Past Progress
Time and Politics at the Borders of China, Russia, and Korea
Ed Pulford



Progresses Past and Present

Being the outgoing type, madamae1 was keenly interested in all the concentric circles of events that radiated out around her. Much of what she observed, from new products in her hometown Hunchun to infrastructural developments in Yanbian prefecture and Jilin province, and national achievements across China, indicated that life was improving. Indeed, the only real clouds on this expansive horizon loomed at the most grandiose and the most mundane ends of the spectrum as, in their own ways, global geopolitics and the leak that her anthropologist houseguest had somehow caused in her bathroom threatened to pincer her cheery outlook. During the months in 2014–15 that I spent living with madamae in Hunchun, which lies in a Korean region of China on the country’s northeastern borders with Russia and North Korea,2 our conversations flitted seamlessly between affairs at these various scales of focus. Warp to the weft of a home life of studying, cooking, eating, socializing, watching television, and visits from madamae’s Korean- and Chinese-speaking friends and family, the macro and the micro collapsed together, and so even the most abstract international matters entered the intimate confines of her light- and houseplant-filled apartment.

Our days together would usually begin with a dawn visit to the East Market, where madamae rhapsodized at the range of goods on offer. Aside from the natural greens from the wooded hills around Hunchun, every conceivable vegetable and animal product was now available and affordable. “Even beggars can eat meat these days,” she said, adding that local people’s palates had expanded to include Russian and North Korean seafood, and dishes from distant southern China.

When her daughter, son-in-law, and twelve-year-old grandson came to visit on evenings and weekends, madamae would marvel at the extracurricular activities Byŏngnam had been volunteered for, from Chinese flute (dizi) to supplementary English composition classes. Young people had so many opportunities these days: Byŏngnam’s exhausted expression presumably just showed that he lacked the historical perspective to see how lucky he was.

Like much of Hunchun’s population, madamae’s family belonged to China’s ethnically Korean (Kor. Chosŏnjok, Ch. Chaoxianzu) community, and so peninsular matters were high on the conversational agenda at home. No one had a particularly positive opinion of Kim Jong Un, but madamae did think his wife was beautiful and felt North Korea deserved China’s help in resisting American imperialism. Indeed, as an avid viewer of China Central Television’s national Xinwen lianbo news show, on at 7:00 p.m. each evening after the local Yanbian TV Korean-language news, she knew that US meddling was an issue for China too. “Why can’t America or Japan just respect the world’s second biggest economy and its technology, now admired by Africans, Europeans, Asians, and the Soviets alike?” madamae wondered, using a term still commonly applied to Russians in northeast China. US “provocations” in the South China Sea were a cause of particular indignation.

But it was an aqueous rather than a maritime incident that offered clearest evidence of the fact that—in borderland settings like Hunchun—the local is often international. The leak, caused by cracks in the bathtub where I showered, and grounds for loud stairwell rows between madamae and her—also Chosŏnjok—downstairs neighbor had been a problem for a while, and eventually some men came to inspect it. Madamae at first mistook one of them for a fellow Korean. But her respectful greeting, annyŏnghasupnikka, fell on deaf ears: he was Han Chinese, he said apologetically, ancestrally from Shandong province, though he added by way of consolation that he had at least been to North Korea. People there seemed politer than in China, he felt, but for some reason they use US dollars for everything and eat food donated from here: perhaps their Military First policy means they give all their money to the army, but either way they’re not very developed. The plumber had got a similar impression of the other neighbors when, before marrying in the 1980s, he had spent three years working in the USSR. How could the Soviets be so unable to look after themselves that he and other Hunchun people had to go and do construction there? It was baffling. Construction was key to a country’s success, he reflected, and neither the Soviets nor the Koreans were doing too well at that these days. But this thought perhaps reminded him of what he was in the apartment for, and he hurried to help his repairman colleague, who was now sprawled clanking around under the bathtub.

