Shenyang, China is a city where the founders of Sojourn.Life have deep connections. In the past we all lived and worked there so naturally many of our program participants come from Shenyang. Although Shenyang has played a pivotal and varied role in both China's ancient and modern history, there's surprisingly little out there written about Shenyang for westerners. This post is especially for families that host a student from Shenyang. The information reads like a travel guidebook entry because I wrote it several years ago for new teachers coming to the school I owned in the city. But it's still helpful for getting a sense of where your student is coming from.

Shenyang Overview

Shenyang, located in Liaoning, the southernmost province of what was historically Manchuria; has long been northeast China’s leading city. Acting as a Mongol trading center as far back as the 11th century and as the capital of the imposing Manchu Empire in the 17th century; Shenyang has always held a high status among the cities of the Middle Kingdom and continues to do so today. In fact the Chinese government chose Shenyang as one of only six cities outside of Beijing to hold the Olympics in 2008.

Typical street scene in older Shenyang neighborhood.

The center of Liaoning geographically, politically, and culturally, Shenyang is truly an imposing city. Filled with modern amenities, yet surrounded by ancient culture, Shenyang displays a unique and, at times, contradictory mixture of old and new. On one city block you can indulge in five star western cuisines, and yet just down the street experience a real Chinese meal in a tiny family run eatery. Everywhere modern skyscrapers dominate the skyline, however, traditional Chinese architecture remains in nearly every part of the city.

People and Culture

Shenyang residents are classic Dongbeiren (Dongbeiren literally means “Northeasterners”). Many adjectives are routinely used to describe Dongbeiren: friendly, loud, and straight-forward are just a few. Many of these stereotypes are accurate and they are titles in which Shenyang people take pride; however residents most like to point out their reputation for friendliness. It takes only a few encounters with strangers on the street to discover this holds true with most of the people one meets in the city. Though Dongbeiren can be quite loud in public, locals prefer to describe themselves as “reqing”, or “enthusiastic.” In most restaurants, Shenyang dinners converse with intensity that takes visitors by surprise. Old friends who are in the midst of affable conversation can appear to outsiders to be in angry argument. This tendency towards loud and spirited conversation raises the decibel level in most public places, especially restaurants. Another phenomenon sure to be noticed in Shenyang restaurants is serious drinking. Dongbeiren are well known throughout China for their ability and willingness to drink. Again, they attribute this to their “reqing”. In restaurants shouts of “Ganbei!”, literally meaning “Dry your cup!”, can be heard from all directions. To Dongbeiren, willingness of new acquaintances or potential business partners to drink can be an important first step in deepening the relationship. When people are dinning together it is considered rude to take a sip of any alcoholic beverage without inviting at least one other person at the table to join you, which inevitably results in more shouts of “Ganbei!” The people in Shenyang also consider themselves to be down-to-earth and straight-talking. Chinese culture is notoriously indirect – people often hint at rather than directly state what they want. Residents of Shenyang claim that they are not this way. To westerners they still seem quite indirect, but compared to other regions of China, Shenyang residents are perhaps more to-the-point in their interactions. This is why many in Shenyang will claim that when it comes to business, the Northeastern Chinese aren’t as crafty, or as successful, as their counterparts to the south.

Friends in Shenyang enjoying a curbside celebration.

Though the population of Shenyang is greater 8 million, the warmth and laid-back attitude of its people make the city feel much smaller than it is. It’s the people of Shenyang that make it a great place to visit.

A Brief History of Shenyang

Archaeological finds show that humans have inhabited the Shenyang area for thousands of years. However, the city of Shenyang was not established until 300B.C when Qin Kai of the Yan state (one of the seven states that fought for control of China during the Warring States period) wrested control of the Liaodong Peninsula from the Dong Hu, a nomadic Mongol tribe that occupied Northeast China and was once the dominant power in Mongolia. Shenyang was originally named Hou City and was renamed several times thereafter. It was in 1625 when the Manchu leader Nuerhaci, the founder of the Qing Dynasty, moved his capital to Shenyang that the city began to play a central political and economic role in China. Nuerhaci once again renamed Shenyang: it became known as Shengjing in Chinese, or Mukden in the Manchu language (the Manchu name, Mukden, was used in English sources through much of the 20th century). Shenyang remained the capital of the Qing Dynasty until 1644 when Qing forces occupied Beijing and toppled Ming Dynasty rule.

