Northeast Yanbian is home of China's Chaoxianzu minority, with a 60 percent ethnic Korean population. Though migration to South Korea is affecting the population, natives still proudly display their unique heritage through Hangul signs, support for the local KoreanChinese soccer team, music, and the most authentic Korean food this side of the border
The moment I stepped off the plane at Yanji airport in northeast China, pictures of Korean traditional marriage garments ( hanbok) lining the sky corridor caught the eye. Hungry for some old-school Korean food, I made a beeline to a food stall selling tteok, a chewy, if often flavorless rice cake that, despite being a workout for the jaw, is a staple Korean dessert.
The tteok was exquisitely dull—as it should be—but the process of buying was essentially Chinese: Payment was through a Wechat QR code, the exchange of pleasantries conducted in Mandarin. The stall owners, wearing in purple and green hanbok, were ethnic Koreans, though, officially known in South Korea as jaeoe dongpo (“compatriots who live abroad”) and in China Chaoxianzu (朝鲜族). With a population of around 2.5 million, Koreans are one of the largest ethnic minority groups in China, and compromise around 60 percent of Yanji’s population.
I had arrived in the county seat of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, the officially designated home of Chaoxianzu and the city with the largest amount of ethnic Koreans in China. Although there are considerable Chaoxianzu populations in tourist hotspots like Harbin and Dandong, these cities have little to no overt traces of their culture. It is only in Yanji that the Korean alphabet’s straight lines and circles can be seen on the first row of every single shop, bank, and road sign, making this city “home” for China’s Koreans.
Classic South Korean tunes blared from a loudspeaker installed in front of one of many local produce stores. My ears pricked up upon hearing the deep, warbling voice and upbeat tempo of “What About My Age,” a cover of the 2015 Oh Seung-keun song, beloved by middle-aged Koreans. It’s a song that nostalgically reflects on Seoul’s romantic 70s, when life was slower-paced and the city was less developed than neighboring capitals Beijing and Pyongyang.
Seoul has since become a modern metropolis, and it’s Yanji that’s now lagging behind. Apart from a few government buildings, well-lit bridges, and the nightclub-filled central avenue, Yanji’s aesthetic is rather gray and rugged. Its appearance reflects the city’s depressed economy, a consequence of emigration to South Korea that began after the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992.
My landlady, Ms. Ri, was one of the few Chaoxianzu who had never worked or lived in South Korea. Instead, she grew up near Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province, with few Chaoxianzu neighbors, never developing the bilingualism that is key
IN YANJI, THE KOREAN ALPHABET CAN BE SEEN ON EVERY SINGLE SHOP, BANK, AND ROAD SIGN
a music center run by North Korean teachers, sent from Pyongyang to offer Korean drum classes to all ages. Sitting in on a class for senior citizens, I noticed the close relationship between the teacher and her students, most of whom were her age or older. I suddenly remembered something my uncle, a retired Seoulite and history buff, told me: The Korean dialect spoken by the Chaoxianzu is from Hamyong, a province now part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Dprk)—another reason for the complicated feelings between Chaoxianzu and South Koreans.
Although interactions with North Koreans are the exception rather than the norm for Yanji’s Chaoxianzu, the city itself gets frequently embroiled in relations between China and the DPRK. During Kim Jong-un’s two previous visits to Beijing, the prefectural government sent elite performers from the Yanji Cultural and Arts Research Center to entertain the Supreme Leader with traditional Korean music.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of my five days in Yanji was visiting the poet Yun Dong-ju’s birthplace, which has been turned into a permanent exhibition by the prefectural government. Located in the tiny village of Myeongdong, 50 kilometers from the city, the exhibition has received thousands of visitors from Korea since it opened in 2012, all looking to pay homage to a literary giant whose works they had read in elementary school textbooks.
Yun’s poetry combines a childlike appreciation of nature with deep introspection, using simple yet beautiful language that anyone can understand. Koreans’ admiration for him is also connected to his tragic fate: Born in 1917, seven years after Japan’s annexation of Korea, Yun was active in the Korean independence movement, but died at the tender age of 28, just six months before Japan’s capitulation to the Allied forces. His most famous poem, “Foreword,” reflects the sadness he felt as a Yanbian Korean, exiled from his ancestral home with no way to return:
Seeing these words engraved onto rocks, bronze towers, and marble plaques in the village allowed me to visualize poetry in a way I never had before. Against a backdrop of traditional Korean houses ( hanoks) and pine trees, reading Yun’s poetry was like an exercise in remembering how to look again at the world with the eyes of a child. Simple happenings—a rainy night or household chores like laying the laundry out to dry—were immortalized in verse form by Yun, who seemed to find beauty in everything.
The village shares its name with another, much more popular tourist destination: the Myeongdong district in the center of Seoul. Large groups of Chinese tourists on shopping sprees can often be found in this area, which is known for its cosmetics industry. The tranquility of Yanbian’s Myeongdong is a startling contrast to the relentless consumerism symbolized by Myeongdong in Seoul, mirroring the fates of the two cities themselves.
Content with this fitting end to a five-day immersion in China’s Korean culture, I bought some dull tteok to eat on the plane—for want of hoisting one those poetry-hewn rocks to take home, as a souvenir of those precious few hours I spent wandering around, lost and starry-eyed among the verses that an uprooted poet wrote down a century ago.
Wishing not to have So much as a speck of shame Toward heaven until the day I die, I suffered, even when the wind stirred the leaves. With my heart singing to the stars, I shall love all things that are dying. And I must walk the road That has been given to me. Tonight, again, the stars are Brushed by the wind.
A view of Yanji from Maor Mountain, part of a national forest park
Poet Yun Dong-ju’s poem “Foreword’ is carved on a rock outside his birthplace in Myeongdong, Yanbian prefecture