The plumber’s comments both exemplified the cross-border perspective of many ordinary people in Hunchun today and alluded tellingly to the (post)socialist forces that have redefined relations between China, Russia, and Korea, and wrought dizzying changes to Hunchun’s place in national, regional, and global affairs in recent decades. As phenomena that speak to anthropological concerns over how time is understood in the context of grand state projects and across international borders, such themes will be central to this book. Indeed, my very presence in the town further reflected these transformational trends. The name of the surrounding Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture means “along the border” and thus suggests a certain remoteness, but gaggles of cosmopolitan outsiders, from the central PRC authorities to officials, businesspeople, journalists, and researchers from numerous countries, have of late been descending on Hunchun, performing the “opening up” of this formerly out-of-the-way locale. Some of this began well before I started conducting fieldwork here in 2013, as from the 1990s state-backed initiatives sought to make Hunchun a transnational hub for postsocialist Northeast Asian cooperation. Discussed further below, this improbable ambition at the nexus of three countries with discordant approaches to borders, mobility, and capital was a spark for my own anthropological and historical interest in this cultural and geopolitical crossroads.

A true high point in Yanbian’s rise to prominence came in July 2015 when, much to madamae’s delight, none other than Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping arrived on an inspection tour. For two days around the visit she sat glued to the television and her mobile phone, scanning social media app WeChat for evidence that he would appear in Hunchun. “He has to see the triple border at Fangchuan,” she said, referring to the spot where China, North Korea, and Russia all actually meet, now a popular tourist site. Rumors of Xi’s arrival had sparked a flurry of anticipatory activity throughout town, including the re-asphalting of road near the bus station that seemed not to need re-asphalting, and the hanging of hundreds of red PRC flags on wires across the streets. But such efforts failed to conjure Xi, whose itinerary remained limited to prefectural capital Yanji around 70 km away, and some nearby farms. As this reality sank in late on the second day, madamae’s spirits dipped, and after bedtime that evening I could still hear her through the wall rewatching a shaky seven-second video snatched on one Yanji resident’s phone. In the clip Xi strolled the streets surrounded by twirling female dancers in Korean chosŏn’ot,3 an emissary from the center vaunted at the nation’s margins. Buttressing this impression, bucolic “ethnic” elements featured in imagery shared on local government WeChat accounts during the visit (fig. I.1).4 Other Chinese Korean friends of mine reacted more sarcastically, coding mockery of Xi’s theatrical leadership cult by referring to him as Sŭp Taedae 습대대, a nonsensical Chosŏn’gŭl rendering of his official Chinese nickname Xi Dada (“Daddy Xi”). But madamae, who saw in Xi echoes of her favorite leader Mao Zedong, was amazed he had been so close to her long-neglected hometown.

FIGURE I.1: Xi Jinping in Yanbian. Retrieved from Hunchun local government public WeChat account; additional source in endnote 4.

Taken together, these diffuse notes on events large and small in Hunchun lead to an observation that will be key to this book’s focus on time and its shifting anthropological meanings at various political scales: the tumultuous changes that have brought material abundance, high-level attention, and shifting border-crossing opportunities to Hunchun have, for many among the town’s multiethnic Korean, Han Chinese, Russian, and Manchu population, engendered a particular worldview tethered to ideas of “progress.” Borne along by senses of outward expansivism and forward movement which exist in both official and vernacular forms, Hunchun people today commonly understand their transforming material and sociopolitical lives, and relations with cross-border neighbors, in terms of “development” (Ch. fazhan, Kor. palchŏn); the “construction” (jianshe, kŏnsŏl) invoked by the plumber; and “progress” (jinbu, chinbo) itself. In doing so they engage a distinctive borderland variant of a mood that has pervaded China over the past three decades. As anthropologists and other scholars of Chinese historical and temporal experience have noted, increased wealth, infrastructural improvement, and constant building have fed into a nationwide affect which Anna Greenspan (2014) calls “futurity,” sweeping up hundreds of millions of people in a whorl of change. In a state whose economy was, until the 2020s, growing by 8–10 percent annually, even the blandest efforts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to yoke everyday change to official visions of national advancement have gained vernacular credence. Such tendencies have emerged in other developmentalist postsocialist settings too: as Erik Harms (2016: 32) notes, residents of transforming Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, interpret the construction (and destruction) around them in terms that echo government and corporate narratives, even if “no one ever forced anyone to tell the story in this way.” The idea of grand-scale progress attracts less everyday cynicism or ambivalence in reformed socialist contexts today than it does in, for example, Euro-America or the former Soviet Union. Straightforwardly depoliticized and culturally non-relativized framings of progress abound in China, shorn of analyses that might interrogate progress’s costs or ask whether all of society’s class, ethnic, or other constituencies benefit equally. As in Vietnam, a public trained for decades in socialist critiques of capitalism nevertheless enthuses about processes that interloping intellectuals might call “neoliberal” (Harms 2016: 6).

