The “history war” in Northeast Asia

Who owns the legacy of the Kingdom of Koguryo/Gaogouli? China, Korea or Wikipedia?

Topics: China, Globalization, How the World Works,

During an awards ceremony at the Asian Winter Games held in Changchun, China, in February, five silver-medal-winning Korean short track ice skaters held up signs declaring “Mt. Baekdu is our territory.” Mount Baekdu, or Chongbaishan, as the Chinese call it, straddles the border between North Korea and China. The highest mountain in Korea, it is considered by Koreans to be the ancestral birthplace of their “people.”

Perhaps because the skaters were all grinning like they had just gotten away with toilet papering their coach’s home, the protest didn’t resound around the world like Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ “Black Power” salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. It’s always hard to take a border war seriously when the girls get all giggly.

Especially when there is no physical border war actually occurring. Per a 1962 treaty, 55 percent of the volcanic mountain belongs to North Korea, and 45 percent to China. Neither side, at the moment, is officially claiming sovereignty over the entire mountain, and the Korean delegation was quick to apologize to China for the incident.

But while there may not be armies massing near the Yalu River at present, in the context of ancient Northeast Asian history, a border war is being fought, a conflict in which archaeologists are the infantry and ancient inscriptions on stone monuments the ammunition. The “history war” between China and Korea has been raging for at least a decade, and the skating incident is just one of the most recent skirmishes. Fronts in this war include government-sponsored research institutions, televised soap operas, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and even Wikipedia, where ferocious “edit wars” replicate in the virtual world the nationalist tensions of the embodied world in perfect syncopation.

The big dog in this fight is the legacy of the kingdom of Koguryo, as the Koreans refer to it, or Gaogouli, as the Chinese call it. (In Korea, another variant spelling is “Goguryeo.” I will more or less randomly choose between all three spellings to avoid accusations of ideological bias — in the shark-infested historical waters of Asia, dread partisanship can be determined by the choice of a K over a C.)

The Kingdom of Koguryo existed from the first century B.C. to 668 A.D. At its height, under the Emperor Gwanggaeto the Great, it controlled a significant section of Northeast Asia, including territory that is now part of South Korea, North Korea and China. From a Korean historical vantage point it has long been considered one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, a major wellspring of Korean civilization and culture.

But according to China, Gaogouli is historically Chinese, an assertion that outrages Korea. Dating back at least as far as 1980, but picking up steam with the inauguration of China’s “Northeast Project,” Chinese historians have been pumping out research papers that claim that Gaogouli should be considered an integral part of the historical concept of “China.”

Korean nationalists scoff at such assertions, and make counter accusations that describe Chinese historical revisionism as motivated by claims on Korean territory — such as Mount Baekdu. Those Western historians who have explored the topic make a pretty convincing case that the Chinese interpretation does not hold water; that it is a clear political attempt to provide legitimacy for current Chinese borders by pretending that everything currently part of China has always been part of China.

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But Korea is no aggrieved innocent. Insecure as to its own identity, sandwiched between the Big Powers of China and Japan, it has long played similar historical games, funding its own partisan historical institutes and, most recently, dramatically mandating that high school textbooks move up the start of the Bronze Age in Korea by 1,000 years, so as to provide legitimacy to Korean claims that their mythical founding kingdom predates both Chinese and Japanese influence on the peninsula.

A pox on all their houses. History belongs to no one, and certainly no nation-state. However you spell it, the legacy of Koguryo/Gaogouli/Goguryeo cannot be reduced to Chinese territoriality or Korean nationalist identity. As Yonson Ahn, a research fellow at the East Asian Institute at the University of Leipzig in Germany, argues in a terrific essay on the Chinese-Korean history wars:

The history of a borderland is invariably one in which identities converge, coexist, and sometimes conflict. Such identities, which are invariably in flux, cannot be appropriated by a single nation-state. In this sense, the question of who owns the historical legacy of Koguryo is beside the point. It is instead worth trying to understand how Korean nationals and Chinese nationals today make sense of the people and cultures that blended to shape Koguryo in ancient times. The history of the border region between North Korea and China needs to be examined as that of an intercultural site of hybridity, both within and beyond the boundaries of the modern nation-state, rather than as the exclusive national history of one nation.

