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It’s been the birthplace of massive empires, a playground for great powers, and a frontline in the Cold War.
But, 400 years ago the idyllic rolling steppes, forests and mountains of Northeast Asia were a very different place. Back then small and diverse ethnic groups, speaking dozens of different languages, occupied the vast region that today encompasses Korea, Manchuria, the Mongolian Plateau and Eastern Siberia.
It soon quickly drew the eye of people from the north, south and east. As great powers Russia, China and Japan sought dominance over the region, the rise and fall of dynasties transformed local societies while new national aspirations emerged.
Tracking the vast political and social changes affecting the region is the beautifully illustrated Historical Atlas of Northeast Asia - 1590 to 2010, a new book by ANU professors Li Narangoa and Robert Cribb.
“As the atlas shows, the borders in this region are relatively recent,” Professor Cribb says.
“They have been highly fluid over the last four centuries.
“Although we are accustomed to thinking of borders as being fixed, we can’t assume that that is always going to be the case.”
It is not just the region that has been a site of contest. The term ‘Northeast Asia’, while relatively new, has been the subject of much academic ‘back and forth’ and decades of debate.
In the 1930s American historian Robert Kerner identified Northeast Asia as comprising the Korean Peninsula, Manchurian Plain, Mongolian Plateau and mountainous regions of Eastern Siberia.
As the Cold War faded and China began to embrace market capitalism, economists like ANU economics professor Ross Garnaut reshaped the term, by drawing the People’s Republic into the region, reflecting its re-emergence from the international economic isolation of the Mao Zedong years.
Garnaut’s 1989 report, Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy, also recognised the then primacy of industrialised Japan.
Narangoa and Cribb’s atlas, which includes 56 purpose drawn maps, returns to Kerner’s definition of the region.
“In this atlas, we aim to give both stability and historical depth to the term ‘Northeast Asia’,” Cribb says.
“Our perspective is not one of global power centres.
“Rather, we return to Kerner’s definition to examine a Northeast Asia whose history is distinct from that of China, Japan and Russia, and that commonly has been treated as only marginal to the histories of those great powers.”
tagThe Mongols launched the world's largest land empire from Northeast Asia. Photo by Belinda Cranston.
The core of the atlas is a single, relief shaded map of the region, created by the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific’s CartoGIS team.
The authors then added intricate detail, creating a map for each decade from 1590 to 1890 and from 1960 to 2010.
For the years 1890 to 1960, when things got very busy in Northeast Asia, there is a map for every five years.
The maps, many of which are accompanied by several pages of text, detail changing boundaries, the movement of armies, location of battles and changing patterns of settlement.
Other maps illustrate the region’s geography, climate, vegetation, population densities and mineral resources.
Idiosyncratic details include the location of China’s military leader Lin Biao’s plane crash over Mongolia in 1971 and the still-mysterious Tunguska Event of 1908 in Siberia – probably a massive meteor strike, and the largest impact event in Earth’s recorded history.
Economically, the region is important for rich resources including coal, gas, oil and copper.
“One of the regions in Siberia, the Yakutia Sakha, is famous for producing every element on the periodic table,” says Cribb.
A big theme of the atlas is the interaction between three indigenous groups of people in the region – the Mongols, the Manchus and the Koreans, with three external groups of people – the Chinese, the Russians and the Japanese.
“Each of these external groups of people have come in as empires, and established political control,” says Cribb.
“They have also sent settlers into the regions. Those settlers have become part of the political equation.
“So we are looking at the turbulent creation of states out of all sorts of possibilities.
“Settler communities, indigenous communities, the rise and fall of empires.”
So, as the shifting fortunes and frontiers of the region’s many peoples show, it’s always best to read between the lines when it comes to history – and today’s maps for that matter.
Historical Atlas of Northeast Asia is published by Columbia University Press.