Yet if much of this is as present in Hunchun as elsewhere, progress also acquires a distinctive borderland valence here. Evident along two interrelated axes, this distinctiveness results both from how incongruent this positivism is within Hunchun’s historical setting, and from how sharply it contrasts with the atmosphere over state borders. It is precisely this that makes Hunchun an ideal setting from which to ask questions about progress-rooted thinking, questions that apply well beyond the northeast Chinese, or the postsocialist, context.

Firstly, if Hunchun presents rosy prospects to many among its municipal population of 229,000 today (Jilin 2018), then even cursory consideration of local borderland pasts makes such views surprising. Today’s pervasive progressivism builds substantially on teleological notions of advancement which were shared by both the Cold War’s twentieth-century “camps” but were promoted with particular force under Chinese, Soviet, and Korean state socialisms. As a result, with Maoist, Soviet, and Kimist utopian orthodoxies each having crumbled since the 1980s, Hunchun has had a unique vantage point on the illusory promises of linear historical thinking. Even if the three variously postsocialist states which today sandwich the town continue to pose revisionist challenges to the late-capitalist “West’s” sense of where history is going, these lack the ideological, intellectual, or internationalist coherence of high socialism. Still more strikingly, Hunchun’s deeper—but not distant—local pasts offer further examples of progress’s shortcomings in numerous cultural and political inflections. Before Cold War historical materialism, this was a key site within the conquest-evolutionist nineteenth- to twentieth-century Russian and Japanese empires, and before that the seventeenth- to eighteenth-century flourishing of Manchu-Qing and Korean Chosŏn states under cyclical visions of dynastic rise and decline. With these grand endeavors also having come up short, the town’s main demographic groups, be they Chosŏnjok (36%), Han Chinese (Ch. Hanzu, 53%), Manchu (Ch. Manzu, 10%), or Russian (a visible minority of several hundred) (Jilin 2018), have witnessed a three-hundred-year cascade of sometimes compatible, sometimes discordant visions of expansion and advancement: cross-border state socialism’s demise was only the most recent “end of history” to reverberate here.

This leads to my second observation regarding progress’s distinctiveness in Hunchun. In a multiethnic borderland like this, seemingly depoliticized and deculturalized visions of improvement and advancement like those sweeping China today are forcibly politicized and culturized through everyday contact with other temporal frames across international and interethnic boundaries, and backwards through time. The nearby Sino-Korean and Sino-Russian borders (drawn in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively) are linear inscriptions of Hunchun’s long-standing status as a site of convergence for lofty imperial-national endeavors, but collisions among these have invariably emerged in more prosaically haphazard form on the ground. As Marshall Sahlins (1985: viii) notes—drawing on a historically momentous episode when indigenous Hawaiians met and killed British imperial navigator Captain Cook—everyday cross-cultural encounters that occur amid epochal historical change are, for ordinary people, both “confrontation[s] with an external world that has its own imperious determinations and with other people who have their own parochial intentions” (my stress). Over time Chinese, Korean, Russian, and Manchu people around Hunchun have both lived out grand statist or imperial projects of progress and expansion, and interacted in vernacular ways with representatives of other linguistic, cultural, and ethnic groups. These multi-scalar encounters have lent rich local texture to imperious, expansive temporal ideas. As I will show, it is precisely everyday manifestations of progressive notions in a variety of culturally and ideologically inflected forms that have made them so tenacious, both within communities and as pivots in cross-border relationships.

