Manchukuo Perspectives:
Transnational Approaches to Literary Production

Edited by Annika A. Culver and Norman Smith

Reviewed by Pei-Yin Lin
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2020)

Annika A. Culver adn Norman Smith, eds., Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approaches to Literary Production Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2019. xii + 315 pgs. ISBN: 978-988-8528-13-4.

Since the 1990s, a growing body of scholarship on the Japanese Empire has embarked upon a systematic “de-imperialization.” This effort is manifested primarily through two interrelated reappraisals. The first is that of the literary production from Japan’s former colonies, such as Taiwan and Korea, as well as its occupied areas, such as Manchuria. The impetus of this type of de-imperialization is to eschew the rigid colonizer-colonized and collaboration-resistance dichotomies, in order to paint a more nuanced picture of how individual writers navigated the muddy waters between censorship and identity[1] in their literary negotiations with “colonial modernity”; this approach also sheds light on how the subjectivity of Japanese citizens was artistically renegotiated in relation to Japan proper and its colonies.[2] The second type of reappraisal explores the transnational (or trans-colonial) literary interactions within the Japanese Empire or Japanophone cultural representations,[3] offering an alternative framework through which to understand dynamic exchanges across Japanese colonies and semi-colonies.

Manchukuo Perspectives: Transnational Approaches to Literary Production is a timely and important addition to the de-imperialization project, one that straddles the two types of scholarly reappraisal. Edited by two Manchukuo-focused scholars based in North America, this eighteen-chapter book demonstrates a remarkable collective effort by contributors from North America, China, Japan, and South Korea. Although its “twin” project, the thirty-three-volume set entitled Compilation and Research on Manchukuo Literary Sources (偽滿洲時期文學資料整理與研究), prepared concurrently with this volume, was published in China in 2017,[4] this book presents a more condensed, reader-friendly yet equally rich English version covering a wide range of texts produced in the fascist state from 1932 to 1945.

Existing book-length studies on Manchukuo to date are primarily historical, approaching the topic from the perspective of Japan’s military aggression and cultural imperialism.[5] This volume’s focus on literary production, therefore, nicely complements these historical studies. With chapters discussing works by Russian, Korean, and Japanese authors, Manchukuo Perspectives also displays for Anglophone readers representative research conducted by a group of international scholars concerned with East Asian colonialism and literature.[6]

The eighteen chapters are divided into three parts. The four chapters in Part I are thematically organized, focusing on print media and Ōuchi Takao’s translation work in Manchukuo. Parts II and III are arranged on the basis of writers’ ethnicities, the focus being primarily on Manchukuo’s Chinese writers (Part II contains nine chapters on Chinese authors). The fifteen illustrations provide a visual treat: there are some rare photos of Manchukuo writers that the contributors have generously shared from their personal collections.

Part I, Manchukuo’s Print Media and the Politics of Representation/Translation, begins with a chapter by Liu Xiaoli, one of China’s preeminent Manchukuo scholars and editor-in-chief of the aforementioned Compilation and Research on Manchukuo Literary Sources. Liu traces the origins of three types of “New Manchuria” narratives characteristic of Japanese imperialist propaganda that “continue to [insidiously] linger into the present” (14): Chinese writers’ portrayal of the alienated educated Chinese; Chinese writers’ depiction of laborers; and expatriate Korean and Russian writers’ unhappy accounts of their Manchukuo experience. Liu’s conclusion that present-day Chinese Northeasterners’ nostalgia toward Manchuria’s past “glory” is indicative of their discontent toward a more flourishing southern China is thought-provoking, but it remains unclear how prevalent this nostalgia might be among China’s Northeasterners.

