Happy Year of the Pig! For China’s most important national holiday a couple weeks ago, some friends and I decided to bundle up in layers of counterfeit fleece and head north to Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province – nestled at the crossroads of Mongolia, Russia and North Korea. Before arriving, I didn’t know much about our spring break destination except for promises of consistently subzero temperatures, the world’s largest ice festival and a general sense of snowy reverie. We found all of that and more: Harbin also provided some surprising insight into Northwest China’s forlorn military history.
Following some mandatory ice-luging at the winter time amusement park, we stumbled upon the Memorial Park of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army. This gaudy memorial is nestled in a forest opposite downtown Harbin, a short walk across the frozen Songhua River. Attempting to decipher the remembrances of Manchu China’s regional forces in Mandarin proved challenging. But it prompted a refresher on the Sino-Japanese War, a conflict that is central to the history of Heilongjiang and Harbin.
Japan’s excuse for invading Manchuria was the so-called “Mukden incident.” A Japanese general had apparently detonated small explosives along the South Manchuria Railway in Japanese-controlled, modern day Korea – and subsequently blamed it on the Chinese. Though some guerilla forces coalesced as the Northeast Anti-Japanese Army, the lack of a central Chinese government at the time made it impossible to marshal a defense against a headstrong, ultranationalist Imperial Japanese Army with superior military technology. Russia supported China’s guerilla forces as best it could out of geographical necessity – many Chinese soldiers even donned uniforms on loan from the Soviets – but it was all for naught. In six months, Japan would control a huge chunk of Chinese territory, known as Manchukuo, a puppet state from which they would launch subsequent invasions of a vulnerable mainland China already struggling with its own debilitating civil war.
The Imperial Army’s siege of Harbin only lasted a few hours, but the city remained an important stronghold until the end of World War II. Soon after establishing Manchukuo, Japanese doctors and scientists created Unit 731, where some of the worst atrocities of the war would take place – yeah, that’s a high bar, so let it sink in. I’ll try not to get too gory, but this biological and chemical warfare research center provided the last and possibly largest study of human vivisection – surgery conducted for experimental purposes on living organisms. Chinese and Russian POWs were exposed to diseases like the plague, or ailments like frostbite, and subsequently studied – below is a link for more inquisitive readers (strong stomachs required). China believes Japan still hasn’t properly apologized for what it did there. Somewhat shamefully, at the end of the war, General Douglas MacArthur and the American force occupying Japan decided to look the other way in exchange for Unit 731’s scientific findings.
I would be lying if I said all this was at the front of my mind as we four-wheeled across frozen tundra and fed raw meat to Siberian Tigers. Today’s Harbin is a place that looks like the center of Buddy the Elf’s favorite snow globe. But beneath the glistening ice city that has become such a popular domestic destination for newly endowed Chinese tourists there’s a dark history worth remembering.