But, we may rightly wonder, is there even a remote chance of such an examination occurring? On Tuesday afternoon, when I decided to learn more about the particulars of the history wars between China and Korea, I visited Wikipedia to brush up on my Northeast Asian history. It’s not that I trust Wikipedia as an impartial arbiter of “truth” — I just find it extraordinarily useful for getting quickly up to speed on the broad-brush outlines of any particular topic.

But I stopped short as soon as I arrived at the page for “Goguryeo,” where I was greeted with the message: “This page is currently protected from editing until disputes have been resolved.” A “protected” Wikipedia page means the contents have been frozen. Nobody can edit it. Furthermore, when I turned to the “talk” page on which the metalevel discussions of how Goguryeo should be defined were being conducted, I learned that a) “This is a controversial topic” and b) “A formal Request for Mediation” on the article had been “filed with the Mediation Committee” — less than 24 hours before I had come visiting. (How the World Works is nothing if not timely!).

This is not the place to delve too deeply into the details of how Wikipedia’s elaborately acronymed collective process for constructing a representation of knowledge works: Suffice it to say that Wikipedia is not just a repository of information, it is also a culture in and of itself, and I wouldn’t be all that surprised if one day it declared itself an independent nation-state. But for our purposes here, all one needs to know is that the reason the Goguryeo page had been protected was due to an ongoing edit war between Chinese and Korean partisans. The particulars of their skirmishes are recorded at the “talk” page — if you want to see how Wikipedia sausage is made, that’s as good a starting point as any.

The arguments ranged from battles over spelling, to the arcane linguistic oddities of Goguryeo/Gaogouli, to learned disputes over the proper sourcing of historical fact to outright nuclear flaming: “Gaogouli is ours, bitch,” wrote one Chinese editor. The intransigent positions of two specific editors, “Assault11″ on the Chinese side, and “Cydevil” on the Korean side, appeared to be the primary cause of the current impasse — they kept editing out each other’s edits.

The stated goal of Wikipedia is to present things from a “neutral point of view,” an idealistic dream that your average French poststructuralist (if any are still breathing) would declare flatly impossible. Everyone’s got an ax to grind. Perhaps the best one can hope for is to achieve a relatively more neutral point of view than outright propaganda. We should be sympathetic. History is a messy business, whether conducted by Wikipedian amateurs who are willing to use the number of Google hits returned on a particular search as a justification for a proper spelling (a practice that would no doubt send my sister, a professor of history at Georgetown University, into cardiac arrest) or by nation-states positioning themselves for a territorial scramble in the wake of the collapse of North Korea.

History is hard to untangle, and so is Wikipedia. If you examine the Wikipedia pages for Mount Baekdu, or Gwanggaeto the Great, you don’t see the same battle that is being fought over for Goguryeo. Where’s the consistency? Why do some pages reflect a Korean point of view, and some are the site of open hostility? Is it because the disputants only have time to plunge one page at a time into editorial anarchy? Will the troubles spread? Will this How the World Works post inspire new armies of volunteers to cross the Wikipedia border?

Critics of Wikipedia are wont to point a finger at amateur authorship as a reason to distrust its veracity. Paradoxically, I find the lack of central authority and profusion of multiple contradicting viewpoints to be a more truthful reflection of “reality.” So what if an examination of the inner workings of Wikipedia makes its editorial process seem chaotic and causes one to distrust the product? That’s a good thing. All history should be distrusted! It’s equally easy to mock the Chinese and Korean academics who are playing games with Northeast Asian history in service of their own nationalism, but I say hurrah to them as well: They’re just engaging in an egregiously blatant display of what historians and reporters and bloggers are doing everywhere, all the time. By allowing us to track editorial changes, alter content ourselves, and participate in metalevel arguments, Wikipedia gives us a window-seat view of how “knowledge” is fabricated. The more context that is made available, the easier it is to make up our own minds.

So, what exactly do I believe at the end of this exercise in ancient and modern historical construction?

Nationalism is a pain in the ass. Imagine no more borders. Celebrate hybrid complexity.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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