The two subsequent chapters, by Chen Shi and Jiang Lei respectively, resonate with Liu’s findings, while also demonstrating that the ideology promulgated by colonial officials was less than effective. Chen’s chapter investigates how the fairytale genre was incorporated into Japanese cultural imperialism in Manchukuo. Chen points out that while there are propaganda-like “indoctrinating fairy tales,” others were actually allegories of disillusionment with the harsh reality of the colonial project. This “discontent” with Japanese imperialism does not come exclusively from Chinese writers; it is also detectable among Japanese authors (e.g. Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s rewriting of the Momotarō story). Jiang Lei’s chapter shows that works containing anti-Japanese sentiments continued to be published in Japan-sponsored Datong bao literary supplements, side-by-side with pro-Japan propaganda. However, Jiang does not address the relative “apolitical” works in Datong bao’s supplements, or those in line with Japan’s national policies, by writers such as Ge He and Yang Ye[7]; the picture of Datong bao’s supplements presented in this chapter is consequently over-simplified.

Chapter 4 by Xiong Ying continues a discussion of the “resistance” motif developed in Jiang’s chapter, but with a focus on the use of metaphors. Xiong argues that the bleak atmosphere permeating several works by Manchukuo-based Chinese authors is an effective metaphor employed by those writers to construct their identity and articulate their dissatisfaction with Japan’s colonial governance. Xiong also points out that Ōuchi Takao, a China expert and important Chinese translator active in Manchukuo, adopted the motif of “the beauty of the Manchurian spring” to express his personal utopian outlook on Manchukuo and the “irreducible gap” between him and his Chinese colleagues’ works (75). Xiong suggests treating the history of colonialism as one of translation and analyzes how Ōuchi’s panglossian pan-Asianism pre-empted the possibility of fully sympathizing with his Chinese literary friends. While Ōuchi’s ambivalence as a translator is lucidly shown, how Ōuchi mediated this ambivalence in his translation work and how his Chinese linguistic ability put him at risk of being considered a “cultural secret agent” are scarcely tackled.[8] Xiong concludes that as “the core of proletarian affinities, pan-Asianist ideologies, and national Concordia ultimately resided fully in the Japanese leadership” (79), Manchukuo ineluctably became an unattainable utopia for Ōuchi. I would add that Ōuchi’s disillusionment lies precisely in the inherent tension between pan-Asianism as a (leftist) cultural ideal and a political ideology propelling Japanese expansionism.

Miya Qiong Xie’s essay (chapter 5), “Linguistic Hybridity, Transnational Connectivity, and the Cultural Territorialization of Colonial Literature: The Case of Gu Ding,” makes for a good bridge from Part I and into the volume’s second section, Part II, Chinese Writers in Manchukuo and “Manchukuo” Writers in Japan. It explores Gu Ding’s 古丁 linguistic hybridity, which is relevant to Xiong Ying’s discussion of Ōuchi Takao in the previous chapter, and introduces readers to Gu Ding—one of the two writers to be discussed in chapter 6 (the other being Xiao Hong 蕭紅). Xie considers the transnational aspect of Gu’s linguistic experiment an expedient tactic for Gu to articulate a Chinese leftist identity within the colonial frontier (98-99). In the next chapter, by contrast, Junko Agnew’s reading of Gu Ding’s “New Life” sees the writer as “a Chinese literary opportunist” who “internalized Japan’s colonial mentality” and regarded Japanese imperialism as a “a savior” for China’s sickness (118). These ostensibly contradictory images of Gu Ding might perhaps be reconciled if we take into account that Gu’s ultimate objective was to enlighten his fellow countrymen; appropriating Japanese colonial resources/discourses is then revealed as a means by which to reach that [leftist] goal. Agnew’s introduction of biopolitics to her interpretation of Xiao Hong’s The Field of Life and Death (生死場) opens up a new perspective, but whether there are alternative readings of Xiao outside of the existing “anti-Japanese and leftist” (106) paradigms and how Xiao’s status as a “feminist” (104) ought to be situated within anti-Japanese struggles remain to be elaborated.

