To the Diamond Mountains: a hundred-year journey through China and Korea

To the Diamond Mountains: a hundred-year journey through China and Korea

Author:      Tessa Morris-Suzuki

ISBN:           978-1-4422-0503-1

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Year:           2010

Price:         $41.00


Reviewed by Lei Duan, Ph.D. Candidate in History, Syracuse University, United States

The Diamond Mountains, or Kŭmgangsan, one of the best-known scenic attractions on the Korean peninsula, carry different symbolic meanings for people living across different geographical spaces and time frames. For thousands of years, the splendid mountain has been considered as a sacred land for travelers, Buddhist pilgrims, hermits, and poets who illustrated it as a paradise on earth for the pursuit of inner peace and serenity. As the Peninsula went through the Korean War and constant Cold War, the Diamond Mountains today are imbued with geopolitical implications. It has been a site of political contest as the shooting of a South Korean tourist by the North intensified the region’s instability since 2008. It has also been a symbol of reunion, as selected war-torn families had chance to meet their relatives on the other side in the mountain resort. The mysterious Diamond Mountains epitomize in many ways the complicated historical trajectory of Northeast Asia during the last one hundred years when the region underwent Japanese colonization, Korean War, and the north–south division. Australian historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a leading scholar of Northeast Asia, in this book under review, initiates a dialogue between the region’s turbulent past and the mysterious present, telling vivid stories about the dynamic transformations and their impacts upon individuals.

Morris-Suzuki’s book is not simply a travelogue from her investigative visit to Northeastern China, North Korea, and South Korea. Rather, her lucid narrative blends the history and the contemporary politics together. In so doing, Morris-Suzuki retraces the route of Emily Kemp, an artist, feminist, writer, and erudite traveler, who journeyed in the region in 1910 and left detailed travel account entitled The Face of Manchuria, Korea and Russian Turkestan and many others. The reason for selecting Kemp’s observation as her travel guide is also because this region was “at a particularly critical turning point in their history” when Kemp traveled through China and Korea, as the Qing dynasty was to collapse and Japan was exhibiting its ambition to annex Korea and Manchuria (p.8). Following Kemp’s travel route, Morris-Suzuki set out her journey one century later when the region was again in the midst of profound social and political changes: the rise of China as a global power, South Korea’s rapid modernization, and unpredictable tension brought about by North Korea’s nuclear program. Synthesizing historical accounts and contemporary reality, as Morris-Suzuki argues, is conducive to investigating “the deep forces that produced today’s tensions and divisions,” and to exploring the “new ways of imaging the possibilities that lie ahead” (p.9).

The core of the book is comprised of twelve chapters, covering Morris-Suzuki’s trips in some major cities in the three countries. Her nuanced observations and Kemp’s detailed travel writing thread their way throughout this book, which proves extremely successful in allowing readers to trace significant historical changes and continuities in this dynamic region. Like Kemp, Morris-Suzuki starts her trip from Harbin, the most populous city in Northeast China. As the home of the Chinese Eastern Railway Company operated by Imperil Russia, Harbin emerged as a metropolis that was full of multicultural communities from the late nineteenth century. Through a historian’s eyes, Morris-Suzuki exclaims that the city’s landscape, as well as the people, had changed radically during the twentieth century by persistent warfare, revolutions, and different forms of political control. In the section of “Missing People,” she addresses that Russian community, which was populous in the 1900s are hardly found in the city today, while historical buildings, as a form of memory, are inevitably replaced by modern architecture. As she travels deeply, following Kemp’s way, Morris-Suzuki convinces that people’s migration, vicissitudes of life, and landscape change happened almost everywhere in China and Korea since Kemp’s day. Changchun, once the capital of “Manchukuo,” left few traces of Japan’s imperial enterprise, exhibiting itself merely as a tourist city for foreigners. In Liaoyang, city walls disappeared, “leaving no visible trace even of their foundations, and a century of upheavals, invasions, and revolutions” (p.57). In Shenyang, for another example, Morris-Suzuki finds that Christianity, unlike the early twentieth century, “again flourishes in varied forms” (p.64).

Morris-Suzuki then travels by train from Dandong to Pyongyang. The book pays particular attention to people’s lives beyond political ideologies in the hermit country, North Korea. Contemporary politics shapes almost everything in Pyongyang. Kijia’s tomb, which symbolized Korea’s subordination to China and became a major exhibit under Japanese colonial rule, was destroyed and gave way to the Tower of the Juche Idea. People’s memories of the past are politically constructed and articulated in ways that commemorate heroic resistance and brilliant victory. Driven by the utopian egalitarian dream, Morris-Suzuki introduces us the diligent and optimistic farmers who work extremely hard for the 150-Day Campaign. In Sijung, the author presents how fishermen and women struggle for survival in an isolated country which is undergoing terrible economic hardship and severe food shortage. Transformations also happened on the Peninsula’s south side. As the author shows us, the South Korean government also helps shape the country’s memory through sweeping away “all the physical vestiges of colonialism,” and highlighting its glorious past. We are also introduced to a group of Buddhist priests in Seoul, whose dream is to rebuild all the temples of the Diamond Mountains, which is under North Korean control.

The division of the Korean Peninsula leads to different political systems, ideologies, and economic performances. Witnessing people’s lives in the totalitarian socialist utopian North Korea, Morris-Suzuki asks us to think the country’s future once the domestic and external crises grow more severe and become visible to its citizens. She suggests that “Neither governments nor international organizations are seriously planning how this land might be helped to overcome the environmental ravages of decades of Juche economics, or thinking of the hope for the future that lies in the quiet and shrewd ingenuity of the North Korean people. Just a few small underfunded nongovernmental groups struggle to keep the lines of communication open” (p.186). However, just like the whole region has undergone tremendous change during the last century, as Morris-Suzuki concludes optimistically in the end, “tomorrow the light may change; tomorrow the landscape may be transformed” (p.186).

Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon program from 1994 had destabilized regional security, which made Northeast Asia one of the most contested regions in the world. The rise of China, the collapse of North Korea’s economy, and South Korea’s multifaceted diplomacy all help escalate tension in the volatile region. Thereafter, scholars of Northeast Asia have generated a sizeable literature on the region’s complicated history and dynamic contemporary politics. Nevertheless, very few works so far have touched upon various ways that ordinary people experienced the historical changes. This book is undoubtedly a brilliant addition to the field. It is highly recommended to the readers with a general interest of Northeast Asia. Through her beautiful words, Morris-Suzuki creatively combines her personal investigations and historical writings, facilitating readers to traverse between history and present of China and two Koreas.

Suggested Citation:

Duan, Lei (2016), Review of “To the Diamond Mountains: a hundred-year journey through China and Korea”, by Tessa Morris-Suzuki, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 9, no. 1.