Hunchun people over time have thus engaged with a succession of what Ann Stoler, Carole McGranahan, and Peter Perdue (2007) call “imperial formations.” Allowing comparison among “empires” beyond “fetishized” Western archetypes (Shih 2011), Stoler et al.’s anthro-historical framing encourages us to trace continuities and connections among apparently disparate colonial, national, socialist, or capitalist projects and their shared expansionist impulses to forge fields of meaning, dispossession, and dominance, including in the temporal realm. For many in and around Hunchun today, being propelled to the center of intersecting official and media gazes seems a significant break with a local sense of remoteness within such projects. If one has internalized the perspective of a given political center, seeing the world in terms of discrete, bordered polities—as government cadres, journalists, many social scientists, and indeed modern subjects at large do—then Hunchun looks destined to have played a marginal role in political, social, and economic schemes sweeping northeast Asia since the town’s 1714 foundation as a Qing garrison. Of course, for its own population this is the center of countless domestic and parochial worlds. But local multiethnic residents have all been interpolated over the last three centuries by imperious views that locate the focus of authentic “national” stories elsewhere. Bianjiang or “frontier” remains a common term used locally to describe this area,5 suggesting that, much as China came to be seen as Oriental by Chinese people themselves under nineteenth-century Euro-American spatial hegemony (Xiaomei Chen 1995), Hunchun people have had their sense of place peripheralized by state-centrism. Until the 1990s, entering the town required that one show a border pass (bianjingzheng) proving residency as fears of Soviet or North Korean spies created a sealed-off (fengbi) atmosphere.6 Yet, as Stoler and McGranahan (2007: 10) argue, even if a polity’s strained efforts to assert itself at its margins may reflect the paranoia of imperial failure, perceived edge spaces are often where a formation’s most intensely revealing work of arranging, categorizing, and dislocating occurs. Hunchun people’s engagements with progress over time straddle these mutually constituting poles of marginality and centrality to wider projects, producing entangled temporal and spatial effects: recent movement into an age of material plenty and openness is experienced both as a forward leap in time, and as a shift in imagined location from periphery to vanguard of national and—given the proximity of borders—international affairs. This emic sense of emergence to the front stage, far from the first in Hunchun’s history, serves its own injunction to study politically inflected experiences of time here.

With contemporary life in Hunchun as a starting point, this book thus focuses on the cross-border inflections and layered histories of progress as a component of identity on multiple scales. In doing so I show that—here and across space and time—progress should be understood as an idea that is as local as it is transnational, as concrete as it is abstract, and as cultural as it is philosophical. Like narratives of history and regimes of difference, grand temporalizing ideas are widely understood to radiate out from political and intellectual centers. But for all the power and ambition of Chinese, Soviet, and Korean socialisms and Russian, Japanese, and Qing empires since the seventeenth century, their existence alone does not explain how progress became a compelling everyday framework for Hunchun people to understand their worlds, nor why it has endured despite the serial collapses of projects enacted in its name. There are today many global locations—including the old Cold War “West”—where progressivist visions endure despite the passing of modernist or imperial projects. But this borderland, where an extraordinary profusion of projects has converged, collided, overlapped, and collapsed, is uniquely suited for a “geological” approach to successive imperial formations and the layered effects that their domineering structures, cultural labor, and vernacular engagements produce (Stoler and McGranahan 2007: xi). Ethnographic study of Hunchun-rooted experiences across time provides a context from which to ask why, as Anna Tsing (2005: 21) observes dramatically, “progress still controls us even in tales of ruination.”

In answering this question in this book, I examine a geographical space that is centered on Hunchun but also encompasses adjacent parts of Russia and Korea (map fig. I.3) and a time frame spanning postsocialist, socialist, and imperial eras. In what is also a new kind of history of this pivotal Sino-Russo-Korean locale, I focus on both the production and the narration of temporal and political life. Historical-anthropological approaches encourage us to see telling history as a means of making political claims on the world (McGranahan 2012). Viewing the telling of time in the same way allows me to show how and why locally constructed senses of temporal movement are vital in shaping senses of Self and Other, and relations across boundaries of personal, regional, cultural, and national difference. Hunchun’s diverse local inhabitants have for generations been more than simply spectators at a series of geopolitical spectacles directed from elsewhere. Their role as protagonists in dramas that disrupt widely assumed divisions between center and periphery, vernacular and official, helps us see how progress, development, and modernity gain meaning in everyday life, and endure across shifts from one historical order to the next. Lives lived here are of course more than refractions of grand progressive schemes, and the textures of everyday temporal experience far exceed the bounds imposed by state or imperial architects. But insights into political life’s temporal inflections in light of such schemes are especially important in a contemporary global era of interethnic, international, and intercultural contact when most people—regardless of location—live amid the ruins of twentieth-century progressivisms on the frontiers of China-driven socioeconomic transformation. On the way to further discussion of what is at stake here, and this study’s implications beyond the present-day Hunchun triple border, I return briefly to madamae’s apartment and socialist time.

