"Heilongjiang: the black dragon river" Heilongjiang Sheng by mke1963
Heilongjiang Sheng Travel Guide: 399 reviews and 1,009 photos
Heilongjiang existed through much of time as an unknown area of China. It was beyond the Great Wall, so of little interest to the Han Chinese, save for the tribute of little known rulers and tribes. It was a wild, wind-swept, cold place where the farmlands gave way to pastures, huge swamps then vast forests that stretched into eternity and the massive permanently iced tundra and ice deserts of Siberia. Even in southern Heilongjiang, the summers are short and the winters arduous and long. Yet people not only survived here but fostered great empires. What is it about these cold eastern climates that has bred the Tartars and the Jurchen, bringing us the Gingghis Khan, Kublai Khan, the Yuan, Jin and Qing Dynasties of China. There is no doubt that this vast area of Mongolia, Manchuria and Siberia have played a role in civilization, both eastern and western, yet now play so much a marginalised role in the world. What was it that set their stars rising so long ago, and what was it that caused them to wane so unexpectedly later on?
In times past, the area from the Songhua river north and east to the Pacific Ocean were all the same people, when nationalities and names didn't matter. There were tribes and different ethnic groups, with new arrivals sweeping in to the region on foot, on horseback and later by train, over several thousand years. China claims it lost the lands to the north of the Heilongjiang river in the political shake-ups of the eighteenth century, but realistically these areas were never integrated into China, and arguably have hardly been integrated now into Russia. This is a huge area where those who live here go about their lives the way their ancestors did, and have little influence on - nor influence from - countries and civilizations in any direction. Even today, even among the regular advertorials in Chinese newspapers for reasons to invest in Heilongjiang, it seems a half-hearted attempt to attract people who don't already belong here. It has been said of Houston, Texas, that anyone who likes the place lives there; it is the same for Heilongjiang, but it is not meant in the same pejorative sense. Heilongjiang and these northern lands truly do belong to, and are best appreciated by its own people. People who know the lakes, the rivers, the forests and the swamps; people who know the land and how to live on it, and most importantly, people who have the skills, the wherewithal and the hardiness to flourish in a cruel climate.
Heilongjiang forms the northern third of what used to be called Manchuria, home to the Manchus primarily, but also to other older or different ethnic groups that are little known and even less understood in Beijing, let alone anywhere else. The Man people, spread across Manchuria are also here, like the Manchu largely indistinguishable from the Han Chinese now. Also present, in declining numbers, are the Daur, Oroqen and Hezhen, all of whom face an uncertain socio-economic future except in theme parks and the famed touristic facilities.
Heilongjiang is a big province, even by Chinese standards. It is also one of the least known by foreigners, although it has not always been this way. One hundred years ago, a thin strip of land either side of the railway was known almost only by foreigners, mainly from Russia.
In 1898, Harbin became the headquarters of the Russian-owned China Eastern Railway, which created a shorter route, through north-eastern China, to Russia’s strategic Pacific port of Vladivostok. Five years later, the steel bridge over the Songhua river was completed and the first train was able to travel right through the way through. (Photographs in the St Sofia Church in Harbin show the historic train arriving in Harbin). As anywhere a railway appears, so do the entrepreneurs and adventurers. Russian businessmen were very quick to follow the trains, to construct mines and factories in an area which had a very low population. Russia squeezed the weak Qing Dynasty in its feeble final years, extracting border concessions and trading privileges in the north-east similar to those afforded other powers in central and southern China. The Tsarist regime even based military units on this foreign soil in Heilongjiang, notably at Harbin, and these troops saw combat in the brief Russian-Japanese war of 1904-5.
The steady colonization brought a security that attracted Jewish merchants and bankers, and this funded further expansion, in turn attracting more settlers. Much of the architectural charm of Harbin can be attributed to these Jewish families and businesses, as in Shanghai. (It is heartening to hear that in 2003, some forty years after the last Jewish people left the city of Harbin, a Jewish lecturer was appointed to a senior position at a university in Harbin). In the years after the Bolshevik Revolution, White Russians poured into Heilongjiang, fleeing the merciless revenge of the new Russian masters. The earlier Russian immigrants had generally been men of purpose, and of money; these newer, more desperate arrivals were fleeing turmoil at home and many came with what they could carry – or less. The new labour source provided additional impetus for the factories of the cities along the China Eastern Railway. The development of Harbin as a cosmopolitan outpost of Europe brought yet more immigrants from many countries, including France, Italy, Poland and Korea. Even American companies, such as International Harvester, were attracted to Harbin.
