Minorities Policy : Ethnic Koreans Savor Life in a Corner of China

Times Staff Writer

Pickled raw beef, spicy kimchi, soybean-paste soup and other traditional Korean dishes load the table when Gang Chul Lam’s family sits down to a winter evening meal.

Traditional Korean cabinets line one wall of the room, which is heated in the Korean manner by a coal-fired stove sending hot air through flues under the floor. The conversation is in Korean.

Gang, 35, a rice farmer in a village on the outskirts of this northeast China city, is the grandson of immigrants to China. But he speaks Chinese with only limited fluency and is surrounded by Korean culture. His son, Hong, 6, also is growing up speaking his ancestral tongue.

‘Life Was So Hard’

Gang’s mother, Gim Ju Ok, 68, said her father was only 7 years old when he came to China with his parents. “Like most others, they came because life was so hard in Korea,” she said.

From the North Korean border to the steppes of Inner Mongolia--in the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang--live 2 million ethnic Koreans, the descendants of people who from the 1860s to the 1940s fled famine, poverty or Japanese colonization to seek better lives, usually as rice farmers, in China’s northeast.


Under official Chinese policy, the languages and customs of its 55 formally recognized minorities, of which Koreans are one, should be respected, while at the same time allegiance to China is demanded of all citizens.

Han Majority

This policy aims to ensure national unity in a country where ethnic Chinese--the Han people--make up 93% of the population but minorities are concentrated in vast, generally underpopulated border regions. How well this formula has been implemented, however, has varied between localities and over time.

During the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, a combination of ethnic Chinese chauvinism, suppression of religious activity and suspicion of those with foreign connections created an especially difficult time for many minorities in China, including the Koreans.

While conditions have improved with the more relaxed policies in force since the late 1970s, there are still some places--especially Tibet, which was rocked by anti-Chinese rioting last year--where China’s minority policy has failed to eliminate fundamental ethnic tensions.

The situation of the Koreans, however, seems to illustrate how the policy is supposed to work.

800,000 Koreans

The greatest concentration of Korean Chinese is in Jilin province’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, which abuts North Korea. About 800,000 Koreans live here, making up 40% of the population. Ethnic Chinese make up about 58%, while other minorities, primarily Muslims, Manchus and Mongolians, comprise about 2%.

Cui Shengchun, an ethnic Korean who is secretary general of Yanbian’s External Culture Exchange Center said that 57% of government officials in Yanbian at the county level or above are ethnic Koreans, even though ethnic Chinese form a majority of the population.

The Korean officials do not just hold token positions, but share real power, Cui said. Korean and Chinese are both used in government offices, he said.

Papers, Magazines

Five Korean-language newspapers and 13 Korean-language magazines are published in Yanbian. Kim Kye Seung, a Korean, is editor-in-chief of the prefecture’s official Communist Party newspaper, the Yanbian Daily. Published in both Korean and Chinese, the newspaper treats its Korean version as the leading edition, Kim said.

Yanbian also has two Korean-language book publishers and Korean-language radio and television. China’s daily nationwide news program is rebroadcast here the next day in Korean.

From elementary school through high school, Korean children are taught mostly in Korean, but they also study Chinese. The prefecture has four colleges or universities primarily for Korean students, where Chinese is the primary language of instruction.

About 40% of the elementary schools and half the junior high or high schools in Yanbian are for Korean students, with ethnic Chinese attending other schools with instruction in their language, Cui said.

Skill in Chinese Varies

While Korean children who live in cities and mix with Chinese children are likely to be fully bilingual, some of those who grow up in ethnically Korean villages in the countryside, people such as Gang, the rice farmer, never fully master Chinese.

Yet owing to a variety of factors--including a traditional Korean emphasis on education of children, a rule that allows Korean students to take college entrance examinations in their own language, and a slight admissions advantage given to Korean students--more than half the students from Yanbian who go on to college are Korean, Cui said.

In Yanbian’s urban centers, such as Yanji, its biggest city, and Tumen, a city at the North Korean border, virtually all signs are written in both Chinese and Korean.

Chinese who move to Yanbian from other parts of the country, Cui commented, might feel they have come to a half-foreign place.

Describing his own feelings, Cui outlined a view that fits with what the authorities in Beijing hope to accomplish through their minorities policy.

