Whose Buffer, Against Whom: Rethinking the Qing-Korean Border River Region

Authors: Nianshen Song*, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Topics: Historical Geography, China
Keywords: Tumen River, China, Korea, Borderland, Frontier, Buffer
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Coolidge, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


As a social institution, border simultaneously divides and connects. When thinking about state borders, or borderlands, scholars tend to view them as linear or zonal space which distinguish and link one state with another. My paper argues for an alternative interpretation and explores the geopolitical and cultural meanings of a historical border region from a domestic, rather than inter-state, perspective. The Tumen River, one of the border rivers of China and (North) Korea, is arguably one of the oldest state boundaries that is still effective today. The history of the Tumen River region as a “buffer space” can be traced back to the sixteenth century when the two countries set up the border of their northeastern frontiers. However, the geopolitical function of this border river was beyond the consideration of defense or communication. From the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, both the Manchu-Qing court and the Chosŏn-Korean court implemented strict laws to control domestic population flows in their northeastern frontiers. Such a policy, I argue, must be understood in the backdrops of the two courts’ domestic politics. The internal anxiety of preserving Manchu and Korean identity in the domestic context, combing with the strategy to control the border against an external power, contributed to the making of this borderland. Hence, the Tumen River region had been serving as a “dual buffer”. Employing archives and local gazetteers in the two countries, my paper reveals a subtler layer of “buffer” from a case study of early modern East Asia.

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