Northeast China

Harbin ice sculpture

Northeast China (东北; dōng​běi​; historically known as Manchuria). In ancient times, this was an area of steppes and fierce nomadic tribes, outside the Great Wall built to protect China from those tribes. In 1644, the Manchus from this region crossed the wall, conquered China, and founded the Qing Dynasty which lasted until 1911.

From the 19th century until the end of the Second World War, Manchuria was the main prize in a complex territorial squabble mainly between China, Japan and Russia. After that, the area came firmly under Chinese control, began to be called dong bei (the Northeast), and became China's "rust belt", the area where various five-year plans put most of the heavy industry. The largest ethnic group is now Han Chinese; there are substantial Manchu, Mongol and Korean minorities.

Since the "reform and opening up" policies of Deng Xiao Ping went into effect in the late 1970s, this area has seen considerable economic growth but, except perhaps for the area around the region's main port, Dalian, growth here has not been as furious as in Southern provinces.


Provinces of Northeast China
Fierce winters with snow and ice festivals and characteristic Russian buildings.
Winter resorts, nature preserves and the imperial palace of the last emperor.
Coastal cities, water cave and imperial palace.


Other destinations


Even if the Chinese understand that there is civilization beyond the Great Wall, most tourists do not. The lands to the northeast of Beijing represent some of the least traveled and most challenging regions of China.


The region was historically known as Manchuria, was inhabited by fierce nomadic tribes, and was not considered part of China proper. Over the centuries, several of these tribes crossed the Great Wall and took over parts of China. The Khitan ruled much of Northern China as the Liao Dynasty, 907-1125. Then the Jurchen (ancestors of the modern Manchus) took over as the Jin Dynasty 1125-1234. During this whole period, the Song Dynasty (ethnically Han) held the South but could not dislodge the Khitan or Jurchen in North. After it, the Mongols (also nomads from beyond the Great Wall, but further West) conquered more-or-less everything between Korea and Poland including the Jurchen, the Song and the remnants of the Kithai Empire and ruled China as the Yuan Dynasty, 1271-1368. Then the Ming Dynasty (ethnically Han) took over for about 300 years. See Chinese Empire for more on the various dynasties.

In 1644 the Manchus conquered all of China and founded the Qing Dynasty, which ruled for over 250 years, until the revolution that created the Republic of China in 1911. During most of that time, Manchuria was off limits to Han Chinese but that prohibition broke down as the Qing began losing power in the late 1800's. Today, the Han are by far the largest ethnic group in the region. However, the area still has a mysterious quality separate from the rest of China, and a substantial Manchu minority still exists.

From the 19th century until the end of the Second World War, Manchuria was the main prize in an exceedingly complex squabble over territory and influence; China, Japan and Russia were the main players, but other Western powers and local Manchu warlords were also involved. Russia sought dominance in the region, taking territory along the border which they still hold, taking Port Arthur (now called Dalian) as a naval base, building a railroad, and generally exerting great influence; the failing Qing dynasty was unable to effectively oppose them. The British and Japanese tried to limit Russian influence, with mixed success. Disputes over Manchuria were a major reason for both the Sino-Japanese War in the 1890s and the Russo-Japanese War in 1905-06; Japan won both wars decisively. Russian influences continued in later times as well. After 1917 many White Russians fled to this region, or to Shanghai, and after 1949 the communist government brought in many Russian advisors. Trade and tourism continue now, and some of the locals speak Russian.

The Qing dynasty fell in 1911. From 1915 to 1928, Manchuria was ruled by the Manchu warlord Zhang Zuolin, "the old marshal". At first he favoured the restoration of the Qing, but eventually he acknowledged the authority of the Nationalist government. He was therefore assassinated by the Japanese. His son, "the young marshal", fled to China with most of his army and became a prominent anti-Japanese fighter. At one point (the "Xi'an incident") he kidnapped Chiang Kai Shek and forced him to work out a truce with the Communists so both could fight the Japanese.

