The poetic name for our journey would have to be from Mukden to Manzhouli. We took one two years ago from Mukden to Mudanjiang of Heilongjiang. The late NoKor chairman Kim Jung Il favored Mudanjiang as a transit point. He avoided flying, perhaps from a Chaoxian practical sense that a disgruntled subordinate, or alien assassin, will find it more difficult to get to him on a train than on a plane. He always rode his private train to Mudanjiang before proceeding to Beijing, a frequent destination in his last days in office.
All right, geography buffs. Mukden (currently Shenyang where we live) is the name I learned in history, made famous by the 1931 Imperial Japanese forces’ military occupation of the region by claiming that the Japan-built-and-ran railroad in Mukden was bombed by nationalist rebel forces. Already occupants of the old Manchu land of the Qing Dynasty known to the Russians as Manchuria, to Nippon as Manchukuo, the overcrowded islands of Meiji’s Land of the Rising Sun looked at geographical expansion and saw Manchuria as a possible destination of eager hardworking and compliant Japanese immigrants.
Rebuffed by the racist immigration policies of the United States after Nippongos helped farm Hawaii and California, tolerated but outcast in the former Portuguese-Spanish regions of Brazil-Argentina, Japan’s most convenient area of expansion was China’s Dong Bei. Not to justify Japanese behavior, but from a historical perspective, the Hans never really considered the land of the Manchus as part of Zhongguo, the Middle Realm. Its Great Wall was meant to keep the northern meat-eating, horse-riding invaders-the Kitans, Mongols, Jurchens, and Manchus-from moving to the rich agricultural and vegetable+pork/fish diets of the south.
We remember the Mongols because of Kublai and Genghis Khan from the steppes. Manchu was the last royal house before China declared itself a republic. They both assimilated to the ways of the Han, and made their territories part of the Middle Realm rather than apart from it. Their traditional geography, save for the Mongols who split between pro-Soviet Mongolia and Nei Menggu, became part of the post-’49 China.
So, back to Mukden mentioned in history books for the Sept. 18 bombing of the railroad, China’s equivalent to Roosevelt "a day that will live in infamy" after Pearl Harbor. The Qings in their waning days ceded Formosa to Japan and after 1912, when the Qing young Emperor abdicated and China became a republic, Japan and the rest of colonial Europe and America drooled to carve out geographical areas of influence on Napoleon’s sleeping tiger.
Mukden (a Manchu word recognized by both Russia and Japan) is not a phrase familiar to my students, and understandably so. It was the foreigners’ name to present Shenyang, formerly Fongtian ("listen to the voice of heaven"), then Shengjing, (the capital city, sheng=capital, jing=city; thus, bei=north, and nan=south, makes Beijing and Nanjing, the northern and southern cities!).
The Shenyang railroad station still looks like the rest of the red-bricked buildings sporting the date they were built in 1912; it is getting a massive facelift, in the middle of new high rises, to welcome the China Games in 2013. The aluminum-steel flying vaults that hold the rafters turn this relic of the past into the modern ambience of metropolitan architecture-a remarkable marriage of the old and the new.
Shenyang to Manzhouli is easily a distance of 1,500 km but the journey takes 21 hours, going through the capital city of Changchun in Jilin province, proceeding to Harbin, Heilongjiang's capital, and then to Qiqihar before reaching Hulanbier prefecture of Haliar, Manzhouli, and Mohe.
Once on the rails, we watched urban towers draped in green dust filters turn into verdant fields of corn, high as the farmhouse’s roofs on the tail end of July, reminiscent of travels through Kansas and the American prairies. The single story farmhouses hang low roofs to contain the heat in the winter from coal fired steam generators. In the provincial border between Liaoning and Jilin, we noticed the aluminum forest flowers. Staggered along the distant ridges are huge windmills generating electrical power to alleviate China’s reliance on carbon-dirty coal.
Changchun is as modern a city as any. An industrial center of Japan’s Manchukuo, it became the automobile manufacturing capital of the new republic. Next door to Yanbian, the Korean Autonomous Region, Changchun benefits from Korean investments in the region. Upon arrival at the terminal, we noticed the scent of la bai cai (Chinese) kim chee (Korean) in the air! We were not displeased!
Young factory workers on a company tour to Inner Mongolia joined the sleeping berths in Jilin. The night punctuated by girlish giggles and beer belches kept us in and out of slumber, but we did not mind. When the gals started saying "excuse me," "sorry," and other choice phrases they remember from school, with the encouragement and participation of the guys, after discovering we were an English teacher, it was time to call it a night.
Jaime R. Vergara (email@example.com) is a former PSS teacher and is currently writing from the campus of Shenyang
Aerospace University in China.