The World of Chinese - - Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter - BY ED­UARDO BAPTISTA (苏昂)

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


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

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