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Chinese Views of Korean History
Published August 13, 2018
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The way Chinese officials and writers view the history of Korea—from ancient times to the post- Cold War developments in South Korea—matters for at least three reasons. It is a commentary on Chinese national identity since Korea bears importantly on multiple dimensions of how that identity has recently been constructed. It is likewise a window on how Chinese view the order they seek to forge in East Asia, linking it to the earlier Sinocentric order. Finally, Chinese views of Korea’s history offer valuable insight into China’s vision of the future of the Korean Peninsula and its relationship to China. It is commonplace to regard historical narrative as a lens on views of the present and plans for future policies, but this is even more the case for a country with the tradition of Confucian historiography with its extraordinary stress on correct thinking about the past, and communist historiography redolent with socialist realism insistent on a zero-sum understanding of the past. We read in Chinese historical writings on Korea a morality tale with undoubted relevance to how China constructs both its identity and its international relations.

The Korean Peninsula has significance for Chinese national identity beyond that of any foreign country except Russia and the United States with the possible exception of Japan. It is where ideology was honed as China sent the PLA to prevent the fall of North Korea after Mao had given his blessing along with Stalin to the North’s attack on the South. As ideology has grown again in importance, the significance of North Korea’s socialist pedigree and shared origins in the crucible of revolution against imperialism has risen. In the historical dimension of national identity, China’s leaders in the 1990s weighed allowing candor about the origins of the Korean War at a time when de-ideologization was fitfully taking place and there was no established narrative on history. Some saw sensitivity to North Korean reactions as the key to why China did not go further, but the resistance inside China proved more tenacious than they assumed. Historical purity toward Japan intensified apart from a short-lived interval with “new thinking” in 2003. With South Korea on the frontlines in China’s quest for demonization of Japan over history, its own history became a test case for the national identity gap between it and China. The history of Korea is so interwoven with that of China and it can reveal much about recent views.

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