The Original Belt and Road? Three Museums in Harbin, Part I

Over the summer, I managed to visit Harbin – one of the former epicentres of Sino-Russian entanglement – and take in a few of the city’s museums. Harbin is understandably keen to promote the Russian elements in its heritage, just as Shanghai has capitalised on its Art Deco architecture and the French Concession. The city’s main tourist thoroughfare, Zhongyang dajie – Kitaiskaia ulitsa under the Chinese Eastern Railway administration – has become something akin to a Russian theme park, with loudspeakers broadcasting “Katiusha” along the street and innumerable shops selling “Russian” souvenirs. Signs and advertisements there include Russian translations of uneven quality. Elsewhere in the city, many Russian buildings are gazetted as historic monuments and have largely avoided over-zealous “refurbishment”.

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This building along Zhongyang dajie, constructed in 1914, housed the daoli branch of the Churin company. Photo my own, taken 3 Aug 2018.

This celebration of Harbin’s Sino-Russian heritage has gone up a notch with the introduction of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. OBOR, which is given top billing in the People’s Republic, aims to link China to Europe, the wider Asian continent and Africa by land and sea. Of particular interest to Harbin’s self-image is OBOR’s Silk Road Economic Belt component, a 21st-Century revival of the overland trade route from China to Europe via Eurasia. Harbin, as the hub of the former CER, is well-placed to take part in the discussions surrounding this “new Silk Road”. By positioning the CER as the “original” Economic Belt bridging East and West, Harbin can claim a privileged place in OBOR discourse.

Nevertheless, a rather different narrative of Russia’s presence in Harbin persists: That of imperial domination. In fact, the shift in the historiography from colonial antagonism to cultural cross-pollination is relatively recent. The transmission of one message or the other depends on the audience (Chinese versus foreign) and intended effect (enhancing nationalist sentiment versus emphasising Harbin’s cosmopolitan roots). In the next few posts, I’ll explore how three Harbin museums present the city’s history and give voice to one or another of these narratives.

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The Museum of Heilongjiang Province. Source.

The Museum of Heilongjiang Province
(Founded 1954, free of charge, requires proof of identity to enter)

Harbin’s largest museum is located in a Sino-Russian landmark, the former Moscow Department Store building, although the interior was renovated in 2009. Its collections include artefacts from the neolithic period to the present, as well as a natural history section. Of particular interest here are the permanent exhibitions on Heilongjiang provincial history and Russian emigrant culture.

The museum was very popular on the day I visited, but this may have been due to the heavy rain. Most visitors appeared to be Chinese nationals, apart from a handful of western tourists. Visitors following museum signs arrive at the provincial history section first before moving on to the Russian emigrant exhibition.

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Relief at the entrance to the Russian emigre culture exhibition. Note the Sino-Russian figures and the railway leading into the mountainous distance. From the Museum of Heilongjiang Province. Photo my own, taken 4 Aug 2018.

The provincial history exhibition, which contains explanatory text in Chinese with some uneven English translations, sets out the history of Heilongjiang from prehistoric to modern times. Most relevant here is the section on modern imperial history, detailing the development of Qing imperial control over this frontier province. On the one hand, there is a nod in the cosmopolitan direction: The tribute system imposed on border peoples is charactised as the genesis of the Northeast Asian Silk Road (形成了清代东北丝绸之路). Apart from that one instance, however, the message here is a fairly traditional and nationalist one, emphasising the Qing government’s attempts to protect its patrimony from tsarist invasion. The inhabitants of Heilongjiang province, both Han and ethnic minorities, joined forces to protect the frontier and “defend the fatherland” (维护祖国) from Russian encroachment. Emphasis is given to landmark events and individuals in the border conflict between China and Russia, such as the battle at Albazin/Yakesa (1685); the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689); the Manchu military leaders Fumingga and his son Shou Shan; and the occupation of Manchuria by the Russians and the massacre of Chinese at Blagoveshchensk during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.

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Painting of the Battle of Albazin/Yakesa in the Museum of Heilongjiang Province. Photo my own, taken 4 Aug 2018.