Even if the plumber was not Korean, he was, unlike many in town today, at least an old Hunchun person,7 and so could indulge madamae’s reflections on how different things had been in bygone days. The place was so dirty (maitai), they recalled. During her youth, madamae’s family lived in a small brick house with an earthen floor, actually quite practical given all the dirt, and kept a guard dog and chickens. By today’s standards, these were “backward” (luohou) conditions. For all madamae’s admiration of Mao, moreover, the period of the Chairman’s rule (1949–1976)—particularly his cultish apotheosis during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976)—was gripped by frenetic campaigns and bouts of anti-foreign violence, which especially threatened “minority” borderland residents like the Chosŏnjok (then actually still a majority of Hunchun’s population).

Yet the grimy Maoist past, in some ways best left behind, has a complicated relationship with today’s visions of progress. On one hand, advancement out of those dark days meant madamae now enjoyed once-unimaginable luxuries. Rice containing five different grains, near-limitless cabbage and radish kimchi, and fried ch’algubi red bean pancakes were once outlandish indulgences. But materiality had bred materialism, she felt. Neighborhood weddings were now serious expenses, given the hundreds of RMB expected as cash gifts. People fell out over business deals, and swindlers (pianren) were legion in Hunchun. Contemporary society’s cutthroat competitiveness meant that Byŏngnam, for all his erudition, faced constant exam pressure. Progress had also taken madamae’s son away from her to an exhausting job in the port city Dalian, where, as she understood it, he was in constant danger of losing his job. The TV serials we watched together after the news most evenings brought these realities starkly home. Set in China’s glittering coastal megacities, plots were full of extramarital affairs and people being fired: “This is what happens in your capitalist countries,” she would say to me as we sat on the sofa, reaching over to hit me with the back of her hand. “This is not socialism.” With the “iron rice bowl” (tie fanwan), a Maoera system of secure employment and basic social security, long gone, madamae agreed with the plumber that North Korea, which she had visited several times, had retained a socialist gentility that China now lacked. She still seemed to enjoy hate-watching the serials though.

The Maoist past’s presence as a wistfully recalled age of material poverty but moral purity is redolent of other nostalgic (post)socialist contexts (Boym 2002). But where progress is concerned, there is a recursive tidiness to descriptions of those years as “backward.” Such a framing is notable because it was precisely under Mao that linear progress-oriented understandings of time and history attained much of their contemporary inflection for Hunchun people. With a kind of uniform intensity never achieved by any previous Chinese state, post-1949 education and media promoted a way of thinking about time as a Maoist-Marxist-materialist rush away from the fragmented “feudal” past into a glittering coherent future of socialism and national glory. These ideas built on earlier national/imperial foundations and cross-border analogues whose entanglements in Hunchun will be central concerns of this book. Today’s post-Mao Chinese visions of progress rest, as Yan Hairong (2008: 40) notes, on a sense of expansive abundance quite different from futures projected from the 1950s to the 1970s, and at times, as Biao Xiang (2021: 241–242) observes, development—rather than any particular end-state—appears to be an abstract goal in itself. Yet the CCP under Xi Jinping continues to speak the language of big-H Marxist History, and citizens from the coastal metropolises to the borderlands remain stuck on progress. With socialist forwardism repurposed for an age of capital-driven developmental rush, high socialist linear historicism, and thus the Mao era’s role as a precursor as well as a counterpoint, remains crucial for understanding the textured time frames that inform people’s contemporary outlooks here.

It is in this context that madamae’s invocations of progress served, for good or ill, as integral to how she understood changes over the course of her life, including shifting relationships with different people from the borderlands and beyond. Yanbian prefecture was created in 19528 by a Chinese government on land recently occupied by the Japanese and historically sacred to Manchus, but the Hunchun of madamae’s youth was an almost exclusively Korean locale. Even today, many Chosŏnjok over fifty do not speak Chinese well, although sixty-five-year-old madamae was an exception, having lived in Inner Mongolia, where she was tricked into joining a fake brigade of Maoist Red Guards in the late 1960s.9 This ordeal, and the language she had learned tilling land alongside Sinophone local Mongols, had since proven unexpectedly useful, for while the family spoke Yanbian Korean at home, Byŏngnam, despite attending one of Hunchun’s several Korean-medium schools, preferred to respond to his elders in the Chinese he used with his friends.

Unsurprisingly, such cultural creep—ushered in by Han influxes into, and a Chosŏnjok exodus from, Hunchun in the post-Mao era—is read by older Chosŏnjok as impingement from an increasingly imperious outside world: “He’s like a Han spy [tewu] in our house,” madamae would say of Byŏngnam, only half joking. Amid this sociocultural form of what climate philosopher Glenn Albrecht (2005) calls “solastalgia”—a sense of environmental dislocation felt not because of moving but because one’s surrounds have transformed—it was especially ironic that the often-xenophobic and hardly scam-free Mao years had equipped madamae with the language she now used to interact with her own recalcitrant grandson and a sojourning “capitalist” foreigner (we used Korean, which I was still learning, less often). But during my fieldwork it became clear that the tangled threads of progress and its discontents offered her a means to narrate her own position and selfhood. Our conversations about socialism and capitalism, China’s place in the world, or Hunchun’s “backward” past were what Gail Hershatter (2011: 3) calls “good-enough stories,” not necessarily complete or internally consistent but plausible means for madamae to commentate on our encounter, me as a White British researcher of unaccustomed height who spent too much time with Russian and Han friends and shuttling to and from Yanji for Korean lessons, and her as a Chosŏnjok grandmother, retired telegraphist, nostalgic Maoist, quondam borderland trader, sympathizer with nearby North Koreans, attendee at group keyboard classes, and keen socialite. A vernacular sense of movement through time was for madamae, and many others I have spent time with here over the past decade, a yardstick for reckoning with geographical and cultural difference. I now elaborate further on this important theme as it applies on various scales in the chapters that follow.

Progress, Borders, and Difference

This book’s argument that trajectory through time is a key pivot in relationships across difference shows how personal and state relations are often inseparable in multiethnic border spaces. But while entangled, these different scales of relationship each have their own analytical importance. Interpersonally, as Johannes Fabian (1983) showed in the 1980s, the temporalities and historicities of relationships are key concerns for anthropologists who long failed to see their cross-cultural interlocutors as “coevals” inhabiting the same historical moment. While taking this idea seriously as a practical principle, I also demonstrate its value beyond the ethnographic encounter, showing how coevalness applies as a general framing for everyday human relations across borders and the vernacular structures of temporal feeling that arise amid grand political projects. Anthropological and historical interest in the variety and comparability of these projects and their everyday temporal reverberations also has wider applicability at the international scale. As in many other global locations, northeast Asia’s nineteenth-century collision with European colonial modernity jolted the region’s polities and peoples into a new kind of violent simultaneity with one another and with the rest of the world (Kracauer 1969), sparking crises over the need to “catch up” with advanced nations as recognized historical actors (Morris-Suzuki et al. 2013). These are ongoing, for as Dai Jinhua (2018: 4) remarks, “a sense of ‘time’—world history or so-called linear historical time” remains critical in shaping the self-consciousness of people and nations: in China the epithet “backward” is as often used, as madamae did, to refer to bygone local pasts as it is to label less “developed” foreign places.

As noted already, progress’s enduring centrality to how people and states measure their relative positions is particularly striking around Hunchun, given the idea’s serial local failures over the past 150 years. But this applies globally too. On both sides of twentieth-century socialist/capitalist divides, and during the earlier totalitarian and colonial projects that overlapped with them, ambitions to instantiate “modernity” and “Enlightenment” have come up short. Today the promise of linear improvement seems remote in an inchoate age when even the “post-” ness of “postsocialism” or “post–Cold War” seem outdated (Buyandelgeriyn 2008). Western European and North American societies’ newfound anxieties over democratic “backsliding” or atavistic reawakenings of dark chapters of the past—from Roman decadence (Pop 1995) to Europe’s troubled 1810s (Whitmore 2015) or 1930s—have seen them join former-socialist citizenries who are more used to murky temporal trajectories. The effects of socialism’s ends have been particularly acute in eastern Russia and North Korea, and, even if China’s “rise” makes progressivist ideas credible for hundreds of millions, postindustrial decline in the country’s northeast warps such macro-level visions of national ascent around Hunchun. But however distinctive, the diverse “unmakings” (Humphrey 2002) of multiple state socialisms rent comparable temporal ruptures in daily life across a vast canvas of Eurasian locations.

