Shortly before the embrace of Chinese Leader Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 20, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources put out a requirement that in future, Chinese maps of major locations in the Russian Far East, including Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and Sakhalin were required to use Chinese names, not Russified ones. Thus Vladivostok would be Heishenwei, not Fuladivostake (using Romanizations of the previous name used for the city).
In itself, the change wasn’t remarkable. It is common for foreign countries to use different names than those used by the nation itself. For example, the official name for Montenegro is Crna Gora. But timing is everything. The ministry order was an immediate and poignant reminder not just to Russians but to nationalistically inclined Chinese social media participants that much of the territory subject to the name-use change was once part of the Manchu empire. It was alienated by one of the so-called “unequal treaties” of the 19th century, the treaties of Aigun and Peking. Vladivostok was especially noted as its acquisition by Russia was confirmed by the same 1860 treaty by which much of Hong Kong was ceded to the British – but returned in 1997.
But “Nations have usually found it psychologically difficult to renounce their title to lost territories even when the population of these territories is alien and hostile,” according to the celebrated British historian Arnold Toynbee. It is a quote that is surely applicable to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and attitudes to former members of Russia’s Tsarist and Soviet empires. It is a reminder too of Moscow’s desperate efforts to hang on to some bits of its state, the ethnic minority (and mostly Muslim) republics such as Chechnya where Putin launched his first war, the second Chechen War.
What does this say about the territories of Russia’s Far East, Fuladivostake among them, that once belonged to the Manchu empire which swallowed up mighty China in the 17th century? The Manchu lands and the dynasty’s conquests to the west vastly enlarged the boundaries of China today despite losses to Russia in the nineteenth century. This pairs intriguingly with another issue which is being brought into focus which might, separated by months and without context, have been seen as happening independently of each other. But the context was such that the stronger the semi-official rejection by both Moscow and Beijing of deliberate timing the more likely it seems that China was underlining its leverage over the very Russia with which it was supposedly engaging more closely.
Beijing has merely to hint that it still has a claim to restoration of this and much bigger areas, including parts of what are now Kazakhstan, to make the Russians feel defensive. That is despite the fact that Russia’s Far East territory has a history back to the 17th century. Indeed the Ming dynasty, whose rule never extended much beyond the Great Wall, was still ruling when Tsarist Russia conquered the Siberian Khanate and its Eurasian empire reached the Pacific and established the city of Okhotsk. It has a predominantly Russian population – and its ethnic minorities such as Buryats (Mongols with some links to Tibetan Buddhism) probably have scant sympathy for China given its current treatment of minorities. (Another minority in the region are the Koreans, descendants of migrants from the late 19th century. Their cousins in Seoul would prefer them to remain part of Russia than see China’s borders reach the Sea of Okhotsk and the western coast of the Sea of Japan.)
Prior to 1858, the border between the Manchu empire was established by the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, a compromise which gave the Russians an area east of Lake Baikal, some Pacific coastline and better trade access but whose northern border was the Aigun river and Stanovoy mountain range, a long way north of the 1858 ones. The Manchus had by 1689 established a northern presence in an area between Baikal and the sea which Russia claimed. For Russians, the Aigun treaty was just a reversal of their Nerchinsk losses. It is notable that the original Nerchinsk treaty was in three languages – Russian, Manchu, and Latin. The Chinese versions were derived those. This underlines the fact that at the time of Nerchinsk, this was a matter of Manchu, not previously Chinese territory. Although by then Manchu lands were open to Han settlement there were few Han in the lost lands of the far north of the empire.
China’s indirect mention of those losses now adds to its leverage over Moscow but also emphasizes the opportunistic nature of the Xi-Putin embrace. For Russia, its obsession with regaining Ukraine is weakening its other borders where minorities are predominant or ethnic Russians thin on the ground – as in the Far East. At the same time, it opens the possibility, currently seemingly remote, that any major change in Russian leadership and policy which is unfavorable to Beijing could see a more open revival by China of its Manchu-era imperial claims based on the claim that the treaties were “unequal.” The region is rich in minerals even if its sparse population is as much a reflection of geography as of Russian economic and demographic weaknesses.
But in even hinting at the lost territory issue, China is itself showing its difficulty in renouncing “title to lost territories even when the population of these territories is alien and hostile.” As it is, China’s efforts to hang on to other Manchu acquisitions, notably Xinjiang and Tibet, is proving more trouble than they may be worth. It is having similar problems in Taiwan, with its restive residents.
Pinyin can be a challenge for us foreigners, but please correct above because it looks a bit jarring to me. The correct version is "Haishenwei" - which has quite a different meaning in Chinese. And it is quite a picturesque meaning.
(Hǎishēnwǎi, "sea-cucumber cliffs")
There is a nice little writeup here on Wikipedia:
On Chinese maps from the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), Vladivostok is called Yongmingcheng (永明城 [Yǒngmíngchéng], "city of eternal light"). During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) it was under Ming rule as part of the Nurgan Regional Military Commission. It was visited by Chinese expeditions under Haixi Jurchen eunuch Yishiha, and a relic of that time, the Ming Yongning Temple Stele is displayed in the local museum. The 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk defined the area as part of China under the Manchu Qing dynasty. Later, as the Manchus banned non-banner Han Chinese from most of Manchuria (including the Vladivostok region), it was only visited by shēnzéi (參賊, ginseng or sea cucumber thieves) who illegally entered the area seeking ginseng or sea cucumbers (ambiguous, since both words use the Chinese 參, shēn). From this comes the current Chinese name for the city, 海參崴 – (Hǎishēnwǎi, "sea-cucumber cliffs").