Spectres of Progress in a Northeast Asian Borderland

In many global locations, crossing state borders involves a sense of temporal shift. Whether migrating or travelling, modern citizen-subjects perceive a world divided into realms of greater or lesser ‘development’ or ‘backwardness’, everyday manifestations of the tethering of nationhood to big-H Historical progress which became dominant under European Enlightenment and empire. Yet inhabitants of (post)socialist states are inheritors of particularly intense constructions of both linear state borders and linear temporal advancement. As this talk explores, this is evident at the three-way geographical convergence of China, North Korea and Russia where populations with starkly different experiences of high socialist linearity and its ambivalent aftermaths are in regular interaction. Fieldwork here shows how daily temporal experiences at this geopolitical seam have interfaced with grandiose visions from Maoist, Soviet and Kimist socialisms to the Soviet collapse and ‘rise’ of China. Despite serial demises of forward-oriented projects, borderlanders remain haunted by progressive visions past, and struggle to see their near neighbours as ‘coevals’ in an age of postsocialist commerce and cheap friendships.

Ed Pulford is an anthropologist and senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on cross-border approaches to experiences of socialism and empire in China and neighbouring countries. Following his first book Mirrorlands (Hurst/OUP 2019), his new monograph, Past Progress: Time and Politics at the Borders of China, Russia and Korea, is due to be published in May 2024 with Stanford University Press.