This “gendered” aspect of Manchukuo literature found in Xiao Hong’s works is echoed in Zhu Ti’s writing, the subject of Norman Smith’s chapter. Smith’s account of the husband-wife writers Ke Ju 柯炬 and Zhu Ti’s 朱媞 life in Manchukuo and after 1945 is touching, particularly when it is augmented by Ke Ju’s personal recollection of Zhu in the following chapter. The “melancholy” pervading the couple’s literary works resonates with other metaphors in the volume, including “gloominess” (73) and “native-land” (160) in Wang Yue’s chapter on Shan Ding’s 山丁 literary practice in Manchukuo. Briefly put, all of these writers’ literary devices and stylistic choices are in one way or another the product of (self)-censorship. The absence of Japanese people in the works of Ke Ju and Zhu Ti contrasts strikingly with Shan Ding’s The Green Valley (綠色的谷) in which the author deliberately “let Japanese emerge in the novel” for his targeted Japanese readership (168). The contrast exemplifies two oppositional approaches/responses to censorship, illustrating how multiple constraints could compromise both the content and form of literary works.

Regardless of whether a work like The Green Valley is an anti-Japanese nationalist novel, as Shan Ding claims in his 1987 postscript,[9] it is unfortunate that he and other writers like Ke Ju had to undergo criticism from the communist authorities. This “double” censorship demonstrates how such writers tried to uphold a sense of agency by promoting and defending their chosen style in a literary environment where production and valorization were nearly always politicized. This issue is scrutinized in Liu Chao’s chapter on Wenxuan 文選 (Literary selections) writers who adopted radical nationalism but morphed into anti-modernists so as to show their distance from the colonial ideology. Neither the realist and collectivist native-land literature advocated by Shan Ding and his Wenxuan companions, nor the more modernist, cosmopolitan, and individualism-oriented group affiliated with Gu Ding’s Japanese-sponsored journal, Mingming 明明, can be immune from the charge of ideological appropriation by their Japanese colonizers. If the former’s native-land is “inevitably incorporated into colonial ideological contexts” (156), the latter cannot easily elude the stigma of pro-Japanese collaboration.

Chapters 11 and 12, by Chen Yan and Zhang Quan, respectively, both call for a more contextualized reappraisal of writers who are usually judged negatively for their Manchukuo-era literary activities. The concept of “acculturation,” put forward in Chen Yan’s chapter, is useful for examining the cultural interactions that took place between colonizer and colonized. Chen employs Homi Bhabha’s terms “cultural hybridity” and “the third space” to discuss the writing of Mei Niang 梅娘, Liu Longguang 柳龍光, and Yuan Xi 袁犀. Chen’s statements, such as Mei Niang “supported colonial rule under no explicit compulsion” (180) and Liu “trusted that Japanese colonialists would help save China” (184), however, seem too judgmental to illustrate her argument for the in-between subject-positions of these writers. On the other hand, Chen Yan’s discussion of Yuan Xi’s “pursuit of proletarian masculine aesthetics” (187) aptly demonstrates the writer’s counter-hegemonic agency, and is a fitting illustration of the potentially subversive “third space.”

Zhang Quan’s chapter (translated by Norman Smith) concerns Mei Niang during the Japanese occupation and post-occupation years. Drawing on Kishi Yōko’s analysis of Mei’s (revision of Kume Masao’s) Song of the White Orchid as well as Mei’s translation of Niwa Fumio’s Mother’s Youth, Zhang underlines Mei’s own emotions and gender concerns when rewriting and translating Japanese literary texts. In my view, both works make for salient examples supporting Chen Yan’s highlighting of the strategies by which Chinese writers “manipulate[d] colonial knowledge for their own purposes” (188). Chen and Zhang, however, hold different opinions on the mainstream scholarly assessment of Mei. For Chen, despite the generally-accepted positive view of Mei as a writer with integrity that Zhang Quan has promoted, Mei’s involvement in official Japanese-led literary activities suggests that she supported colonial rule. But Zhang grumbles that “the dominant view in China of Mei Niang and literature of occupied areas remains negative” (200), pointing to Wang Jinsong’s dismissal of Mei’s 1940s works as an example. This shows the reevaluations of certain Manchukuo writers in China nowadays are still caught in the collaboration/resistance dichotomy. Ōkubo Akio’s chapter makes for a better pairing with chapter 11, because both discuss Chinese writers’ inspirations from Japanese literature and thought. Luo Tuosheng’s 駱駝生inability to establish the Mobei Literary Youth Association (漠北文學青年會), discussed by Ōkubo, demonstrates that colonial projects often require adjustments and indigenous support before they can be successfully transplanted.

