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WAROFWORDS Report Summary

Project ID: 338229
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Netherlands

Mid-Term Report Summary - WAROFWORDS (A War of Words: What Ancient Manchurian History Does to Korea and China Today)

Ancient Manchurian history is something of the past. Of a past long ago. Or so one would think. Manchuria, or Northeast China, has been part of China for eight centuries now. But in fact, ancient Manchurian history is on the minds of a large number of people in China and both Korea's today. It is seen as a key ingredient of their - historical - identity. As such, it is worth fighting about. For over a decade, academics from China and South Korea have engaged in fierce debates about who 'owns' Manchurian history. The War of Words-project is probing the depths to which these academic struggles run. And how they spill over into the public domain. As the project researchers have found, there are clear strategic interests for China to make sure, and unambiguously so, that its borders in the northeast (and everywhere else) are uncontested and have always been Chinese. At the same time, the South Korean response has turned out to be much more nuanced and much less nationalist than previously thought. The main academic institution in South Korea charged with answering the Chinese claims did in fact function as an academic institution and not as a propaganda ministry, threading a fine line between academic inquiry and political pronouncement. For South Korea, ancient Manchurian history is so much alive, it is even debated in the National Parliament.
In between the Chinese and South Korean academics, the North Korean academics remain silent. In North Korea it is rather the state that has appropriated Manchurian history to bolster the legitimacy of its ruling house, by borrowing the historical prestige of illustrious Manchuria. The ruling Kim family actively uses its made-up Manchurian heritage to shore up its support among the North Korean people. And in between North Korea and China, there is perhaps the most interesting group: the ethnic Koreans who've lived in China for generations in the territory that used to be known as Manchuria. For them, Manchuria is not a distant past, but a daily reality, positioned in between competing Chinese, South Korean and North Korean claims. There, the Manchurian past is kept alive both in academic writings and in novels, blogs and in personal stories.
This projects has fleshed out the re-imaginings of the Manchurian past in China and the Korea's; analysed its importance in these very different countries; and it is working on getting a grip on how the Manchurian past still contributes to the present in a region that is both very conscious (and possessive) of its past and a beacon of the future as the motor of the world economy. Different stories of the Manchurian past fulfil different roles in today's Northeast Asia; as a mode of identity, a vehicle of international strategies, as a pillar of authoritarian power.

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