Once smoke from chimneys around dinnertime would be a common sight in this tiny village in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in Jilin province, from where North Korea can be seen across the Tumen River.
However, today smoke rises from only a few chimneys in the evening, illustrating the mass exodus of ethnic Koreans living near the Chinese border, who started to leave in the early 1990s.
“Ours is the last household remaining in this neighborhood,” sighed a 70-year-old man who was born and brought up in Longjing in the same province, pointing at a group of some 15 empty houses.
About 100 small communities of ethnic Koreans are dotted near the border. But from these communities, many have apparently left to find work or to study in South Korea or in such cities as Beijing and Qingdao, where many South Korean companies operate.
According to the man and other villagers, about 500 people in about 100 households used to live in this village in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Today, only about 30 households remain, mostly with people aged 60 or over.
With many elementary school-age children having moved out, a local elementary school was closed about eight years ago, one villager said.
His two daughters, both in their 30s, also left home to live in South Korea and Japan during the past decade.
He said he receives no money from them.
He and his 66-year-old wife, who has a chronic disease, live on about 200 yuan a month (about 2,600 yen or $32), which comes from renting farmland out and a pension.
His wife skimps on taking her medication to save money, he said.
“Much of ethnic Korean culture has been lost. I hope the government will take protective measures,” he said.
Another ethnic Korean, Huang, who declined to give her first name, formerly lived in the same village and moved to an apartment in central Yanji two years ago. Her children bought it for her from what they earned.
She leases her fields to Han Chinese farmers who moved into the village from Heilongjiang province.
Of her four children, two daughters work outside the country, one as a massage practitioner.
Even though she is worried about living alone, she feels better off today, she said.
“I am happier now than the days when I could not possibly afford to save money. However, I am worried that village men in their 40s do not have prospective brides,” she said sympathetically.
According to Sun Chunri, professor at the institute of ethnic minorities at Yanbian University, ethnic Koreans in the autonomous prefecture accounted for about 60 percent of the population in the 1950s. But the number of people who moved to find work in South Korea and large cities increased sharply after the normalization of diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992.
At present, about 802,000, or about 36.6 percent of about 2.19 million people in the autonomous prefecture, are ethnic Koreans.
Sun said the actual percentage in reality is lower, about 30 percent.
The number of students attending the prefecture’s Korean elementary, junior high and high schools in the prefecture has declined too.
The number dipped from about 83,000 in 2005 to about 46,000 in 2010, according to a local education official.
One-third of the schools in the prefecture, mainly Korean schools, have been closed during the past five years.
“With both the parents being away from home for work, some children cannot speak Korean, even if they understand it by listening,” lamented an ethnic Korean working for the prefectural government. “Due to lack of sufficient education at home, an increasing number of ethnic Korean students perform poorly compared with their Han Chinese counterparts.”
The Chinese government has been promoting reforms of the prefecture since 2007, which includes abolishing the autonomous prefecture and merging three cities--Yanji, neighboring Longjing and Tumen--into a new city.
In doing so, the government aims to promote economic development.
If the economy is revitalized, the government says, ethnic Koreans who left home to make a higher income would return.
The total value of production per person in the autonomous prefecture was about 30,000 yuan in 2011, far less than in Beijing, estimated at 80,000 yuan, and in Shanghai, 83,000 yuan.
Still, a Chinese member of the media said that a considerable number of the elderly and researchers are opposed to the government's municipality integration plan.
If the prefecture loses its autonomous status, priority measures aimed for protection of ethnic minorities will no longer be provided, causing further deterioration of the ethnic culture.
A researcher at Yanbian University criticized the government for its merger plan.
“The government should start discussions, involving academic circles, and come up with countermeasures,” the researcher said.
The Chinese media member said he feels a sense of crisis, too.
“We cannot criticize measures promoted by the central government,” he said. “But I wonder if it is a right thing (to promote measures) that would cause ethnic Korean culture to be lost.”
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