Part III, Russian, Japanese, and Korean Writers in Manchukuo, provides non-Chinese perspectives of Manchukuo’s literary establishment. Chapters 14 and 15 discuss the “implicit rejection” (238, 252) of Japanese policies in the works of émigré Russian poets in Manchuria and in Chinese manxi 满系 (Manchurian system) detective stories, respectively. The inclusion of Russian writers and popular fiction is commendable; it helps begin to fill in the current research lacuna with regards to the Manchukuo’s literary scene. Chapter 14, by Olga Bakich, lays a foundation for future studies on the Russian literary diaspora. Stephen Poland’s chapter (16) returns to the “resistance” theme by examining a dissonance discernable within Japan’s ethnic harmonization discourse, in the Japanese proletarian writer Nogawa Takashi’s “The People Who Go to the Hamlet.” Nogawa’s case prompts us to rethink the potential of Japanese settlers in Manchuria to resist Japanese imperialism as well as their opportunities for internationalist collaboration with other resident intellectuals.

The last two chapters are concerned with Korean authors’ works about Manchukuo. Watanabe Naoki explores colonial Korean writers’ idealization of Manchuria as a place of reform and rebirth and how the stoicism of their protagonists helped to construct the subjectivity of resident Koreans. Ironically, depiction of Korean farmers’ suffering, a possible device for expressing an oppositional Korean consciousness, served instead as a recognition of Koreans as wanderers “subdued by empire, both in Japan and Manchuria” (283), disappointing Im Hwa’s hopes that it would contribute to Korea’s national literature. Kim Jaeyong’s chapter provides a broad survey of Korean writers’ (both from Joseon and in Manchukuo) conceptualization of Koreans within Japan’s NaiSen ittai policy and “harmony of the five races” discourse, and how they navigated Cold War politics after 1945.

Overall, Manchukuo Perspectives is a highly informative and readable book on Manchukuo literature, with some chapters offering in-depth study on specific writers or literary groups while others presenting useful overviews. It sets a great example of transpacific academic collaboration between upcoming and established scholars from North America and Asia. The scope of this volume would have been even more comprehensive if a chapter on Taiwanese writers in Manchukuo, such as Zhong Lihe 鐘理和, had been included. I personally think that the volume might also have included more case studies of transculturation, be it in active or passive forms—or an interplay of both—and more chapters offering “transcolonial” comparisons. More cross-referencing between Japan’s formal or informal colonies may be too much to ask for a book focusing on Manchukuo, but the transcolonial approach could be effective in bringing out Manchukuo’s uniqueness. For instance, the positivity evident in Shan Ding’s works is less often found in the depiction of native soil by colonial Taiwanese writers such as Lü Heruo 呂赫若 and Zhang Wenhuan 張文環; at the least, the indigenous tradition is not glorified as much. The Mingming vs. Wenxuan contrast is not too different from the romanticists vs. realists debate in Taiwan literary circles during the 1940s, and the debate over what kind of reality one should write took place in Japan’s other colonies as well.