In light of this, many scholars have unsurprisingly sought to expose the shortcomings of progressive projects under various ideological banners, in both their theory and their practical execution. From philosophical dissection of Enlightenment thought’s destructive impulse, which—however necessary for modernity’s totalizing transformations—may ultimately turn in on itself (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997), to cultural critique of how modernist rationalism leads to the freezing of time and capitalist elite capture (Harvey 1990), and sociological-anthropological dismantling of capitalist and socialist modernization projects (Scott 1998) and life amid their ruins (Tsing 2005), the illusory promises of progress have been bared widely in recent decades. Time, as Felix Ringel (2021: 98) notes from postindustrial former East Germany, appears “out of tune” as a component of contemporary human experience, making progress a slippery subject of inquiry.

My work in this book is in sympathy with these critiques, but approaches their object in a new way, exploring the complexities they expose not so much as detractions from the idea of progress but rather as explanations in themselves for why it remains tenacious. Study of the temporal inflections of Hunchun-centered relations among Chinese, Korean, Russian, Manchu, and Japanese people during postsocialist, socialist (c. 1920–1991), Japanese imperial (1905–45), and late-Qing (1636–1911) moments reveals progress as a pivotal, but also a more textured, culturally freighted and polyvalent idea than its slick first-glance associations with linear forward and outward movement, elevated prosperity, and national greatness would suggest. As Harms’s (2016: 5) abovementioned work shows within a single national context, cascading developmental projects can yoke collapse and optimism closely together as the rubble of the old and the luxury of the new appear indistinguishable cyphers of newness. But in this borderland setting, human complexity is to be found not only in the externalities of progress’s failures or paradoxes but also in the pulsing positivist heart of the entire project. Paralleling Adorno and Horkheimer’s (1997) dissection of modernity’s mythologies, I will show that distinctly nonlinear elements were always embedded within supposedly rationalist visions of progress, before, during, and since the Chinese, Soviet, and Korean socialisms that linger in everyday temporalities around Hunchun today. Progress’s initial appeal may lie in its purity, but its long-term tenacity, particularly as a pivot in cross-border relations, owes as much to these inherent textures as to the complexities of failure.

Given the entanglement of personal and state relations here, my ethnographic localism and attention to diverse imperial formations does not downplay the relevance to Hunchun of grand linear visions propagated globally following Europe’s eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Supercharged under nineteenth-century industrial-capitalist imperialism, evolutionist paradigms from the social and natural sciences of figures like Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Lewis Henry Morgan constructed an intellectual juggernaut of progress, development, growth, and expansion. In the thinking that traveled with, and purported to justify, European colonialism, organisms, economies and social groups alike, all classified under taxonomy-heavy Enlightened thinking, became progressive units as History, Nation, Man, and Individual “announced their timeless universality with capital letters” (Anagnost 1997: 8). With the delineation of bounded nations and states inextricably part of this classificatory endeavor, progress became a national project, although its universalism was selective. Under European empire, only “advanced” metropoles possessed Historical agency, while colonized locations were denied both political and temporal sovereignty on the basis of their “backwardness” (Chakrabarty 2000). Twentieth-century anticolonial movements thus sought to wrest control over both time and space from imperial clutches, although this only reaffirmed the hegemony of progressive linear History as a frame for independent action. Resisting imposed modernity demanded mimetic emulation, and so as twentieth-century states, whether post-colonist or postcolonial, socialist or capitalist, took shape and people came to identify with these progressive polities, citizen-subjects learned to perceive their counterparts across borders as agents of their own forward-moving Histories. On both vernacular and state scales, therefore, progress emerged as an intrinsic feature of cross-border relationships. Nowhere was this more evident than in state socialist countries that enacted history’s most ambitious and totalizing efforts to bring linear Enlightenment ideas to life.

Hunchun’s Koreans, Han, Russians, and Manchus thus all inhabit cultural worlds with tangled lines of inheritance back to these framings of progress. Consequently, this book is informed throughout by work on the often-violent spread of evolutionist thinking (Bear 2014), the crafting of modern publics, and invocations of progress as grounds for industrial proletarianization at home and “civilizing” settler-colonial projects abroad (Appadurai 1996; Williams 2006), as well as class- and nation-rooted struggles to resist these. Thinking with the subaltern studies school in particular offers critical tools for understanding time as a component of “national” experience (Chatterjee 1993), and excavating accreted layers of linear temporality and progressive nationhood around Hunchun. Well before postsocialist Chinese developmentalism, Chinese, Korean and Soviet socialisms, or even Russian and Japanese empires, northeast Asia was home to cohesive quasi-“national” communities (Elliott 2001) and has seen some of the world’s most successful efforts to adopt the co-constitutive ideas of progress and bordered Westphalian-style statehood. Consonant with the widespread embrace of progress among ordinary citizens, the PRC state itself today unapologetically reproduces narratives of civilizational uplift, which evoke both the hierarchies touted by European colonists and dynastic-era “civilizing projects” (Harrell 1995) from China’s official national past. Xi Jinping’s borderland tours unfold at the same time as “development” in Tibet (Yeh 2013) and “settlement” in Xinjiang (Cliff 2016) are cast as gifts to the benighted ethnic edges from a “modern” Han-identified cosmic metropole.

Yet for all Hunchun people’s connections to formal progressivisms identified with imperial centers, historical Europe, or today’s PRC internal colonizer-state, local experience here is primary for two reasons. Firstly, whether in cross-border capitalist, twentieth-century socialist internationalist, or early-modern imperial expansivist form, no grand vision of progress projected here in recent centuries has been a rarified product of Euro-Enlightenment. Secondly, engagements with these projects on the ground have always been diverse and mediated, lending local temporal frames vernacular and culturally embedded qualities. Indeed, key to this book’s perspective—and inherent to its structure—is an awareness that suggesting that ideas of progress straightforwardly flowed out of Europe and, however (un)willingly, were adopted wholesale by colonized peoples is in itself to adopt a deterministic supposition of linear causality itself redolent of classical evolutionism. To examine more closely how visions of advancement through time relate to local ways of living, I now turn to a fuller description of Hunchun’s pasts and presents.

FIGURE I.2: Hunchun, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and Jilin province in northeast Asia (map by author). Locations and distances are intended to be indicative rather than scientific.

FIGURE I.3: The cross-border Hunchun area (map by author). Locations depicted have not necessarily existed at the same time. Dotted line corresponds to contemporary Hunchun municipality (xianji shi); white line to Hunchun’s east is Hunchun River 琿春河 훈춘하. Inset: 1. Tumen 圖門; 2. Pongodong 봉오동 鳳梧洞; 3. Shatuozi 沙坨子; 4. Balian 八連; 5. Quanhe-Wŏnjŏng 圈河-원정 元汀; 6. Fangchuan 防川; 7. Zhanggufeng 張鼓峰/ Khasan Хасан; 8: Kraskino Краскино / Novokievsk Новокиевск; 9: Yangpao 杨泡; 10. Posyot Посьет / Maokouwai 毛口崴.


1. Madamae is the Yanbian Korean term for “granny.” The male equivalent is madabae. All names used throughout the book are pseudonyms.

2. Formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I use “North Korea” and “DPRK” for the contemporary state. Correspondingly “South Korea” or “ROK” (“Republic of Korea”) will be used for the country to its south.

3. Known in South Korea—and more commonly in English—as hanbok, this is a traditional form of Korean dress whose female version is considerably billowier in Yanbian and North Korea than further south.

4. Aside from local WeChat accounts, the image illustrates the following news story: ““吉林调研’ 网评一:习近平总书记考察吉林延边的深意 [‘Jilin investigation’ Wang Pingyi: General Secretary Xi Jinping inspects the deeper significance of Yanbian],” People’s Daily online, July 17, 2015, accessed June 12, 2023,

5. Local media repeatedly allude to this “frontier minority area” (bianjiang minzu diqu) in relation to state-led developmental projects, see “珲春市委召开常委 (扩大) 会议 [Hunchun Municipal Committee Opens Meeting of Standing Committee (Expanded)],” Xinhua wang Jilin pindao, November 2, 2015, accessed August 4, 2017,

6. This was mirrored on the Russian side of the border: Kraskino residents had the letters ПЗ (PZ, Pogranichnaia zona [‘border zone’]) stamped in their passports.

7. A distinction between “old” and recent Han settlers is upheld in various Chinese borderland contexts, including Xinjiang (see Cliff, Oil and Water) and Inner Mongolia (see White, China’s Camel Country).

8. Originally as an autonomous “region” (qu) but downgraded in 1955 to prefecture (zhou) status, see Koo, Sound of the Border, 29.

9. Rampaging young acolytes of Mao early in the Cultural Revolution, see Yang, Red Guard Generation.