Though the Qing Dynasty capital was moved to Beijing after overthrowing the Ming, Shenyang retained great importance as the older capital and the location of the tombs of early Qing rulers. Imperial treasures were kept in Shenyang and Qing emperors would make regular journeys north from Beijing to worship their ancestors and pray for the continued success and prosperity.

The old and new meet outside of Shenyang's Imperial Palace.

Shenyang’s position as one of the centers of Qing Dynasty rule is a source of much pride to its residents. However, the period of history that is most vivid in the minds of Shenyang inhabitants is the tumult experienced over the past 100 years. Particularly painful, is the memory of Japan’s former occupation of Northeast China. Every year on September 18th, air-raid sirens sound throughout the city to commemorate the Mukden Incident.

The Mukden Incident began on September 18th, 1931 when a group of Japanese junior officers blew up an insignificant stretch of railway track near Shenyang (the Southern Manchurian Railway had been owned and controlled by Japan since defeating Russia in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War). Their purpose was to blame the incident on the Chinese government and create a pretext from which the Japanese army could justify an invasion of Shenyang and the rest of Manchuria. The next day on September 19th, Japanese forces already inside Shenyang, opened fire on the Chinese garrison within the city. The sparse and inexperienced Chinese troops were no match for the Japanese. By that evening the fighting was over and the Japanese were in control of Shenyang; the battle cost 500 Chinese lives and two Japanese lives.

The Mukden Incident was the beginning of Japan’s invasion of all of Manchuria and the establishment of a Japanese puppet-state, the Manchukuo State led by Emperor Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

For visitors to Shenyang who are interested in this period of Chinese history, a museum worth visiting is the 18 September History Museum (Jiu Yi Ba Lìshi Bówùguan) located on 46 Wanghua Nanjie. The museum is open daily from 8:30am to 4pm. It is filled with photos and relics of Japanese occupation. Some of the exhibits are quite gruesome and not for the faint-of-heart. They depict Japanese war crimes committed in Manchuria including atrocities carried out by Imperial Japan’s Unit 713. Unit 713 was responsible for the horrific medical research done on residents of Manchuria before World War II.

It was Russia that brought an end to the Manchukou State when they invaded Manchukou after declaring war on Japan. The Soviet offensive into Manchukou prevailed with little resistance. Emperor Puyi tried to escape to Japan where he hoped to surrender to US forces. However, he was captured by the Soviets and eventually Stalin repatriated him to China as a political favor to Mao Zedong. Upon his return to China he spent 10 years in a reeducation camp in Fushun, a city just to the east of Shenyang.

With the support of the Soviet Union, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) used Manchuria, as a base for operations against the Kuomintang from 1945 to 1949 during the latter half of the Chinese Civil War. For part of that time the Kuomintang was able to occupy Shenyang and other major cities in Manchuria; however, the Communists kept firm control of the countryside, having won widespread popularity for resistance to Imperial Japan in the form periodic guerrilla attacks against Japanese outposts throughout Manchuria. On November 1st, 1948 the PLA attacked the Kuomintang forces in Shenyang and gained control of the city the next day. After destroying the Nationalist army in Shenyang, the Kuomintang was quickly pushed out of the rest of Manchuria, marking the PLA’s first decisive victory in the Chinese Civil War.

The New Shenyang in the New China

In recent years, Shenyang has experienced rapid development resulting from the economic reforms implemented by Denxiaoping. Its modernization has transformed the city into a fascinating mix of old and new. Amid Shenyang’s modern architecture, the city is scattered with reminders of its ancient past. From Qing Dynasty palaces and tombs to 1,000 year-old pagodas and Ming Dynasty Temples, the city offers ample opportunity to explore its rich history.

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