Several chapters in the book stress the importance of identifying the production of colonial difference and celebrating writers’ “implicit” subversion of Japanese policies, but I believe the volume would have benefitted from more chapters dealing with similarities, such as shared leftist beliefs (covered by chapters 13 and 16), and female writing (chapters 6 and 7). Furthermore, the aforementioned cross-colony—or inter-occupied-area—comparison might be particularly beneficial to the study of modern Chinese literature. Chen Sihe has proposed a “colonial literature” framework to connect Taiwan’s colonial literature with China’s semi-colonial literature,[10] whereas Zhang Quan, one of this book’s contributors, has likewise suggested reexamining 1940s literature via a synchronic “Japanese-occupied Taiwan/Manchukuo/New China” comparative perspective, as well as a “KMT-ruled/Communist base/Japanese-occupied area” comparative perspective.[11] Along these comparative lines, other possible literary and ideological connections could be drawn between Luo Tuosheng, Lei Shiyu 雷石楡, Wu Kunhuang 吳坤煌, and others, to trace the exchange between left-wing movements in Japan, China (Manchukuo and Shanghai), Taiwan, and perhaps also Korea and Russia. We can also reach a fuller understanding of the production of Xiao Hong’s The Field of Life and Death, a book drafted and partially published in Manchukuo but completed in KMT-ruled Qingdao. Xiao Hong’s enhancement of the anti-Japanese elements in the work took place after her arrival in the “freer” Qingdao. This may help explain the somehow abrupt and disproportionate anti-Japanese chapters in Xiao’s otherwise women-centric novel. It also urges us to always historicize and remain vigilant about the “identity trap” when reevaluating colonial texts. To redress this, sophisticated textual interpretations and attention to those colonial-era writers’ complicated position-takings are feasible ways forward.

In fact, some chapters in this book already insightfully call for a more all-encompassing reinterpretation of Manchukuo literature. In chapter 12, Zhang Quan positions the works discussed in the framework of modern Chinese literature, although he does not elaborate much on it. More ambitiously, Zhan Li calls for viewing Manchukuo literature as “global literature.” This shows at least two layers of “de-imperialization,” or “lyo-colonizing” in Liu Xiaoli’s term, are needed. To position Manchukuo literature more neutrally within each relevant “national” literary tradition is vital but insufficient. An in-depth transnational comparison would also need to be undertaken in order to fully grasp the implications of Manchukuo’s literary legacy.

While there are dialogues between chapters and I can see some logic behind the chapter sequence, the current arrangement of Parts 2 and 3 risks making each “ethno-national” articulation too independent, thereby undermining the potential of “transnational approaches” this book adopts. It also creates a divide, likely an inadvertent one, between Manchukuo’s Chinese and non-Chinese writers. A thematic arrangement as employed in Part 1 could have remedied this. Either acculturation or border-crossing, two keywords of Chen Yan’s chapter, would make a sensible section heading under which, for example, Ōuchi’s rendering of Chinese texts and Mei Niang’s translation of Japanese works, could be grouped together. Additionally, discrepancy in arguments about the same authors could have been more scrupulously avoided, even though it does highlight the moral controversies surrounding Manchukuo writers in current research. While the repetition of authors such as Gu Ding and Mei Niang is not an issue, chapters on different writers (e.g. Jue Qing 爵青) or lesser-known literary figures, would have further enriched this book. Although contributors unanimously call for a contextualized and more objective examination of Manchukuo’s literary legacy, nationalist sentiments still lurk between the lines in some chapters. This could make readers ponder whether the dual identities mentioned in chapter 15 (p. 241) were truly a feasible option for Manchukuo writers. As researchers, we must eschew the tendentiously moralistic and nationalistic views that have hindered Manchukuo literary studies for so long and strive harder to reveal nuances of agency in the ways Manchukuo writers juggled with the various forces shaping their lives and writing.

There are some minor inconsistencies in the chapter structure and some of the translations, and a few errors in Romanization. Only some chapters have an introduction, and not all have a sufficient conclusion. The contributor Xiong Ying appears as Ying Xiong on the Contents page. In Ch9, Wenxuan is rendered differently on p.140 and p.145. The glossary is very handy, but Fei Ming is misromanized as “Feiming” (304), 支部 should be “zhibu” instead of “zhi bu” (312), the Chinese characters for Zheng Yujun appears in simplified form (315), and a “g” is missing in the romanization of Zhong Xiang’s name (315). These minor infelicities, however, do not discount the overall contributions of this volume. All in all, it is a valuable book for anyone interested in East Asian literature specifically and postcolonial studies generally. I can certainly foresee using it for my teaching. How Japan’s colonialism and Manchukuo should be evaluated remain a politically-charged matter—Japanese rule or occupation? Occupied Northeast, fake puppet state, or just ‘Manchukuo’? There is no single correct answer. In this regard, Manchukuo Perspectives makes a substantial contribution: it proves any attempt to harmonize this contact zone will be futile precisely because this contested space is inherently multicultural, multilingual, and multiethnic and ought to be appraised as such.

