The “Moscow of the Far East”: An Introduction to Harbin, China – by Marin Ekstrom. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[The Saint Sophia Cathedral, a former Russian Orthodox church-turned-city museum that serves as Harbin’s most recognizable landmark.]
Towering onion dome cathedrals and Stalinist spires…matryoshka nesting dolls and tins of caviar sitting in shop windows…broad streets, or prospekti, criss-crossing an urban landscape…
Based on these descriptions, one would assume that this place would be the most Russian of Russian cities. However, these are actually some of the key sights to see in Harbin, a city located in the northernmost throes of China! Harbin, the capital of China’s northeastern Heilongjiang Province, offers a fish-out-of-water experience and a standout highlight of any expedition into China.
[A mountain of matryoshka Russian nesting dolls for sale.]
The city of Harbin as it is known today dates back to the end of the 19th century – a spring chicken as far as most Chinese cities are concerned! The Russian Empire was consolidating ownership of its Siberian reaches via the Trans-Siberian Railroad and wanted a shortcut route to Vladivostok, its key Pacific port. The Qing Empire ruling China at that time granted Russia permission to build the Chinese Eastern Railway in its territory. Construction lasted from 1897-1901 and during that time, hundreds of Russian workers and railroad personnel settled in the area. They ultimately decided to remain there even after they finished building the railway. Noting Harbin’s steady growth following this settlement, China declared Harbin an “open city” in order to further promote trade opportunities. Hundreds of immigrants, chiefly from Russia but from other countries as well, flocked to Harbin to help and build up this rising economic centre. Harbin also offered a safe haven for people under persecution, and thus groups such as Eastern European Jews and Russian dissidents of the Bolshevik regime relocated to Harbin as a place of refuge. The influx of people and businesses helped Harbin carve out an identity as an eclectic and bustling city; nicknames such as “the Paris of the Far East” and the “Moscow of the Orient” provide further testament to its cosmopolitan reputation.
[A monument to Mao Zedong and other key figures in the foundation of the People’s Republic of China .]
However, these glory days were not meant to last. China’s regional neighbor Japan had been demonstrating its imperial expansionist ambitions and invaded northeastern China in the 1930s. Japanese occupation proved devastating for Harbin; the Japanese army’s control of the city’s transportation hubs was a massive blow for its economy. Additionally, thousands of residents in and near Harbin fell victim to Japanese biological warfare experiments that were being tested at this time. After the Japanese were expelled from Harbin following their defeat in WWII, members of the Chinese Communist Party entered the area and Harbin became a key base for Communist forces during the Chinese Civil War. After the Communists’ victory and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Harbin returned to Chinese rule and began a new chapter in its history.
[A red lantern in the window of an ice castle.]
Over the next few decades, the Chinese population of Harbin substantially increased as the Chinese government promoted it as a base of heavy industry. Simultaneously, the Russian population steeply declined due to mass outward migrations to escape Japanese and Chinese control, Soviet deportations, etc. In terms of cultural and demographic terms, Harbin today is much less ethnically diverse than in times prior. Despite these significant changes in Harbin’s make-up, the influence of Russian culture is still clearly evident in several aspects of day-to-day life, such as architecture, monuments, merchandise and foodstuffs, etc. Furthermore, while Russian and Chinese influences are most predominantly visible in Harbin, other cultures have further added to the city’s cosmopolitan flair. The Harbin Jewish New Synagogue Museum is the most prominent remainder of the Harbin Jewish community’s legacy. The city features the Daowai Mosque, and ethnic Uyghur and Hui people that form part of China’s Islamic minority operate several restaurants and noodle shops. The streets are dotted with Thai, Korean, and Mongolian restaurants, and the city even features an ornate Indian Quarter! All of these details blend into the background of the cityscape yet offer tantalizing hints to the mosaic that is Harbin’s identity. With all of these factors in mind, Harbin is a centre of multicultural synthesis in China and a very worthwhile place to explore further in depth!
China Briefing Media. China Briefing’s Business Guide to Beijing and North-East China. China Briefing Media, 2006. Accessed April 25, 2016. https://books.google.com/books?id=M2TvFN9DmqkC&pg=PA211&lpg=PA211 &dq=harbinopencity&source=bl&ots=EkeKrpus6W&sig=uPf5JqrwgsG_8TPF76 Vi3paHcUc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi0x_3hn6fMAhXDYqYKHbgMBKc 4ChDoAQgcMAA#v=onepage&q=harbinopen city&f=false.
Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Harbin”, accessed April 24, 2016, http://global.britannica.com/place/Harbin.
“Harbin Travel Guide.” Travel China Guide. Accessed April 24, 2016. https://www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/heilongjiang/harbin/.
King, R. Todd. “Harbin’s History.” RToddKing.com. 2005. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.rtoddking.com/chinawin2005_hb_hi.htm.
Song, Candice. “Harbin History.” ChinaHighlights. July 28, 2014. Accessed April 24, 2016. http://www.chinahighlights.com/harbin/history.htm.
Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu
See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports
The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy (http://NorthStarReports.org) is a student edited and student authored open access publication centered around the themes of global and historical connections. Our abiding philosophy is that those of us who are fortunate enough to receive an education and to travel our planet are ethically bound to share our knowledge with those who cannot afford to do so. Therefore, creating virtual and actual communities of learning between college and K-12 classes are integral to our mission. In three years we have published over 250 articles covering all habitable continents and a variety of topics ranging from history and politics, food and popular culture, to global inequities to complex identities. These articles are read by K-12 and college students. Our student editors and writers come from all parts of the campus, from Nursing to Biology, Physical Therapy to Business, and remarkably, many of our student editors and writers have long graduated from college. We also have writers and editors from other colleges and universities. In addition to our main site, we also curate a Facebook page dedicated to annotated news articles selected by our student editors (http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports). This is done by an all volunteer staff. We have a frugal cash budget, and we donate much of our time and talent to this project. The North Star Reports is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at: http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2013/1305/Opening-The-Middle-Ground-Journal.cfm
Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports.
(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, with generous support from The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu