[KS] Koguryo part of China?

Mark Byington byington at fas.harvard.edu
Thu Jan 1 02:12:51 EST 2004

Dear List,

The official Chinese position regarding the proper historical place of 
Koguryo is a natural outcome of current Chinese views of how an early 
"Chinese nation" might have existed in antiquity. This view is a direct 
projection of the current conception of the multiethnic PRC state backward 
in time. In other words, the way minority nationalities are conceived of 
as forming part of a greater Chinese nation today has been imposed on the 
China of the remote past, to make "tributaries" and client states appear 
as though they formed part of a greater Chinese nation and were, by the 
way, quite conscious of their role as such. This  view of the past has 
been prominent most especially since the 1980s. The 1982 PRC constitution 
and the Minority Region Autonomy Law of 1984 codified the place of ethnic 
minorities within the greater China, and many Chinese historians of 
premodern periods have even invoked the exact phrases used in these very 
modern documents to describe the early and premodern state. Since the 
northern part of Koguryo territories are now within PRC borders, Koguryo 
was therefore a minority nationality of ancient China. So are all the 
other peoples who once lived in what is now the PRC, and for the most part 
nobody today cares to expend much time and energy arguing against this 
view. But since Koguryo territories spanned both sides of the Yalu, and 
since Koguryo has long been embedded in what we see as Korean 
historiography, it presents a problem. And the historians in China know 

I would disagree with the article Sem cited when it speaks of the relative 
quiescence of historians in the Koreas regarding the Chinese position. 
North Korean archaeologists butted heads with Chinese counterparts in the 
1960s over interpretations of Parhae's place in history, and a North 
Korean complaint (more of an accusation, really) at an academic conference 
in China in 1993 prompted a very defensive reaction on the part of Chinese 
historians, who had previously not been so insistent (or at least vocal) 
on Koguryo's having been a "Chinese" state. South Koreans have not been 
silent either, though I suspect that tourists (including academics) 
visiting Koguryo archaeological sites in China have caused more general 
aggravation to museum officials than have any academic exchanges. I 
suspect that most South Korean scholars who try to get work done in China 
are sensitive enough to know not to complain too loudly, lest the doors of 
access to sites and data in China be closed for good (a real possibility, 
some restrictive measures having been in place for almost a decade now, 
a direct result of a perceived South Korean encroachment on China's 
proprietary rights to Koguryo's material remains in China). 

The Chinese argument for Koguryo's Chinese-ness is a pretty flimsy one. 
The two main arguments are, 1) that the Koguryo state grew out of the Han 
Chinese commandery of Xuantu (i.e., out of Chinese territory), and 2) that 
Koguryo kings acknowledged their places as "minority nationalities" of 
China by accepting investiture from Chinese emperors. The problems with 
this are obvious. There are even weaker arguments than this: for example, 
more Koguryo refugees wound up in Tang China than in Silla after 668, 
therefore Koguryo was more Chinese than Korean - this argument comes from 
a prominent historian in Shenyang. The weaknesses of the arguments are 
well known to the Chinese historians who promote them (and not all 
historians in China support the "official" position, by the way, but there 
are two or three very vocal ones who do). The fact that the two core 
arguments listed above could also be made to apply to Paekche  (and even 
to Silla, with a little extra twisting of the source materials) is also a 
troubling matter to the Chinese historians I described above, who want to 
make clear that Paekche was NOT a Chinese state. 

The gist of my long-winded statement above is that the Chinese argument 
regarding Koguryo is weak and defensive, but it accords with current 
practice in the PRC in making ancient "tributaries" out to be "minority 
nationalities" of a very vaguely defined greater Chinese nation of the 
remote past. I do not believe the Chinese position toward Koguryo is an 
especially sinister one, but is rather one that must exist in order to 
fall into line with current Chinese views of the Chinese past, which can 
be traced ultimately, I think, to concerns about territorial security of 
the present. I would certainly hope that the UNESCO treatment will avoid 
the pitfall that exists here. But my understanding (which could be 
mistaken) is that UNESCO did not exactly have an easy time getting the 
Chinese to accept the registration of the Koguryo murals. And I am quite 
certain that any hesitation on the Chinese side would have been due to the 
uncomfortable matter of Koreans' views toward Koguryo and to potential 
(and already voiced) challenges to the Chinese position. Any UNESCO 
dealings with China would have had to take these sensitivities into 
account, and I suspect that some "glossing over" of the "who owns Koguryo" 
question would have been necessary. I would certainly like to hear more on 
this from anyone who was involved.

Personally, I think the registration of the murals in China is likely to 
be a good thing, especially if it affords some measure of protection to 
the tombs and assists in their preservation. I know of at least three 
successful mural robberies in Ji'an in the past decade (the last one 
followed by some thirty convictions, I'm told), and some of the loudest 
complaints I have heard in South Korea regarding the Chinese treatment of 
Koguryo is the apparent Chinese inability (or unwillingness) to provide 
adequate protection for the murals. Although the mural tombs in Ji'an 
(with one exception) are officially sealed to offset deterioration of the 
murals, tourist groups to Ji'an, most usually from South Korea, regularly 
gain access to the tombs by making "donations" to the appropriate persons, 
which further damages the murals. Hopefully, the UNESCO World Heritage 
registration of the mural tombs will do some good in this regard?

Best wishes to all for the New Year,

Mark Byington

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