With China’s northwestern and southern edges justifiably being sources of global attention at present, Martin Fromm
’s Borderland Memories: Searching for Historical Identity in Post-Mao China
(Cambridge University Press, 2019) has much light to shed on how the country’s ruling Communist Party refashioned its relationship with its frontiers at an earlier point in history. Examining a trove of documents produced mostly in the 1980s in the country’s far northeastern Heilongjiang province, Fromm reveals the processes, policies and personal stories undergirding the new understandings of China which emerged after the death of Mao Zedong.
As the nation emerged from the catastrophic policy failures and ideological excesses of the Mao years, the Party deftly encouraged ordinary people to narrate their experiences of the tumultuous recent history of the region in new ways and according to new historical frames. Their stories, collected in documents known as wenshi ziliao
, reappraised the Russian and Japanese roles in the northeast’s past, its indigenous residents and the history of Han migration in ways which, in Fromm’s telling, are highly revealing of the narratives by which the Party sought to maintain its role as a governing power. If Hong Kong and Xinjiang today show that the Reform era, whose dawn this book expertly documents, is now transitioning to something else, then the understanding we gain from this book of how the Chinese Communist Party acted an earlier time of crisis could not be more pertinent.
Ed Pulford is a postdoctoral researcher at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and northeast Asian indigenous groups.