Korean kings once ruled parts of Jílín, and the discovery of important relics from the ancient Koguryo kingdom (37 BC–AD 668) in the small southeastern city of Jí’ān has resulted in the area being designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

The Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the early 1930s pushed Jílín to the world’s centre stage. Chángchūn became the capital of what the Japanese called Manchukuo, with Puyi (the last emperor of the Qing dynasty) given the role of figurehead of the puppet government. In 1944 the Russians wrested control of Jílín from the Japanese and, after stripping the area of its industrial base, handed the region back to Chinese control. For the next several years Jílín would pay a heavy price as one of the front lines in the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Jílín’s border with North Korea has dominated the region’s more recent history. As of 2012, there were an estimated 200,000 North Korean refugees in China. The Chinese government has not looked favourably on these migrants, refusing to grant them protected refugee status and has deported those discovered by the authorities.

A goal has been set to begin transforming Jílín into a biopharmaceutical powerhouse. The first milestone will be the industry contributing 7% to Jílín's total GDP by 2020.