In northeast Yanbian, football, poetry, and patriarchy preserve a unique Chinese-Korean culture

The moment I stepped off the plane at Yanji airport in northeast China, pictures of Korean traditional marriage garments (hanbok) lining the sky corridor caught the eye. Hungry for some old-school Korean food, I made a beeline to a food stall selling tteok, a chewy, if often flavorless rice cake that, despite being a workout for the jaw, is a staple Korean dessert.

The tteok was exquisitely dull—as it should be—but the process of buying was essentially Chinese: Payment was through a WeChat QR code, the exchange of pleasantries conducted in Mandarin. The stall owners, wearing in purple and green hanbok, were ethnic Koreans, though, officially known in South Korea as jaeoe dongpo (“compatriots who live abroad”) and in China Chaoxianzu (朝鲜族). With a population of around 2.5 million, Koreans are one of the largest ethnic minority groups in China.

I had arrived in the county seat of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, the officially designated home of Chaoxianzu and the city with the largest amount of ethnic Koreans in China. Although there are considerable Chaoxianzu populations in tourist hotspots like Harbin and Dandong, these cities have little to no overt traces of their culture. It is only in Yanji that the Korean alphabet’s straight lines and circles can be seen on the first row of every single shop, bank, and road sign, making this city “home” for China’s Koreans.

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Korea Town is a story from our issue, “The Masculinity Issue.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Eduardo Baptista

Eduardo Baptista is a former editorial intern at The World of Chinese. He is a fan of rap, basketball, and the TV rom-coms “Yanxi Palace” and “First Half of My Life.” Eduardo studied history at the University of Cambridge.

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