Book review: In Manchuria by Michael Meyer

The author uses his personal connection to a tiny village called Wasteland to chart the larger history of the vast rural Chinese region

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 February, 2015, 10:49pm

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China
by Michael Meyer
Bloomsbury Press

China's vast rural areas are often forgotten in the glare of its monstrous and many cities, but much of the nation's history lives in those far-flung third-tier cities and farming villages sprinkled across the land.

Manchuria is such a place. The region has played crucial roles in multiple conflicts, including both world wars, and had a distinct identity before it faded into the mass of China, its history revised and erased.

In Manchuria by Michael Meyer retraces the region's past, showing the importance it played in history while suggesting where it may go in the future. Meyer does this by going on his own journey of discovery in what is now known as northeastern China, riding the rails and walking through dusty abandoned buildings in search of the few artefacts and remnants not destroyed by a nation eager to rewrite history, creating a well-written and engaging account.

Meyer writes a book of two stories, using a three-year stay in a dusty rice-farming village to tell a personal tale that creates an emotional connection with his wife's village of Wasteland, near Jilin, as it goes through a transformation typical of China's push towards urbanisation. The other tale is less narrative and more educational, with the author reaching back into history, both mentally and physically, to remind the reader what Manchuria once was.

The author starts the book with his own story, proving a solid understanding of China and a long, deep interest in the country, although the documentation of his interaction with China carries on to the point of self-indulgence. It is Meyer's experience in Wasteland, and his interaction with the vivid characters Auntie Yi, Uncle Fu and San Jiu, that make the story and place come to life.

"The great northern wasteland, he thought, concealing his disappointment," Meyer writes of an in-law sent to Manchuria by the People's Liberation Army. "But then he was surprised by the land's beauty: prairies between foothills, forests leading to mountains. But he never got acclimated to the cold. Never. For the rest of his life, he considered it a mortal enemy. The Japanese, the Soviets? They were expelled. The cold returned every year."

Today Wasteland is being overrun by Eastern Fortune Rice, a company that has built a hot spring resort, and is determined to move the villagers out of their houses and off their land into new apartments. Meyer plays with the oddities of Chinese rural life, the central role of Red Flag Road through the centre of town, and the idiosyncrasies of being a foreigner in a strange land, such as when he was prescribed raw garlic and Coke boiled with fresh ginger for a cold. Meyer repeatedly reminds us that he is an oddity in the eyes of the village - his normal introduction to locals includes the crucial details of "1.86 metres, year of the rat".

He also relies on the overused trick of directly translating foreign language signage and messages into English in an attempt to illustrate foreignness. Translations of signs such as "Korean-style circumcision" and "Build the Northeast's top village" abound, and their amusement factor quickly fades.

Meyer's wife, Frances, a corporate lawyer in Hong Kong, plays a key role, although she is rarely present. Her family connections to Wasteland give the author a clever connection to the place, people and culture - making this book as much about an American who lives in his wife's childhood village as an examination of rural culture in northeastern China.

In China, being the American guest was an unearned prestige: you were temporary royalty, a grinning minor duke from a faraway land," he writes.

He was surprised by the land's beauty: prairies between foothills, forests leading to mountains. But he never got acclimated to the cold. Never. For the rest of his life, he considered it a mortal enemy.

Meyer begins telling the story of Manchuria with the Manchu invasion of China in 1644. The Manchus attempted to protect their cultural preserve, so they built a 1,500-kilometre-long barrier of soil and trees called the Willow Palisade, dividing the Mongol, Manchu and Han Chinese areas of settlement.

Manchuria was long, and in some eyes still is, a great northern wasteland, not unlike Russia's Siberia. Manchus are thought to be slightly awkward and brusque. For many centuries this region was too far from the capitals of power to be governed properly, and when people did go there, they went to harvest its resources and cart them back to civilisation.

Through a series of treaties in the late 1800s, China ceded large parts of Manchuria to Russia, which then lost the territory to Japan as a result of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. This meant that much of the southern sections of the Chinese Eastern Railway, a key transport artery in the region, was transferred from Russia to Japan, and became the South Manchurian Railway.

"The fall of the Qing, followed by the Russian Revolution in 1917, left Manchuria, and especially Harbin, adrift," Meyer writes.

Manchuria was an essential source of raw materials to fuel Japan's growing war machine, and in 1931, Japan invaded Chinese-held areas of Manchuria to create a Japanese-controlled state called Manchukuo, giving it a toe hold in China. The Japanese installed the former Qing emperor, Puyi, as puppet emperor of Manchukuo while they brutally ruled over the Russians and Chinese living in the region. The Soviet Union invaded Manchukuo late in the second world war, pushing the Japanese out and eventually turning the area over to the Chinese.

The successive waves of warring powers have all left their mark on Manchuria, but the evidence is rapidly fading as China attempts to erase colonialists from its memory. Manchu in the northeast now make up fewer than 10 per cent of the region's 110 million residents and less than 1 per cent of China's total population.

Meyer writes long, expositional passages retelling history, communist China's land reforms and Manchuria's place in international politics, and here his writing slips into an unimaginative prose that lacks the personal touch the reader has already come to appreciate. Meyer attempts to break up these informative if dry sections with travelogue, documenting his wandering through northeast China in search of evidence of Manchuria.

"Outside the capital-m Museums were places I came to see as lowercase cities that evinced the northeast's past and how it shaped China's present. A Shinto shrine standing shuttered in a city park. A warlord's former mansion. A grotto not carved with Buddhist statues but topped with one of the Virgin Mary. A ghost town around a once-bustling train station. A synagogue near an onion-domed cathedral."

He finds those things, but not much more, so instead he describes mundane rail travel, countless forgotten public buildings and interactions with taxi drivers. China does little to highlight history it cannot fully claim as "Chinese", and it has succeeded in papering over the massive influence Russia and Japan have had on the culture and development of this region, a fact well illustrated by Meyer's search.

Another of Meyer's key themes is urbanisation, which, while certainly affecting Manchuria, is not unique to that part of China. His focus on this topic begins to pry the reader away from the image of the region. Or, perhaps Meyer is simply showing that today, Manchuria has turned into just another part of China, its uniqueness largely lost.

The author's various story arcs - the history of Manchuria, the urbanisation of Wasteland and other villages like it, and his observations of village life - are all interesting and valid in their own right, but he fails to weld them together in the reader's mind. In part, this is because his writing style changes considerably between the different topics. The result is that the reader is always relieved to find himself back in Wasteland, where Meyer has a good story to tell.

When he describes warming himself on the kang with Uncle Fu - an extraordinary amount of the book seems to take place around the wood-fired heater - his writing is light and lively. He depicts people, conversations and scenes vividly, and his personal connection to the story is readily evident. He uses the Chinese calendar to mark the passage of time: March sees the Waking of Insects, then comes the vernal equinox and in June the solar period changes from Grain in Ear to summer solstice, putting the reader into the foreignness of a Chinese farming village.

In Manchuria is a well-written story that reveals what today's China values of its past. Meyer has created a lively and personal story of change in rural China, unmistakably told through a foreigner's eyes, as well as a rich and informative account of a history that lives on despite attempts to brush it away.

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