Creating a Chinese Harbin: Nationalism in an International City, 1916-1932

Creating a Chinese Harbin: Nationalism in an International City, 1916-1932

Creating a Chinese Harbin: Nationalism in an International City, 1916-1932

Creating a Chinese Harbin: Nationalism in an International City, 1916-1932


James H. Carter outlines the birth of Chinese nationalism in an unlikely setting: the international city of Harbin. Planned and built by Russian railway engineers, the city rose quickly from the Manchurian plain, changing from a small fishing village to a modern city in less than a generation. Russian, Chinese, Korean, Polish, Jewish, French, and British residents filled this multiethnic city on the Sungari River. The Chinese took over Harbin after the October Revolution and ruled it from 1918 until the Japanese founded the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. In his account of the radical changes that this unique city experienced over a brief span of time, Carter examines the majority Chinese population and its developing Chinese identity in an urban area of fifty languages. Originally, Carter argues, its nascent nationalism defined itself against the foreign presence in the city while using foreign resources to modernize the area. Early versions of Chinese nationalism embraced both nation and state. By the late 1920s, the two strands had separated to such an extent that Chinese police fired on Chinese student protesters. This division eased the way for Japanese occupation: the Chinese state structure proved a fruitful source of administrative collaboration for the area's new rulers in the 1930s."


Harbin had seen many battles since Russians and Manchus first fought nearby more than two hundred years earlier. More recently, Chinese and Japanese, and then Japanese and Russians, had gone to war to control Manchuria. Armies of Chinese, Manchu, Russian, and Japanese troops, as well as smaller contingents of Americans and Europeans, had taken up arms in the city during the first years of the twentieth century. In September 1926 representatives of Russia and China faced each other again. In a familiar scene, national and personal pride put the youth of two nations into physical conflict to determine a winner and a loser. It is not known which side took the first shot. It is not even known whether that first shot was good or which side got the first rebound. But both the Russian and the Chinese hoped to win the Harbin city basketball championship.

The tournament, held at the Young Men’s Christian Association, attracted a field of nine teams. The finalists were the host YMCA, comprised primarily of Russian refugees who had fled civil war and Bolshevism, and the Donghua School, founded in 1916 with the goal of promoting a modern, scientific and linguistic education, Chinese nationalism, and Christianity.

The championship game was tightly contested, with numerous fouls on both sides. Chinese reports claimed that the referee, a Russian YMCA employee named V. N. Buyanoff, was biased, nullifying numerous Chinese baskets. The American YMCA director, Howard Haag, did not share this

Chenguang bao [Dawn], cited in Consul George Hanson to second of state, 27 September 1926, File 893.00/7791, United States National Archives, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59. Hereafter cited as USNA-RG59.

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