Robert John PERRINS

Manchuria, ancestral homeland of the Qing dynasty, for decades was the target of colonial aspirations by neighboring Japan and Russia. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria sparked war between China and Japan and China’s later involvement in World War II. China’s postwar Communist Party developed the region into an industrial heartland. Today three provinces make up Manchuria: Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning.

Manchuria ?? is the ancestral homeland of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Chinese resistance to Qing rule was in part based on the fact that the Qing, as Manchus, were foreign invaders, although sinicized. Manchuria is also where World War II began for China.

Manchuria is the region of northeastern China comprising Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning (Fengtian) provinces. Chinese refer to Manchuria as “Dongbei” (Northeast ??) as part of a larger effort to distance the region’s history from the colonial overtures associated with the term Manchuria, which was partly the creation of Japanese and Russian imperialists who hoped that the term would imply the region’s separateness from the rest of China.

Manchuria, bordered to the southeast by Korea and to the north and northeast by Russia, originally was populated by a number of tribal groups, the largest of whom were Manchus, Mongols, and Tungus. The region is rich in natural resources, including timber and forest products, coal, iron, furs, and ginseng. During the twentieth century foreign occupiers and later Chinese administrators developed Manchuria’s transportation infrastructure and industrial base. Today the region is one of China’s most important industrial heartlands.

The presence of Han Chinese in Manchuria dates back to the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), when a prefecture was established on the Liaodong Peninsula at the southernmost point of Liaoning Province. During the reign of Wu Di (reigned 140–87 BCE), the fifth Han emperor, a more important Chinese presence was established in Manchuria when Wu Di encouraged the settlement of Chinese on the Liaodong Peninsula and in an area of what is today western Liaoning in order to strengthen the northern borders against the Xiongnu peoples. For much of China’s imperial past, however, the presence of Chinese in this region beyond the Great Wall was only minimal. The Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty, after their conquest of China in the mid-seventeenth century, sought to preserve Manchuria as an undeveloped ancestral homeland. The early emperors, including Shunzhi (1638–1661), Kangxi (1654–1722), Yongzheng (1678–1735), and Qianlong (1711–1799), issued decrees, of dubious effectiveness, forbidding Chinese to settle in the region.

Fear of Russian Annexation

The Qing emperors, with the increasing Russian presence in the Far East during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, grew to fear Russian annexation of Manchuria more than the presence of Chinese settlers. The last of the old no-settlement decrees were repealed, and northern Chinese were encouraged to settle in Manchuria. During the mid-nineteenth century the arrival of French and British warships off the coast of southern Manchuria during the Opium Wars also reminded the Manchus that the region had strategic importance and that its population and fortifications should be developed. But these belated efforts by the Qing rulers were not effective, and by the 1890s they had largely lost Manchuria to foreign imperialists, first Russian and then Japanese.

In 1896, after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), the Qing rulers, now more worried about Japan’s colonial ambitions than Russia’s, allowed czarist Russia to construct the Chinese Eastern Railway across Manchuria as a shortcut and as an alternative route to the Trans-Siberian Railway. Russia secured more concessions from a declining Manchu court in 1898, including a twenty-five-year lease on the southern portion of the Liaodong Peninsula and the right to build an additional southern route of the region’s railway that would bring the added advantage of having a year-round ice-free port as its terminus in the new leasehold. After the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 the new Russian rights in southern Manchuria, together with the region’s railway and harbors at Dalian (“Dairen” in Japanese and “Dalny” in Russian) and Lushun (Port Arthur), were transferred to Japan.

Japanese Colony

The Japanese governors of southern Manchuria continued to expand on Russia’s original plans, and their new colony boomed during the soybean boom of the late 1910s. But by the late 1920s tension was increasing as Japan’s colonial ambitions in Manchuria no longer could be satisfied by a small leasehold on the Liaodong Peninsula and with attempts by commanders in the local Japanese garrison force, the Guandong (Kwantung) Army, to control the region’s de facto ruler, warlord Zhang Zuolin (Chang Tso-lin). The Guandong Army blew up a section of the Southern Manchurian Railway on 18 September 1931 and soon after launched an invasion of Manchuria, an event that triggered the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945) and China’s eventual involvement in World War II. In 1932 Japan proclaimed the birth of the “independent” nation of Manchukuo (Country of the Manchus). But in reality Manchukuo was a child of the Japanese military and a puppet state with no real independence. Manchuria remained under Japanese occupation until the end of the war in the Pacific in 1945, contributing raw materials to the home islands and playing an important role in the creation of Japan’s colonial ideology. Many Japanese viewed Manchuria not only as a strategic buffer zone between their empire and the Soviet Union but also as a colonial frontier, even a potential utopia, awaiting the arrival of intrepid Japanese settlers who would develop the region’s vast potential.

The Russians returned to Manchuria after Japan surrendered in 1945. Soviet troops, having resecured rights in the region at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 in return for a promise to enter the war against Japan, invaded Manchuria during the final days of the war in the Pacific. Russia plundered the region during the next couple of years, dismantling factories and sending them in pieces on railcars back to the Soviet Union. Because of Manchuria’s industrial capacity and abundant natural resources, during the Chinese Civil War (1945–1949) between the Communists and the Nationalists the region was a hotly contested territory.

Since the 1950s China has developed Manchuria as its industrial heartland. The Fushun colliery, the steel mills at Anshan, the giant factories in the industrial cities of Shenyang (Mukden) and Changchun, and the commercial port of Dalian played vital roles in the industrialization strategies of the Chinese Communist Party. Industrial Manchuria, with the campaign to create a market economy in China during the late 1980s and early 1990s, began to experience new challenges. Many of the inefficient state-owned enterprises either closed or severely reduced their workforces. This development led to a high level of unemployment in a region that had been prosperous under the state-planned economy. Decades of industrialization have also created environmental problems in Manchuria, including high rates of respiratory diseases among its people and high levels of toxins in waterways. The ancestral homeland of the Manchus is now polluted and home to tens of millions of Han Chinese factory workers.

Further Reading

Chao Kang. (1982
). The economic development of Manchuria: The rise of a frontier economy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, Center for Chinese Studies.

Elliott, M. C. (2000, August). The limits of Tartary: Manchuria in imperial and national geographies. The Journal of Asian Studies, 59(3), 603–646.

Hosie, A. (1980). Manchuria, its people, resources, and recent history. New York: Garland Publishing. (Original work published 1904)

Janhunen, J. (1996). Manchuria: An ethnic history. Helsinki, Finland: Finno-Ugrian Society.

Kirk, M. (Ed.). (2009). China by numbers 2009. Hong Kong: China Economic Review Publishing.

Lattimore, O. (1935). Manchuria: Cradle of conflict. New York: Macmillan.

US–China Business Council. (2004). US–CBC Snapshots: Dongbei at a Glance. Retrieved December 16, 2008 from

Young, L. (1999). Japan’s total empire: Manchuria and the culture of wartime imperialism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Source: Perrins, Robert John. (2009). Manchuria. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1379–1381. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Manchuria (M?nzh?u ?? D?ngb?i ??)|M?nzh?u ?? D?ngb?i ?? (Manchuria)

Download the PDF of this article