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

untitledIn Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China
by Michael Meyer (China 1995-97)
Bloomsbury Press, $28.00
365 pages

Reviewed by Arnold Zeitlin (Ghana 1961-63)

Foreigners, especially Americans, living for a spell in China, often are overcome with an irresistible urge to explain China and the Chinese to their countrymen, especially Americans, who may ask a question about how much of a threat China is, then nod politely and change the subject to the latest baseball scores.

Many of these same foreigners, especially Americans, after their first year of living among the Chinese, enthusiastically conclude, “why they are just like us.”

Then, a year later, they conclude, “they are not like us at all.”

Among the latest Americans to tell us about the Chinese is Michael Meyer. He is a writer who first went to China in 1995 as a member of the Peace Corps to teach English to provincial college students. He stayed on, perfecting his fluent spoken and reading Mandarin, demonstrating laudable wisdom by marrying a Chinese girl, then writing a book about the disappearing hutongs, or alley-like traditional neighborhoods in Beijing.

He now has written another book, entitled In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, the result of his living on and off for three years in the village, Wasteland, in China’s vast northeast where his wife grew up. Meyer writes affectionately of the village and of relatives and friends who remember his wife growing up there. His Auntie Yi, Uncle Fu and San Jiu ( in whose home, with its outdoor plumbing, Meyer lived and whose name in English means “third uncle on mother’s side”) come alive warm and very much Chinese. The reader does not hear enough about them.

His wife, Frances (Chinese  given name, Peony, nickname, Guazi, sunflower seed), who returned with him to marry in the United States (he is from Minnesota), went on to Boalt Hall, the law school at the University of California at Berkeley. While he lives in Wasteland, she works in Beijing as a corporate lawyer, occasionally visiting her home village and often making sardonic remarks via Skype to bring her husband to his senses. He quotes her as saying about Wasteland, “aside from passing the bar exam, I have never been as happy as when I lived here. We had nothing but didn’t know it, so didn’t care. We were a family.”

Wasteland, or more properly  “大荒地村”,  in pinyin, da huang di cun, literally in English, big wasted earth village, hardly is representative of rural China. Hardly the “ugly often devastated or barely inhabitable place” that is the dictionary definition of the word wasteland, the place has become a suburb, 25 kilometers from Jilin City and its metro area population of more than 6 million. It is on the rail line almost midway of the 60-70 miles between Jilin and the provincial capital, Changchun, population more than 7 million and known, because of its  auto factories, as the Detroit of China.

The village is under the thrall of a supposedly privately owned rice processing conglomerate, Eastern Fortune Rice. by providing seed and paying local farmers good prices for their crop, the firm has raised village incomes to the extent that people in Jilin City regard the place as wealthy. The dark side is Eastern Fortune virtually taking over the village, giving villagers virtually no say in its development. The company entices or coerces farmers to give up their commune fields and homes to move into cramped apartments in buildings the company has erected in Wasteland. The company razes farmers’ abandoned homes to make room for more of its rice paddies.

The founder of the company also happens to be the Communist party secretary, the most powerful official in Wasteland, no small factor in the  growth of the company, a and, with occasional bloodshed, all over China.

Using Wasteland as a base, Meyer travels widely by train (he loves Chinese trains)  bus and, occasionally, by foot around the development Meyer allows the readers to see, although he makes no large point of it. We also see, although again San Jiu as their world morphs into a modern state-capitalist-China they barely recognize. A similar story is told almost daily Meyer makes no point of the issue, the bewilderment and helplessness of Auntie Yu, Uncle Fu northeast, known now as dongbei, the Chinese words for north and east. He deviates from the human story of Wasteland to write a combination of travelogue and history.

As a result, the reader learns about museums all over the region; about Harbin and its Russians, Jews and ice sculpture; about Manchuria and the Qing dynasty, including the last Qing emperor, Puyi, who, deposed from the Forbidden City in Beijing at the age of 6 in 1912, ended up in the 30s as the Japanese puppet emperor of Manchukuo in a forbidding palace in Changchun; about the Russian-Japanese war and Teddy Roosevelt; about the Korean war; even about Pearl Buck and the movie based on her book, The Good Earth, which even today has moulded American impressions of China.

Much of his history is warmed over, but Meyer is up to date enough to write about the port city of Dalian and its rascally mayor, Bo Xilai, now in jail for life ostensibly for corruption but more likely for being a genuine threat to the rise of  Xi Jinping, who as Chinese president is doing what Bo might have done were he in the same position. Curiously, Meyer avoids the political aspects of Bo’s demise, stating simply he was jailed for bribery and abuse of power. Meyer’s description of all the nasty things the Japanese did from their initial incursion in 1931 into what then was Manchuria until the end of the Pacific war in 1945 provides a reader with an excellent idea of why the Chinese so dislike the Japanese, an impassioned feeling that helps explain tensions today in the East China Sea.

Meter succumbs to the temptation to write for an American readership about how funny Chinese names are when translated literally into English, starting with his own Chinese name, Heroic Eastern Plumblossom. The need to attract the American reader whose knowledge of China may be limited to a recollection of The Good Earth is illustrated by the book’s title, In Manchuria. Manchuria as a regional name is virtually extinct in China, the area now referred to most often as dong bei, or northeast. But Americans might recognize the name, Manchuria, even if only because of the movie, The Manchurian Candidate, twice made from the book of the same name, the latest version released in 2004. Meyer also refers to familiar American names such as Walmart, Starbucks and KFC, the latter being much more popular than McDonald’s in China, possibly because it serves a Chinese menu, including congee, or rice gruel.

Aside from a lively portrait of Ms. Guan, a forty-ish teacher at the middle school at which Meyer volunteers as a teacher in Wasteland, the writer tells the reader little about his teaching experience or his students, whom for many foreign teachers in China provide the most satisfactory part of life in that country.

Meyer also is oddly reticent about the role of the Communist Party, which is so much a part of the lives of Chinese, although many try to ignore it. He rarely mentions the party; the book’s index doesn’t even list the Communist Party, although there is a single reference to communism and advancement in the party.

Instead, in the face of party propaganda about how its policies since 1979 have led to the stupendous economic rise of China the past three decades. Meyer pauses in his narrative to tell the story of farmer Yan Hongchang, in a poor province, Anhui, far from dongbei and the setting for novel and movie, The Good Earth. Faced with starvation because of  party interference with crops, Yan in the  spring of 1979 persuaded other farmers in his village, Xiaogang, to break up their communal farm against party policy and farm individual plots. the party opposed the move but when the harvest was six fold greater than ever, the party was unable to take punitive action or complain.

As Meyer writes, “Thus began China’s rural reform”. And the rest, as they say, is history, but as only how the Chinese people make it.

Arnold Zeitlin (Ghana 1961-63) was a member of the first Peace Corps group in-county. He also wrote the first Peace Corps memoir, To the Peace Corps with Love published by Doubleday in 1965. A journalist most of his life, he has also been a television columnist as well as a movie reviewer, and since 2002 he has taught journalism to undergraduates at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, Guangzhou, China.

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