China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
The Russo-Japanese occupation (1900-1905) transformed Manchuria from the serene backwater of the Qing into a battleground of empires. The fascinating complexity of the four decades that followed has inspired much new scholarship. Little, however, has been written about the jurisdictional politics central to this game of great powers. Imperial agents negotiated the terms of law on a contingent basis, giving new meanings to fundamental concepts like rights and justice. The presence of multiple legal institutions created a market of laws, enabling savvy frontier residents to conduct forum shopping across the internal borders of the borderland.
This paper reconstructs a set of transnational property litigations from the 1900s to the 1920s to show how borderlanders staked out their own claims in the fluid legal world. From the Russian expropriation of Mongol land to the Sino-Korean-Japanese struggle over the development of wetlands in the Yalu River, borderland peasants leveraged their in-between status to strike deals with state and colonial actors on their own terms. The Republican Chinese state moved to codify a modern property regime on the frontiers in the 1910s. Property owners used the new law prohibiting “the illicit stealing of national territory” to reframe their claims to private rights, drawing the legal resources of the nationalistic state to their service. The high legal literacy of the borderland communities co-constituted the order of informal empires in the Northeast Asian cradle of conflict. This restive borderland legal culture was only tamed in the socialist decolonization of the early 1950s.