Bill Sewell

Jan 25, 2021

Constructing Empire

The Japanese in Changchun, 1905–45

University of British Columbia Press 2019

What happens to everyday-life in a city when it becomes subsumed into an empire? Who becomes responsible for the everyday building and management of the new imperial enclave? How do local residents and colonial settlers manage to live side-by-side in new imperial arrangements?

In Constructing Empire: The Japanese in Changchun, 1905-45 (University of British Columbia Press 2019), Bill Sewell examines how Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and other civilians in northeast Asia sought to inscribe Manchuria as theirs, and how Japanese imperial architects and civilians in Changchun engaged in diverse empire-building efforts that transformed the city into a modern urban capital for the puppet state of Manchukuo. Sewell argues that "Constructing empire was a mundane and popularly imagined affair as well as a diplomatic, political, and military one." Although studies on empire tend to focus on elite decisions or actions, Sewell contends that "popular dimensions must also be considered to grasp fully empire's nature."

Constructing Empire also reminds us that Changchun, a city in northeast China and today's Jilin province, was a regional trade hub in Qing Inner Asia before the arrival of foreign empire builders. Although the land on which the city was built originally belonged to the Mongolian Front Gorlos Banner, Changchun's first cityscape was constructed by its Chinese settlers in the Qing. After the Russo-Japanese War, Changchun became a boundary between the Russian and Japanese spheres of influence in northeast China and a transfer point for travel between Europe and Asia.

Although the Japanese presence in Manchuria was initially under military authority following the Russo-Japanese War, Sewell observes that the presence of Japanese civilians became increasingly strong after the South Manchuria Railway Company (Mantetsu) established transportation infrastructures, coal mines, power-generation facilities, factories, experimental farms, and railway-zone towns.

Under Japanese occupation, Changchun was renamed Xinjing (J: Shinkyō) and became the capital of the puppet state of Manchukuo. Sewell shows that constructing empire in Xinjing occurred in diverse contexts and was motivated by colonial imaginaries that allowed Japanese civilians to perceive the urban city and its spaces as places of work, worship, recreation, and residence. 

Residents of Xinjing were also segregated between the Chinese, Koreans, and the Japanese, with access to spaces and resources in the city unequally distributed. Sewell points out that behind the façades of Pan-Asianism, the Japanese recreated in Xinjing much of the lifestyle that characterized life back home, demonstrating that "there was a closer allegiance to Japanese customs and society than to anything broadly Pan-Asia."

Daigengna Duoer is a PhD student at the Religious Studies Department, University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation researches on transnational and transregional Buddhist networks connecting twentieth-century Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Republican China, Tibet, and the Japanese Empire.

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Daigengna Duoer

Daigengna Duoer is a Ph.D. student at the Religious Studies Department, University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation is a digital humanities project mapping transnational and transregional Buddhist networks connecting twentieth-century Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Republican China, Tibet, and the Japanese Empire.
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