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The Tear-Drenched Tumen: The Psychological Impact of Border Changes Depicted in Zhang Lu’s Tumen River (2011)

  • Jerôme de Wit
Thursday 23 February 2017
Borders: Life On the Fringes of Area Studies
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

On a geographical level, rivers connect: state with state, interior with exterior, one region with another, the past with the present. At the same time, rivers are also a separating force: separating nations, subcultures, and families. For the Korean Chinese living at the border with North Korea, the Tumen River contains all these aforementioned meanings within its being. The crossing of this river is seen as the foundation on which the identity of the Korean minority in China rests. Its psychological and cultural significance is revealed by the vast amount of songs, oral narratives, and literature about the Tumen River.

Like the river, the meanings that are ascribed to the Tumen River are always in flux. Until the beginning of the 21st Century, crossing the river from China to North Korea, and vice-versa was not very daunting and was a natural mode of daily life for the Korean Chinese. They would visit family, visit friends, or do business without any impediments from either state. The last fifteen years, however, the river has transformed not only into a natural border, but a psychological, cultural and more recently a physical border as well. The cause of this has been the steady influx of North Korean refugees. Given the significance and importance of the Tumen River to the identity of the Korean Chinese, a shift can be seen in their attitude towards the river.

The Korean Chinese director Zhang Lu depicts these different attitudes and changes in a subtle, yet powerful way in his movie Tumen River (2011). In my paper, I will analyse what the river signifies to the characters in the movie, what role it plays in their day-to-day lives, and how they try to cope with the idea that the Tumen River has changed into a physical and impassable border between North Korea and China.

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