Book Review: In Manchuria

The head of the chicken that is the map of China is more or less in the place that we would call Manchuria. Dongbei (the Northeast) as it’s more commonly known now is bitterly cold in winter, desolate, and pocked by mines and heavy industry.

For this book, Mike Meyer parks himself in a lonely Dongbei village called Wasteland for a year. The village’s main thoroughfare, Red Flag Road, is marked by a “dotted line of trash.” But Meyer finds the beauty in the bleakness. He finds it through the eyes of the people he meets; he brings it alive through the drama of history; and he warms the landscape with his humor and comic timing.

He also stays a full year affording him the chance to show us the beauty brought by the changing of the seasons. “Summer was a time to savor,” he writes. “July is when the rice sunbathes.”

Meyer punctuates his visits with the villagers, morning runs and a voluntary teaching stint at the local school with trips by bus, train, taxi, and even at one point, a flying carpet – to borders, cities and cemeteries around the region, tracing Manchuria’s story. And that’s the real focus of this book – the land’s past. And it has been a wild one. Manchuria was the origin of China’s last dynasty – the Qing Empire. Russia sliced off a section at the end of the 19th Century. Japan invaded in the 1930s, creating the puppet state of Manchukuo; and one of the defining battles of the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, the Siege of Changchun, took place here. Communist troops starved at least 160,000 people to death, but like Tiananmen, it’s a piece of history that’s been erased by the state.

There is a lot of history in here, and it could so easily have been dry but Meyer’s search for remnants of the past and the people he meets on his journeys in search of them introduce adventure to the stories. At one point we return to the past through the songs and memories of Auntie Yi, a retired Communist cadre who plants poppies along Red Flag Road “so the road would look nice.”

There is also a little of the future in this book. In his previous title, The Last Days of Old Beijing, Meyer looked at how urban residents felt as developers razed their homes in the old hutongs or alleyways in the capital in the runup to the 2008 Olympics, but here he watches how the people of Wasteland react to moves made by private rice company Eastern Fortune to buy up the farmers’ land and move them into concrete walk-ups at the edge of the village.

He describes the transformation – almost inevitable – taking place in the countryside today in China. A move from hard-to-control smallholdings to big, easy-to-monitor commercial farms. Meyer may be saddened by this, but he still gives a voice to a few villagers who support these changes.

So many books about China focus on the big news stories – the human rights activists, top-flying CEOs, corrupt politicians and protesting ethnic minorities. But Meyer speaks to the man in the street, giving us access to a much more intimate picture of China, even for those of us who spent many years living in the country. In fact, the only real headline-grabber Meyer meets in this book is Meng Zhaoguo, the man who claimed he had had sex with an alien woman from space. They “copulated for 40 minutes”.

It’s a mixed bag in the end – the book is part history-lesson, part travelogue, part politics, part people, and part fun. But In Manchuria is also a love story to his wife, Frances, who grew up in Wasteland. His affection for her family – some members, including the poppy-tending Auntie Yi, still live in the village – gives him a connection to the land that is easily sensed through his writing.

We might also describe it as a love story for Manchuria, and it’s a fondness that rubs off on the reader.