But all was to change so quickly, when the Japanese imperial forces declared independence in 1932 for Manchuguo, as they called Manchuria. The xenophobic Japanese military rule, viewed with horror even by many in Tokyo, saw the start of a time of horror in Heilongjiang that lasted a generation. Manchuguo was ruled by an iron fist from Mukden (Shenyang). Suddenly Heilongjiang looked south for orders, rather than back down the rails towards Moscow. A province and a city that had thrived on its own enterprise was now required to operate according to the customs and laws of a nation which had never had any influence there before. The slim influence of Beijing was completely removed, and Heilongjiang, like its southerly neighbours of Jilin and Liaoning, was turned into a source of materials and products for Japan. There was little civil society beyond the factory doors. The Japanese attempted to create a façade of normality through the use of China’s last emperor Pu Yi as the emperor, but it was a pathetic gamble, and only Japan’s firm allies of Germany and Italy recognized the state.
Some thirteen years after Russian influence ended, Soviet troops liberated Heilongjiang, and Nationalist Chinese troops arrived in Harbin a year later. These armies had little local knowledge or allegiance, and it was not surprising that Harbin was the first big Chinese city to fall to the Communists. Led by Lin Biao, the Communists rapidly established the city as a stronghold. Lessons they learned here were replicated in cities across the country whenever the Communists arrived. The Communists’ War of Liberation really started in Harbin, with Lin Biao’s armies rapidly moving south through Manchuria, establishing his claim to the most senior positions in the Communist hierarchy until his mysterious death in 1971.
The last fifty or so years have seen good times and bad times in Heilongjiang. The Soviet liberators removed much of the industrial plant in the late 1940s, and their replacements were poor quality and caused significant pollution, as the basic heavy industries were recreated and expanded across north-eastern China. Heilongjiang’s star rose to its high-point in the 1960s with huge and constant investment and plentiful jobs for those who could brave the difficult climate. But Heilongjiang’s investment of the 1960s became its millstone by the end of the century, as much of the industry was chronically uncompetitive, even with similar industries in neighbouring provinces. This northernmost Chinese province was one of the last to embrace reform, and it has been left with a legacy of old, heavy industries, high unemployment and no obvious economic advantages. The age of the aircraft has rendered Harbin’s trump card – the railway link to Europe – anachronous.
Today, Heilongjiang is working hard to recreate itself, but its cumbersome centrally-planned strategies are at odds with the needs of both domestic and foreign investors. It would take courage to invest money in Heilongjiang with few logistical advantages, a legacy of pollution and all-pervasive state control. In 2004, senior provincial officials were arrested on charges of corruption, further damaging the reputation of this beleaguered part of China. The provincial media and marketing people are working hard to sell the province, but the hyperbole and fanciful language makes it hard to believe, and the prospects for the region remain as bleak as the climate. Investment in agriculture, mining, petrochemicals (Daqing remains China’s ‘Houston’) and more modern industries, including the manufacture of aircraft and helicopters, are taking a foothold in the deep snow.
Heilongjiang is a truly beautiful province, and there is much of promise for the adventurous tourist, from the splendours of the provincial capital Harbin, the mountains and forests of the north and west, the great Heilongjiang and Songhuajiang rivers, with huge lakes and wetlands in many parts, and the diverse ethnic groups. Unfortunately, despite all the talk, very little of use has been published in any foreign language for the advantage of independent tourists, and there is insufficient ‘big attractions’ for group travel. Even In Harbin, the main sites are poorly advertised, suffer very poor management and marketing, and are run-down and under-funded. It is usual for the authorities to be unable to organise themselves, but it seemed particularly endemic in harbin, where the provincial museum is so well hidden that we stood outside the doorway for ten minutes asking passers-by where it was. No-one knew. All we had to do was turn around, walk up two steps and we were in it. Harbin’s efforts to generate tourism income is going to need more help than most – invariably our Chinese friends and colleagues were amazed that we would want to visit Harbin and Heilongjiang at all, let alone in winter. Yet Harbin is a wonderfully friendly city with a lot of beautiful architecture, great parks and riverside walks, and plenty of museums.
See more information on my page on the city of Harbin.
- Pros:Warm-hearted people; a big, big place
- Cons:Ferocious climate
- In a nutshell:The great unknown of northern China
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