Beyond Ethnic and National Identity in Chaoxianzu Literature

Chinese literature in general, and more specifically the literature of the Chaoxianzu, or ethnic Koreans in China, has undergone drastic changes since the state-wide economic reforms that were initiated in 1978. No longer burdened to partake in ideological war or oppressed by the Cultural Revolution, the Chaoxianzu began to embrace the new mainstream of the Chinese literary world as well as produce works exploring their own experiences and emotions in the form of elegies, scar literature, self-reflection literature, reform literature, and root-searching literature. In fiction, Jin Xuezhe, Li Genquan, Lin Yuanchun, Liu Yuanwu, Li Yuanji, Zheng Shifeng, and Piao Shanshi broadened the horizon of Chaoxianzu literature. In poetry, Li Yu, Ren Xiaoyuan, Jin Zhe, Jin Chenghui, Zhao Longnan, and Li Shangjue drew the attention of the Chinese literary world with poems of various forms including lyrical poetry, prose poetry, lyrical epic poetry, and long epic poetry. In literary theory and criticism, Zheng Panlong, Quan Zhe, Zhao Chegnri, Cui Sanlong, Quan Guoquan, Jin Fengxiong, Jin Dongxun, Zhang Zhengyi, Piao Hua, and Han Chun launched Chinese Chaoxianzu Literature, a new magazine on the history of Chaoxianzu literature.

Lin Yuanchun’s “Ragged Skirt” is a short story that depicts the conflicts and attachments that form between the Li family with vivid realistic detail. It also introduces a new type of Chaoxianzu woman based on a strong sense of ethnic identity through the conflicting characters of the diligent Lady from Tongfosi and the selfish Lady from Chaoyangchuan. In Geneology, Lin provides a glimpse into the perilous lives of the Chaoxianzu who had to survive in the foreign land of China during the Korean War, throughout the Cultural Revolution, and later as China opened its doors to the world.

Li Yuanji’s The Heart of the People is a tale about the noble life of a Chaoxianzu peasant suffering from severe poverty, ending with the message that the true owners of the state are its people. In his poetry “Characters of the North,” Jin Zhe projects the characteristics of the Chaoxianzu by borrowing the motif of azaleas from the eponymous Korean poem; while his long epic poetry The Tale of Saebyeol, based on a Chaoxianzu folktale, tells of Chaoxianzu peasants’ indomitable resolve to resist outside pressure and remain loyal. Jin Chenghui’s You People in White projects the ethnic characteristics of the Chaoxianzu using the motif of white clothes—“people in white” being a common expression Koreans use to identify themselves—while his Dear Changbaishan, Speak retells the history of great suffering and bloody sacrifice when the Chaoxianzu fought against Imperial Japan.

The History of Chinese Chaoxianzu Literature by Zhao Chengri and Quan Zhe is a compilation of the characteristics of the literary activities and works of the Chaoxianzu residing in the Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang Provinces, based on the perspectives of positivism and nationalism. In 1958, in order to write down the literary history of ethnic Koreans in China, Quan Zhe, at the time a professor of Korean Language and Literature at Yanbian University, and his students Zhao Chengri and Cui Sanlong, started conducting a full-scale investigation on the Chaoxianzu communities across the three northeast Chinese provinces. The resulting masterpiece follows 30 years of research.

While the economic reforms were a policy-based effort that changed the lives of every Chinese, the establishment of diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1992 likewise had a profound influence on the lives and literature of the Chaoxianzu as an ethnic minority in China. The new diplomatic relationship encouraged many Chaoxianzu to think of South Korea rather than the North as their homeland, and provided the community with opportunities to experience capitalism through individual and state-level interactions. However, while the money sent home by migrant workers in South Korea greatly improved the economic status of th...