow presents an alternative account where coal mining in East Asia “led not so much to democratic possibilities as to technocratic proclivities.” Under the colonial corporation of Mantetsu, the open pit mine at Fushun became “an icon of Japanese industrial modernity.” It also made the workers easier to monitor. The company deployed new surveillance techniques, like fingerprinting, and used the threat of mechanization to keep the workers in line. Strikes by Chinese colliers were usually limited in scale and responding to a specific grievance. Management made occasional minor concessions without yielding control.
To fragment the labor force against effective organizing, oil fields from Imperial Russia to the Middle East segregated their workers by ethnicity. Similar methods were used in Fushun. Japanese workers, perceived as more skilled, occupied the upper echelon of “regular employee,” while most Chinese miners did hard labor without a stable wage or benefits. Even when employed in the same position, Japanese workers earned twice as much as their Chinese counterparts.
“Chinese-ness” is a fluid concept and, in a place like Manchuria, a historically contested terrain. To preserve their ancestral homeland as a distinct space for the Manchus, Qing emperors had restricted Han settlement in the region for centuries. The ban was only officially lifted in the final years of the empire. In the ensuing decades, millions moved north of the former border in search of job opportunities, exceeding the size of Chinese migration to Southeast Asia during this period. Nevertheless, the emergent Chinese national consciousness from the ruins of empire was rife with Han chauvinism. Prominent intellectuals cited both Chinese tradition and newly imported Western race theory to paint the Manchus as uncivilized and un-Chinese. The discriminatory sentiments subsided with the founding of the Republic of China as a multiethnic state in 1911, but intraracial tensions lingered and were exploited by Japan during World War II in an effort to undermine Chinese nation-building efforts, which included the Japanese choice of Puyi, the former Manchu emperor, as the puppet head of Manchukuo. I would be curious to learn whether any of these dynamics were present at the Fushun colliery.
Grueling physical labor, compounded by poor living conditions, made the Chinese miners more susceptible to illness, which reinforced the notion that Chinese bodies were inferior. In the name of disease control, Mantetsu resorted to “monstrous methods,” as Seow puts it, spraying Chinese workers with harsh chemicals and killing those who appeared infirm.
Here is one point where Seow’s and Rogaski’s arguments converge: to Japanese colonial authorities, the latter writes, the Chinese people were inseparable from the Manchurian environment; both were “natural reservoirs of disease.” While health and cleanliness were seen as measures of societal progress, an idea encapsulated by the title of Rogaski’s first book, Hygienic Modernity, new developments like mining and railway construction disrupted the ecosystem and brought humans in contact with pestilence. The sacred place where dragons rose became a modern plague land.
The Qing government, in its last days, established the North Manchurian Plague Prevention Service and appointed Dr. Wu Liande, who grew up in British Malaya, to head the effort. The first medical student of Chinese descent to train at Cambridge, Wu wielded tools of anatomy-based Western medicine to locate the site of infection in plague patients. Similar methods of dissection and microscopic observation were later used by Japanese researchers in the region, including members of the notorious Unit 731, the Imperial Japanese Army’s germ warfare division during World War II.
Unit 731 used biological weapons to attack several cities in central and eastern China. It also carried out brutal human experiments at its facility in Manchuria, purposefully infecting Chinese captives with the plague to study its pathology. Here, Rogaski seems to wrestle between the urge to express moral outrage and a historian’s duty to contextualize past events. Certain aspects of Unit 731’s plague research resembled that of Wu’s, such as the elaborate mapping of the deceased body. But likeness in methodology does not make the two studies comparable. Even if some of the victims in Unit 731’s reports were from natural outbreaks of the plague, the people were colonial subjects scrutinized for the colonizer’s benefit. Calling Unit 731’s autopsies “a standard scientific response” glosses over the underlying power differential that, unfortunately, was prevalent in the history of modern medicine as it developed alongside the project of empire.
