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In Session: New Perspectives on Economic Life and Imperial Formations in Early Modern and Modern Asia
4: To the Korean Peninsula and Back: Chinese Laborers and Imperial Knowledge in Japan's Empire-building
Thursday, March 25, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
University of California, San Diego
Throughout the Korean colonial period a significant number of Chinese laborers worked in the Korean peninsula, with those from Shandong constituting the major group. This paper studies their presence in Korea in the context of the movement of people, ideas, and capital in northeast Asia. By charting the formation of “Shandong coolies” as a social group and the discourse on their attributes, I probe how the agents of Japanese empire understood and utilized the Chinese laborers and argue that migration and circulation of ideas were deeply involved in Japan’s empire-building. For European colonialists, the proliferation of Asian indentured labor since the 1830s created the so-called coolie question: after the abolition of slavery, did the indentured laborers come to work on their own will, or were they a new form of slave labor? Recent scholars have grappled with the ramifications of the coolie question, including racial imagination and labor rights in European colonies and newly independent lands. Exploiting Chinese and Japanese sources, I show how the European idea of coolie labor found its way into Japanese and Chinese discourses on “Shandong coolies” as strong, hard-working, and able to endure. On the other hand, Chinese laborers’ practices of annual return and employment through labor brokers kept them connected to their native places. This migration pattern and employment structure limited the possibilities of their survival strategy in colonial Korea, but also helped them organize and resist the Japanese’s attempt to control their labor and migration.