Mark Gamsa uses the city of Harbin in the Chinese Northeast to explore inter-cultural relations and perceptions between the Russians and Chinese from the late nineteenth-century to the 1950s. The foundation of the city in 1898 was a product of Russian railway development and colonial expansion into space increasingly ceded by the Chinese to the stronger Russian and Japanese Empires. Russian emigration after the October revolution of 1917 led to a significant growth in the Russian population of Harbin, even after warlord Zhang Zuolin took control over the city in 1920. Harbin played an important role in the history of the Russian emigration, on par with the better-known stories of Russians abroad in Prague, Berlin, Sofia and Paris.
Gamsa casts the story as part of colonial history, sharing stories of comparatively privileged Russians and Chinese “colonial middlemen.” The latter were interpreters, compradors, businessmen, railway officials and others who were able to “exploit the economic advantages that contact with the Russians could offer as long as their political power lasted” (p. 63). The Russians often thought of themselves as extending the virtues of European civilization to the savage East, and Gamsa shares numerous examples of their fears and concerns about local Chinese culture. Russian horror concerning Chinese burial practices, for example, stemmed from a fear that Chinese ideas about evil spirits enduring among recently deceased children encouraged peasants to leave their corpses unburied to be devoured by stray dogs and pigs (pp. 30–33). Russians and Chinese often misunderstood each other, explains Gamsa, who “sees no need to construct Harbin as a site of interethnic harmony in order to justify [his] interest in cross-cultural relations” (p. 10). At the same time contact encouraged borrowing and appropriation, in clothing, fashion, hairstyles, swimming customs, festivals and opium use (pp. 116–140).
Gamsa’s approach to inter-cultural relations is biographical. “History is what happens to people, individuals with names and biographies,” he writes (p. 226). Thus a theme is introduced and then supported with reference to the life stories of characters from Harbin, many of whom are extremely interesting and drawn from everyday life and experience. This method is generally effective but might be more explicitly explained in the introduction to help the reader follow the course of the story. The central biographical story, the subject of every other chapter, is that of an unusual resident of Harbin whose life and experience confounds our traditional ideas about national identity, a doctor from a Baltic German family in the Russian Empire named Baron Roger Budberg. Budberg was named senior physician in 1904 to the floating hospitals of the Russian Red Cross on the rivers Amur (Heilongjiang) and Sungari (Songhuajiang), and subsequently served the Russian military in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. After an unsuccessful attempt to work at the University of Dorpat (today the University of Tartu in Estonia), Budberg opted to stay in Harbin with the Chinese Eastern Railway, adopt Chinese customs, learn the language, and find a Chinese wife. He married a 13-year-old girl that was perhaps found for him in a brothel, wrote essays about the virtues of traditional Chinese culture and the family, participated in a Rosicrucian Order, and published a book in German about the plague in 1910/11. He was incarcerated briefly as “the German spy” during World War One, and after the war his family’s estate was divided among the newly established countries of Lithuania and Lativa.
This is a fascinating and well-researched exploration of the Russian--Chinese cultural encounter in Harbin, based on the extensive use of sources in both Russian and Chinese. Some readers will object to Budberg’s haunting presence throughout the book. On the positive side, he frequently stood up for the poor in Harbin, criticized Russian colonialism and was determined to disseminate information about modern medicine. On the negative side, he absurdly romanticized aspects of Chinese tradition that he found personally beneficial, such as a sexual relationship to a child that in today’s world would be viewed as pedophilia. While his life story, writes Gamsa, “is not meant to be representative,” nonetheless “much may be learned” from his experience and the context of Harbin which made it possible (p. 12). Gamsa thoughtfully brings his story to its conclusion in the 1950s, when hybridity in matters of both personal and communal identity was no longer possible.