Rogaski concludes this section by stressing the colonial logic behind Unit 731’s atrocities, that the Japanese bacteriologists committed “a crime against humanity” by “eliminating the boundary between human and nonhuman altogether.” I share her sentiment but find this statement too simplistic, especially when compared with the thoughtful nuance in the rest of the book, where humans are “intimately embedded in and inseparable from the nonhuman landscape.” The contours of personhood have always been porous and shifting, mapped along the gradients of civilization as perceived by state power. Unit 731 chose human subjects because they supposedly “provided better data” than laboratory animals. Japanese authorities in Manchuria saw the Chinese people as human enough in biology but devoid of agency or rights. Subjugated bodies, like coal mines, constituted a site that could be experimented on and extracted from.
“I’ve never been keen on the idea of ‘home,’” one of the most acclaimed novelists associated with Dongbei wrote in the late Republican era. “Whenever others bring up the subject, I cannot help but also feel anxious. The truth is, I no longer really had a home, even before the Japanese claimed the land.”
When Xiao Hong penned these words on a sleepless night in 1937, China was on the verge of total war with Japan. The prodigious writer had left her native Manchuria after the Japanese takeover. She died in 1942 at the age of 30. Her former partner and fellow novelist Xiao Jun joined the Communist Revolution and, for failing to adequately toe the party line, was relegated to work at the Fushun colliery. Years later in Beijing, Xiao Jun published a novel based on his time in Fushun, Coal Mines in May, which Seow cites.
Set in 1949, the year of the Communist victory, the story follows a group of coal miners in the fictional town of Wujin, “Black Gold,” who hold a production competition to show support for their comrades in arms. Even a deadly accident the night before cannot disrupt the plan or dampen their enthusiasm. Perusing the fervid prose, I keep wondering if the novel is meant as satire. But reality, drenched in ideological fanaticism, was beyond parody.
Xiao Hong did not share her ex-lover’s ardent nationalism. What is patriotism for a woman who never had a country to call her own? In Xiao Jun’s debut novel, Village in August, a Chinese widow is raped by a Japanese soldier. The female body becomes a metaphor for the nation. But Xiao Hong knew that Chinese men also brutalized Chinese women. Her stories do not give in to reductive metaphors. There, the women of the north tend to the land and sustain life. By sagging and scarring due to aging and childbirth and through illness and abuse, their bodies make maps.
In the long history of Manchuria, as told in Rogaski’s and Seow’s books, men were the protagonists. Women were in the margins. Patriarchy shaped people’s relationships with nature and their visions for development. Qing emperors kept Manchuria as a virgin preserve whose landscape sustained imperial authority and whose opening and foreign occupation signaled dynastic decline. Worried about energy shortage, the wartime Japanese government did not dial back industrial or military consumption but advertised ways to save fuel at home that meant more work for the women. On state farms in 1950s Dongbei, images of “tractor girls” were a symbol of gender equality: women’s liberation according to socialism still followed the aesthetics and demands of masculine production. Turning the barren grounds of the “Great Northern Wasteland” into fertile fields proved the new regime’s technological prowess.
As Carolyn Merchant articulates in The Death of Nature, many Western and non-Western traditions alike have viewed the earth as feminine: a nurturing mother with an erratic temper. Following the Scientific Revolution in Europe, this organic view gave way to a mechanical order. Instead of a living, connected body, nature began to be seen as a series of inert objects that could be manipulated by machines. In the quest for profit or power, humans are no longer only a biological force but a geological one: to convey this, many scholars now refer to the current epoch as the Anthropocene.
The chronicles of Manchuria are part of this record. But the borderland cannot be contained by a single narrative. From its unruly margins, one can catch a glimpse of alternative worlds, where coal stays in the mountains, where the mountain is an ancestor, where rivers pulse with myth, where the local refuses to submit to the universal. Time does not flow in a single direction towards an exhausted end but moves through cycles of regeneration and rebirth. The land comes alive, and there is home.
Yangyang Cheng is a fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, where her research focuses on science and technology in China and US-China relations. Trained as a particle physicist, she worked on the Large Hadron Collider for over a decade. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, MIT Technology Review, and many other publications.