In the 1930s, Japan grabbed Manchuria and a chunk of Mongolia, and set up a puppet state called Manchuko, with the last Qing Emperor (deposed in China in 1911) as the powerless figurehead. As elsewhere, Japanese occupation was brutal; in particular millions in Manchuria were conscripted into slave labour. The Japanese tried to expand further from their Manchurian base, but they were beaten on the Russian border near Khasan in 1938, then soundly thrashed by a Russian/Mongolian force at Khalkin Gol when they tried to move into Mongolia in 1939. After that, they changed their strategy and struck South instead of trying to grab Mongolia and Siberia. However, even with their focus elsewhere, they did hold Manchuria firmly until the end of the war.

In 1945, Soviet forces invaded and took Manchuria, along with parts of Mongolia and Korea. They then turned most of Manchuria (minus some Northern areas) over to Chiang Kai Shek's Kuomintang government of China, but Chiang soon lost it to Mao's forces. After 1949, with infrastructure already in place from its former masters, Russia and Japan, the Chinese government made the Northeast the center of their efforts at development on the Soviet model, with five-year plans and a concentration on heavy industry. The region is still sometimes referred to as "the rust belt".

Since Deng Xiao Ping's "reform and opening up" in the late 70s other regions such as the Pearl River Delta in the South and the East China area around Shanghai have developed enormously, based mainly on trade and light industry. The Northeast has many large state-owned enterprises, much heavy industry, and things such as steel mills and armaments factories considered critical to national interests; all are harder to adapt for the export trade than industries like clothing and electronics which dominate in the South. The Northeast has therefore not developed as spectacularly as some other regions, but it is doing very well indeed. As elsewhere, the coastal regions have some of the fastest development; in the Northeast, Dalian is one of the most prosperous cities.


For most Chinese, the North East probably brings to mind images of factory workers with bright smiles and a cheery attitude instead of wild men riding on horseback from an earlier age. Despite the industrial buildup, North East can claim China's largest natural forest area, its most uncontaminated grassland area, and one of its most spiritual lakes (Tian Chi).


The region is trying for a makeover since the industrialization of the region is falling apart. It is not known as the rust belt without just cause. Tourism, it is hoped, will help pump money back into the region and keep the local economies afloat. The Northeast is still difficult to visit but, because it is not as hyped as other parts of China, is still fresh and free of the tourism problems of other parts of China.


As anywhere in China, Mandarin is the lingua franca; nearly everyone can speak it. There are substantial groups whose first language is Korean, Manchu or Mongolian, and Russian is fairly common as a second language. Sadly, Manchu is now a moribund language, and is only spoken natively by the elderly in some isolated villages, the majority of whom are bilingual in Machu and Mandarin. As elsewhere in China, English is not widespread but some people speak it quite well.

Get in

By air


There are international airports at


There are domestic airports at

By train

Rail service is extensive throughout the region but when you get off the main lines it slows down considerably. The major problem is that since the northeast is connected with the rest of China by a few main lines, long-distance tickets to other places in China past this bottleneck are few and far between, especially sleeper tickets.

The three province capitals of Harbin, Changchun and Shenyang can be reached by direct train from most major cities in the country; only from distant places will a change of trains in Beijing be needed. Other cities in the region have connections from Beijing but not many from other places.

Northeast China can be entered from Russia via the train from Vladivostok to Harbin. This is a very slow train doing the not very long journey in 35 hours. This train is not much used, you will have to wait long hours in strange places, and crossing the border is a mess. Another option from Russia is the more well-travelled route from Irkutsk to Harbin. It is also possible to go by train from North Korea to the region.

By bus

Extensive and fairly reliable, can take a lot of time and be very crowded.

Get around

As elsewhere in China, there is an extensive rail network. Rail is the main means of inter-city travel for the Chinese themselves, and many visitors travel that way as well. The system now includes fast bullet trains on most major routes; unless your budget is very tight, these are the best way to go fast, clean and comfortable.

All the major cities have airports with good domestic connections; some have international connections as well. See the individual city articles for details.

There is also an extensive highway network, much of it very good. Busses go almost anywhere, somewhat cheaper than the trains. See the China article for more. Driving yourself is also possible, but often problematic; see Driving in China.


Landmarks and buildings

Parks and nature

Museums and exhibitions



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