Review: In Manchuria by Michael Meyer (China 1995-97)

in-manchuria-140In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China
by Michael Meyer (China 1995–97)
Bloomsbury Press
February 2015
384 pages
Pre-order: $28.00 (Hardcover), $9.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by William Siegel (Ethiopia 1962-64)

I’ve had an interest in literature about China since I discovered a volume of translated Chinese poems on my parent’s bookshelves. The book, a handsome hardbound edition in bright orange linen, had a picture on the front of a lone figure in flowing robes standing on a boat poling across a swift river. Inside was a poem by Li Po titled “The River Merchant’s Wife.” In the poem, as a nine or ten year old, I first found that words could evoke feelings such as the notion of longing.

Michael Meyer’s absorbing second book about China (his first, The Last Days of Old Beijing, is one I’m looking forward to reading), brings us a fresh, inside look at what is happening today in rural China. Meyer presents us with the tone and cadence of an oral history of Manchuria as he writes about his travels around the region. This story of modern Manchuria flows from the personal story of how he came to be there. During his days as a Peace Corps Volunteer, he met and later married his Chinese wife, Frances. Their story, though not central to his exploration of Manchuria , provides the personal context of her family’s ancestral village, Wasteland, in the northern province of Manchuria. Meyer’s attitude toward the country of his wife’s birth is cheerful, observant and wise, mixed with a knowing vigilance of Chinese history. He brings us vivid encounters with local people’s lives during his one year stay in Wasteland village, near the much larger town of Jilin.

Opening with a short account of meeting his future wife during his Peace Corps years, Meyer describes meeting her family who still live near her ancestral village. After a quick narrative of their courtship and marriage, Meyer is back in the village of Wasteland and Frances is practicing law in Hong Kong. This year-long separation, with several visits, gives Meyer the time and opportunity to inhabit Wasteland and travel throughout the northern province.

In Manchuria proves to be an excellent read for those with a casual curiosity about China, and even more so for readers interested in what is happening in China today, leading to the likely road of China’s future. Meyer speaks and writes the language fluently and is knowledgeable in Chinese custom and tradition with an insider’s edge to his observations. I enjoyed his familiarity with the country and the people as he relates the lives of his new relatives; their likes and dislikes and their relationship in a fast changing China. He speaks frankly about the ironies of Socialist China trying on the gloves of capitalist ventures and then looking over its shoulder with a bit of apprehension.

In addition to some historical perspective, Meyer conveys a wistful and serious link to the past 75 years of China with insight and wit. I learned many interesting facts about China’s northern province along with the high points of 20th century political milestones. He includes much of the Chinese culture and rumor supported by a raft of research on Manchuria which borders on Russia and was occupied by Japan before and during WWII. Of Manchuria, he writes:

Perhaps no other region has exerted more influence on China across the last four hundred years. Historically, the West referred to the Northeast as Manchuria, homeland of the Manchu, tribes that for centuries alternated between independence from and vassalage to the Chinese emperor before uniting to storm through the Great Wall in 1644 and seize the Beijing throne.

The book’s 19 chapters cover a year in the village with chapter titles such as “Winter Solstice,” “Lineages,” “The Waking of Insects,” and “To the Manchuria Station,” which follow the weather or echo western book titles. “The Ballad of Auntie Yi,” tells the story of Meyer’s wife’s aunt who grew up during the Chinese revolution and now finds China in danger of leaning toward a more western way of life. On the new rural farming:

There is no such thing as a typical Chinese farm . . . China has 22% of the world’s population, 8% of its arable land . . . and globally is the largest producer of rice, wheat, pork, eggs, cotton, fruit and vegetables . . .. But its new agricultural model is easier to summarize: the nation is turning away from family plots to agribusiness, away from villages to company towns.

Auntie Yi has not sold out, but Wasteland itself, has become a center for a large private rice growing and processing plant that offers to buy the farmer’s houses and rice growing property in exchange for a modern life in apartments built by the company. They can still grow rice on their land or, have the company farm it. The arrangements are carefully modified versions of a combination of Chinese ancestral land use, modern Chinese socialist land reform and innovative western semi-capitalist enterprise. The community still has a say in what goes on in the village, though this trend may be diminishing as western trial enterprise grows. This mash up, or something akin, appears to be Meyer’s prediction of future Chinese rural development and especially in Northern China. Not everyone, including Auntie Yi, is happy about this.

The middle of the book focuses on history and we learn a lot about the times and characters of invaders — Japanese, Russians, and ancient tribesmen who have occupied Manchuria during its history. Here Meyer describes a map from one of the museums:

Once again I was struck by how much of the past one can enter — and touch — in Manchuria. Next door in the former Japanese army headquarters, I ran my finger over their maps of Manchukuo. There was the First Pass Under Heaven through which the Manchu stormed the Great Wall and all of China, and there was where the Willow Palisade made a wishbone over the region that had peaked just above Wasteland. Here was Manchuzhuriya Station and railway to Vladivostok. There was Harbin, there was Port Arthur, renamed Ryjun after Japan sunk the czars fleet off its coast. Changchun became Xinjonmg — at maps center — the capital of Manchukuo. Over here was where a young private named Kira Namamine was sent to defend the border and there was the town where the Japanese mothers left their babies on the Songhua riverbank.

Meyer has meaningful relationships with people in the village, as with Aunti Yi and her husband, and Frances’s uncle, San Jiu, and later a farmer he lives with. His descriptions of them and their daily interaction provide a reality to life in modern rural China that a straight historical approach or even a keen observer might miss. He often catches the ordinary, the every day, and the boredom of the sameness of life. Through the personal life of Meyer, his wife and her relatives in Wasteland village we get an understanding of the trends and reality of rural Chinese life. Though we are observing Manchuria, there is a resounding echo of China as a whole that haunts almost as an unconscious aura of the work. We are in Manchuria, yes. We are in China, yes, yes.

I highly recommend Michael Meyer’s In Manchuria, the insights, the story, the flavor and history. Just to be in touch with my childhood fascination with the poet Lin Po’s famous “River Merchant’s Wife,” her longing and her struggle, brought me back to my own longings and the wonder of a country once so far away and exotic and now so close.

Reviewer Will Siegel is a writer living in Boston. He recently finished writing a novel, Kennedy in the Land of the Dead.

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