The Railway Relics of the Russo-Japanese War
This is the second piece in a series on the South Manchuria Railway. The first can be found here.
Once one of China’s most strategically vital and economically prosperous transportation nodes, the Chinese Eastern Railway and the cities along it have fallen on hard times.
Built at the turn of the 20th century on land forcibly leased from the increasingly frail Qing dynasty, Russia saw the line as a way to shorten travel times between Moscow and the Russian Far East, including the strategic ports of Vladivostok and Port Arthur — now known as Lüshun — by cutting through China’s vast northeastern hinterlands. Though largely forgotten today, the railway had an immense impact on the history of modern Northeast Asia and played a key role in inciting the Russo-Japanese War. Vestiges of this period still dot the nearby landscape, offering a window not only into that important and blood-soaked time, but also the way its legacy has been remembered and commemorated over the years.
In the late 19th century, the growing Russian presence in Northeast China was a source of concern and apprehension for Japan, which had its own designs for the region. The construction of the new railway, along with other territorial grievances, ultimately convinced Japan that something had to be done to put Russian influence in check. In 1904, before the Russians could establish themselves, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet anchored in Lüshun, sparking the conflict known as the Russo-Japanese War.
Following their victory in 1905, Japan regained control of the Liaodong Peninsula, along with the Russian-built southern branch line of the Chinese Eastern Railway, which ran from Lüshun in the south up through the city of Changchun. This line, which the Japanese renamed the South Manchuria Railway, was key to their plans for Northeast China. They quickly set about memorializing their fallen soldiers — and emphasizing their control of the region — with monuments to their triumph.
Baiyu Tower is one such edifice. One of Lüshun’s primary landmarks, it frequently features on postcards of the town. Yet while it could easily be mistaken for a lighthouse, it was actually built by the Japanese in 1909 in honor of the generals who had died during the Russo-Japanese War.
The hilltop tower, which has been likened to both a candle and a bullet, is made from the ships the Japanese scuttled to blockade the harbor and stones imported from the hometown of Nogi Maresuke, one of the Japanese commanders who took the city. When Soviet troops arrived in Lüshun after Japan’s defeat in World War II, they initially wanted to tear it down as a symbol of Japanese military occupation, but the Chinese government convinced them to leave it, though the tower’s name was changed from the “Tower in Honor of Loyalty” to the more neutral Baiyu Tower. It continues to stand today despite decades of upheaval, preserved in part due to the Chinese government’s desire to keep memories of the country’s oppression fresh.
Baiyu Tower isn’t the only relic of the Russo-Japanese War still visible in Lüshun. 203 Hill, the site of one of the bloodiest battles during the Japanese siege of the city, is home to a public park crowned by yet another Japanese-era monument. Built in 1912 to commerate those who died fighting for control of the hill, the memorial consists of a hexagonal stone base beneath a now-rusted metal superstructure in the shape of a large bullet. The metal that was used to build the tower was foraged from scrap found on the battlefield, and it’s inscribed with a phrase chosen by Nogi: “erlingshang,” or “Mountain Where Your Souls Lie,” which he selected for its phonetic similarity to “203” in both Japanese and Chinese.
The scars left by the war are by no means limited to Lüshun, however. The conflict may have begun at the southern terminus of the South Manchuria Railway, but its impact was felt all the way at the other end, in Changchun — the site of a decadeslong postwar standoff between the Japanese and the Russians, and later the Soviet Union.
The standoff was centered on Kuanchengzi Station, Changchun’s first train station. When the Russians completed construction on the building in 1898, it was considered a fairly minor stop along the railway, but the surrounding area developed rapidly. A few decades later, Changchun — then known as Hsinking — was named the capital of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo.
The Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the war, both established Changchun as the marker delineating the two powers’ respective spheres of influence in Northeast China and gave Japan control over the southern branch of the Chinese Eastern Railway from Changchun to Lüshun. But while Japan argued that Kuanchengzi, as a station along the branch line, should fall under their control, Russia claimed that the station still belonged to them. Eventually, they struck a compromise: Russia would buy a stake in Kuanchengzi from Japan.
The Japanese quickly built a new station for their own use, however, and Kuanchengzi gradually fell out of use. In 1935, the USSR sold their stake in the rest of the Chinese Eastern Railway to the Manchukuo government, ending the standoff. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Kuanchengzi Station was merged with an automobile factory. Today, all that’s left of the station are a few photos showing the ruins of the old platform, stationmaster’s office, and ticket booth.
Nearby, however, a cluster of dilapidated single-story structures — the remnants of a Russian military camp, built in 1902 — still stand. When Russia withdrew its troops from Changchun following their defeat in the war, the empty camp was converted into an elementary school. The complex was in a state of considerable disrepair when I visited, but I was still able to make out a faded mural along the former school wall. Titled “Give the Mountains and Rivers Back to Me,” it was painted in 1929 and depicts the occupation and division of China by imperial powers.
Just to the south of the old school building, there’s the former Russian general’s camp, where high-ranking Russian military officials used to live. Fenced off and not open to outsiders, its outer walls also bear an inscription, this one dating to the Cultural Revolution: “All that my enemy opposes, I shall protect; all that my enemy protects, I shall oppose.”
More than a century after the end of Russo-Japanese War, only a few monuments and buildings from that time remain. Having survived a century of occupation, war, and upheaval, they stand as quiet reminders of a dark past.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: The former Kuanchengzi Station railway club building, now a hospital, in Changchun, Jilin province, May 27, 2018. Courtesy of Ma Te)