Some of the exhibits and their accompanying texts are fairly emotive. A large oil painting of the Battle of Yakesa describes tsarist Russia as “vainly attempting to seize our country’s territory” (妄图霸占我国的领土) in the face of “relentless struggle” (不屈不挠的斗争) by all ethnic groups. The resulting Treaty of Nerchinsk was therefore concluded on equal terms, unlike subsequent “unequal treaties”. Shou Shan’s “suicide for the nation” (自杀殉国) after his failure to halt the Russian invasion of Heilongjiang in 1900 is described at length. Photographs of his grave and a temple and stele dedicated to him are also displayed.

This nationalist message is tempered in the Russian emigre section, which opened in 2014 and has a much more modern design. Explanations are in Chinese, with some English and Russian translations. From the beginning, Harbin’s history is described as “inseparable” (离不开, “тесно связана”) from that of the CER. The Railway’s Eurasian and European links are emphasised, while Russian colonial development of the railway zone is seen as the foundation for Harbin’s modern municipal infrastructure. In terms of urban planning, the city was “entirely” designed along European-Russian lines, which gave many buildings a Russian flavour and turned Harbin into an architectural showcase. Russian migrants, in turn, made an indelible mark on the city’s way of life.

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Cosmopolitan culture: Tobacco labels and promotional materials from the Lopato company featuring Western, Chinese and Manchu motifs. From the Museum of Heilongjiang Province. Photo my own, taken 4 Aug 2018.

The exhibition is quick to note that most Russian emigres who arrived after the October Revolution “were of a high cultural level” (具有较高的文化素质, “educated”, “высокая степень культурности”). Russian businesses, schools, media, religious institutions, and artistic, scientific and academic organisations all contributed to a vibrant and cosmopolitan culture (中西交融, “Sino-Western culture [sic] convergence”, “гармония китайской и европейской культуры”). Even daily life was influenced by the Russians, from customs to dress, adding to Harbin’s uniqueness and setting it apart from other cities. As the exhibition concludes: “Openness, tolerance and enterprise are unchanging characteristics of Harbiners, which will accompany this city going forward into the next century” (开放、包容与进取是哈尔滨人不变的特点,将伴随这个城市在新百年中一路前进; “открытость, снисходительность и целеустремленность – это неизменная черта харбинцев и такая черта вместе с городом пойдет вперед в новое столетие”).

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Chinese boys in a Russian-run school. From the Museum of Heilongjiang Province. Photo my own, taken 4 Aug 2018.

True to its emphasis on cosmopolitanism, the exhibition does more than feature prominent emigre artists, administrators and businessmen. Many of the photographs depict sites of Sino-Russian interaction, such as schools, factories, scientific groups and the offices of the Yuandong bao newspaper. Nevertheless, there is a strong sense of a vanished world, in which the Russian emigre world comes across almost as an ethnographic curiosity. This is heightened by the final segment of the exhibition, which includes three dioramas of (somewhat romanticised) emigre life in Harbin. The dioramas provide a chance to display material objects from the period. At the same time, the Chinese-only explanatory text draws parallels between the diorama scenes to some of the “Sino-Russian” symbols of present-day Harbin: Beer (Harbin beer), sausages (especially Churin “red sausages”), bread (列巴 or lieba, from хлеб), kvass and ice cream (Hotel Modern ice lollies). While these items may have been introduced by emigres, they have become “indigenised” to varying degrees. Lieba and kvass as they are sold in Harbin are not recogniseable as typically Russian bread or kvass, while the sausages and ice cream are known under Chinese-owned, sinified brand names (秋林红肠, 马迭尔冰棍).

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One of three dioramas of Russian emigre life. From the Museum of Heilongjiang Province. Photo my own, taken 4 Aug 2018.

As the newer of the two exhibitions, the Russian emigre section is clearly more “on brand” in an era where China’s aspirations are assuming concrete and global forms. Simultaneously, it allows the city to express a degree of regional and municipal pride as distinct from wider national sentiment. Yet the maintenance of a nationalist narrative, which mirrors that of the even more strident Aihui History Museum (refurbished 2011), shows that such messages are not obsolete. Cosmopolitanism therefore coincides with a sustained awareness of China’s national prerogatives. After all, if China is to resume its historic role in the “new Silk Road”, it must redefine itself in more expansive ways.

One thought on “The Original Belt and Road? Three Museums in Harbin, Part I

  1. Pingback: Flying Forward with the Chinese Dream: Three Museums in Harbin, Part II – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

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