‘Traditional Things’

“First, I am a Chinese,” Cui said. “I grew up here in Yanbian and I love this place. My mother country is China. But I also have a feeling as a Korean. We have quite a lot of traditional things here still. Our food is from the old tradition. Sometimes Korean-Americans visit here, and they say it is very old-style, traditional food.”

Most Korean culture in China is simply passed on from generation to generation, but there is some influence from Korea itself, primarily the north, which is routinely visited by tens of thousands of Korean Chinese every year.

Korean Chinese living near the border can get permits from the local police department to visit relatives in North Korea’s border area, while those who live away from the border, or who wish to visit areas deeper inside North Korea, must get Chinese passports and North Korean visas.

Sensitive Visits

In recent years, small numbers of people--perhaps 1,000 or 2,000 a year--have made trips to visit relatives in South Korea, despite the lack of diplomatic relations between it and China. These trips are generally made by way of Hong Kong or Japan, but they are a sensitive subject and Yanbian officials declined to comment.

Shen Shoufu, a Korean Chinese writer in Harbin who visited an uncle and niece in South Korea last year, commented in an interview that his niece, having been influenced by anti-communism, was uncertain at first whether she dared to meet him.

“When I got to Seoul,” Shen recalled with a laugh, “my niece telephoned my uncle and asked, ‘Is he frightening?’ ”

“It’s not like the propaganda,” the uncle replied. “He looks and talks the same as us.”

North Korea ‘Friendly’

Cui noted, however, that “there is more cultural interaction with North Korea. It’s a friendly country.”

The Korean as spoken in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is taken as the standard for Korean in China, just as Beijing serves as the linguistic standard for Mandarin Chinese, Cui added.

Contrasting sharply with the tense and heavily militarized border between North and South Korea, the Chinese-North Korean border is relaxed and almost sleepy. At the border crossing in Tumen, occasional trucks and buses carry trade items and passengers across a bridge over the Tumen River to the North Korean town of Namyang.

On the hillside above Namyang, Korean letters cut into the hillside proclaim “Speedy Battle,” reflecting the ideologically militant approach to national development that has helped to make North Korea one of the most isolated countries in the world.

“It means ‘Speed up the production process,’ ” explained Yang Fuyi, an official with the Foreign Affairs Office in Tumen.

Dried Seafood

Markets in Yanji and Tumen sell frozen or dried seafood imported from North Korea, as well as a variety of hardware and light industrial products, such as burners for table-top cooking and Korean-style metal chopsticks.

While the largest concentration of Koreans is in the border area, the total of Koreans living scattered throughout northeastern China is even larger.

Some live in cities, where they are gradually being assimilated, as some Korean children grow up speaking Chinese better than Korean. Many others live in predominantly Korean villages, a reflection of the history of the region.

The northeast was originally the home of the Manchu people, who conquered all of China in the mid-1600s and established the Qing Dynasty. This dynasty, which lasted until 1911, restricted immigration of ethnic Chinese to the underpopulated Manchu homeland, which with its long cold winters in any case held limited attraction for most Chinese.

Crossed the Rivers

Thus, in the mid-1800s, as the Qing Dynasty fell into decline and its ability to restrict entry into the area weakened, there was still a large amount of open land that was not under cultivation. Koreans, suffering from misrule and periodic famine in their own country, began slipping across the Yalu and Tumen rivers into China.

While rice cultivation in China was largely restricted to the south, Koreans had learned to grow rice in a northern climate. They established rice-farming villages near rivers.

Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 hastened this process by prompting large numbers of Koreans to flee colonial rule. Many pressed on past the already settled border areas of Yanbian to interior parts of China’s northeast, known at the time as Manchuria.

Subsequent Japanese conquest of Manchuria and establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932 made movement from Korea still easier. With Japan’s defeat in 1945, the region reverted to Chinese rule, and increased numbers of ethnic Chinese began to move in.

Growing Rice

It thus often happens that in the countryside, Koreans live on low land, growing rice, and Chinese live on higher land where they plant dry-field crops such as corn.

As is true for immigrants throughout most of the world, Korean Chinese grapple with some conflict between the goal of preserving their traditional culture and succeeding in mainstream society.

Hong said that in places such as Harbin, Korean parents generally want their children to learn Chinese well.

‘Children’s Futures’

“They’re thinking of their children’s futures,” he said. “People feel that if you don’t speak Chinese well, your opportunities are limited.”