On northeast Asian frontiers of history and friendship


Ed Pulford

PhD defended at: 

University of Cambridge


At the three-way juncture of the Chinese, Russian and Korean worlds emerge intimately local manifestations of the historical forces which have shaped northeast Asia from the Qing period to China’s twenty-first-century emergence as a global power. Contact here over time between Manchu, Korean, Han Chinese, Russian and Japanese inhabitants, invaders and migrants, raise anthropologically compelling questions over encounters between distinct culturally-ordered historicities, and the relational modes – particularly masculinised friendship – through which these groups have engaged unfamiliar others on this ‘frontier’. This dissertation adopts cross-border and multilingual perspectives, engaging with historically-informed anthropologies (Bulag 2010; Harrell 2001; Wang Mingming 2009) and anthropologically-informed histories (Duara 1996; Crossley 1999, Elliott 2001; Rawski 2015) of China and the region to address a deficit in anthropological work on history and historicities in the context of everyday relationships across China’s borders. Equally, it builds on studies of social transformations occurring amidst internationalising China’s economic boom (Yan 2009; Ong & Zhang 2008; Rofel 2007; Yang 1994, Stafford 2000) by examining friendships, both formal and interpersonal, at borders between (post)socialist states.

Drawing on fieldwork, archive and literature-based research in Hunchun, a border town in northeast China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, I order my work chronologically by theme – each chapter advances through Hunchun’s history but treats anthropological concerns which arising from consideration of each period. Encounters here between Chinese, Manchu, Russian and Korean frontierspeople over time are seen as points of contact between different historicities (pace Sahlins 1985), and as junctures between distinct modes of ‘friendship’ (Ch. youyi, Rus. druzhba, Kor. chinseon; ujeong), a salient everyday relationship locally and an official tie long promoted by the states encompassing this tri-national hub. Approaching local lives and pasts in these terms leads me to argue that the wild forests and hills around Hunchun have been a frontier space where emblematic components of Manchu, Han, Korean and Russian national histories have been lived out. I further scrutinise the idiom of international socialist friendship and how it interfaces with everyday cross- border relationship-making in Hunchun and, looking to the future, suggest that despite perceptions of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ in post-1980s China, the country’s ‘rise’ here emerges as a distinctly male-gendered phenomenon within the histories being forged in this corner of northeast Asia today.