Pei-Yin Lin
Hong Kong University


[1] Examples include Leo Ching’s Becoming “Japanese”: Colonial Taiwan and the Politics of Identity Formation (University of California Press, 2001); Nayoung Aimee Kwon’s Intimate Empire: Collaboration and Colonial Modernity in Korea (Duke UP, 2015); Bert Scruggs, Translingual Narration: Colonial and Postcolonial Taiwanese Fiction and Film (Hawaii UP, 2015); Pei-yin Lin, Colonial Taiwan: Negotiating Identities and Modernity through Literature (Brill, 2017); and Jina E. Kim’s Urban Modernities in Colonial Korea and Taiwan (Brill, 2019).

[2] Ying Xiong’s Representing Empire: Japanese Colonial Literature in Taiwan and Manchuria (Brill, 2014).

[3] See, for instance, Karen Thornber’s Empire of Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature (Harvard University Asia Center, 2009), and Faye Yuan Kleeman’s In Transit: The Formation of the Colonial East Asian Cultural Sphere (University of Hawai’i Press, 2014).

[4] Compilation and Research on Manchukuo Literary Sources, edited by Liu Xiaoli 劉曉麗 (Harbin: Beifang wenyi, 2017).

[5] See Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Prasenjit Duara, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003); Shin-ichi Yamamuro (trans. Joshua A. Fogel), Manchuria under Japanese Dominion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2006); and also those mentioned in Smith’s postscript (p.296).

[6] These include Liu Xiaoli, Ōkubo Akio, Kim Jaeyong, and others. Kim was the organizer of the ten-year “Colonialism and Literature Colloquium” (2005-2014). In December 2015, Liu Xiaoli hosted a conference at which the participants kicked off a second ten-year collaboration plan.

[7] For a more comprehensive analysis on Datong bao supplements, see Jiang Lei’s 蔣蕾 book Spiritual Resistance: The Political Identity and Cultural Identity of Literary Supplements of the Occupied Northeast—A Historical Investigation Using Datong bao as an Example (精神抵抗: 東北淪陷區報紙文學副刊的政治身份與文化身份—以《大同報》為樣本的歷史考察 ) (Jilin: Jilin renmin, 2014).

[8] The Fushun-based Chinese writer Wang Qiuying recollected that he was not comfortable with the Chinese translations by Ōuchi and other Japanese writers. It was rumoured that Ōuchi’s translation was for providing information to Japanese secret agents. See Wang Qiuying 王秋螢, “On the Debate of Nativist Literature of the Occupied Northeast” (關於東北淪陷時期鄉土文學的爭論), Collection of Essays from the International Conference on Literature of the Occupied Northeast (東北淪陷時期文學國際學術研討會論文集) (Shenyang: Shenyang, 1992), 131-132.

[9] Duara does not think nationalism is a crucial concern of this novel. See his Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern, p.226

[10] Chen Sihe 陳思和, “A Few Problems Concerning the Research of Twentieth-Century Chinese Literary History (有關二十世紀中國文學史研究的幾個問題). Wenxue pinglun 6 (2016): 152-161.

[11] Zhang Quan 張泉, “Macro Methodologies of Integrating 1940s Literature—Centering on East Asian Political Geography and Chinese Literary Field” (整合四十年代文學的宏觀方法問題以東亞政治地理與中國文學場為中心). Dangdai wentan 250 (2020): 84-90.