In the tradition of In Patagonia and Great Plains, Michael Meyer's In Manchuria is a scintillating combination of memoir, contemporary reporting, and historical research, presenting a unique profile of China's legendary northeast territory. For three years Meyer rented a home in the rice-farming community of Wasteland, hometown of his wife's family, and their personal saga mirrors the tremendous change most of rural China is undergoing in the form of a privately held rice company that has built new roads, introduced organic farming, and constructed high-rise apartments into which farmers can move in exchange for their land rights. Once a commune, Wasteland is now a company town, a phenomenon happening across China that Meyer documents for the first time; indeed, not since Pearl Buck wrote The Good Earth has anyone brought rural China to life as Meyer has here.
Amplifying the story of family and Wasteland, Meyer takes us on a journey across Manchuria's past, a history that explains much about contemporary China, from the fall of the last emperor to Japanese occupation and Communist victory. Through vivid local characters, Meyer illuminates the remnants of the imperial Willow Palisade, Russian and Japanese colonial cities and railways, and the POW camp into which a young American sergeant parachuted to free survivors of the Bataan Death March. In Manchuria is a rich and original chronicle of contemporary China and its people.
Michael Meyer has provided an approach to travel writing with which I was previously less acquainted. While my travel writer of choice, was, and is, Robert D Kaplan, Meyer provides a style and narrative in contrast, in the sense that a greater portion of the novel is personal recollection of interactions with people, but not just any people, people who form the human and personal accounts of China's transformation.
Having previously lived in Jilin Province, and having personally explored the cities described in this book, namely Harbin, Changchun and Shenyang, Meyer brings the places to life in the form of a journey through history, worthy of any previous travel writing I have encountered.
The transformation of rural China of the subtitle, is largely the corporatization of rural China. Meyer takes us through a journey, from the Qing Dynasty, to subordination in the Japanese puppet state of Manchuguo, to collectivization in the Mao era, to the abolition of the latter and the introduction of the household contract responsibility system in 1984, and eventually the abolition of all agricultural taxes in 2006.
The people described in the book are faced with the dilemma of the conglomerate of East Fortune Rice who were effectively buying up the land, and redeveloping the town, a development with mixed views. As Meyer describes, this may offer the chance for the urbanisation of the village, the chance to live in 2 bedroom apartments with central heating, rather than the Kang, but perhaps some people are content with the life they have.
Meyer provides an insight into Chinese culture one is unlikely to gain from scholarly history or current affairs books because he intimately interacts with the ordinary people themselves, therefore, the book is educational, and educational in a warm and personal way.
Definitely recommended to those with an interest in China, and particularly those with an interest in China's much overlooked Northeast. The Northeast is a charming, unique place of beautiful forests, and lively people, and is well worth a visit, or even living for an extended period, as I have done. For those considering the Northeast, Meyer's book is a very good prelude.
Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?
I really enjoyed this leisurely paced book. As someone born in China and moved abroad after a decade, I liked all the information this book has to offer. The author is right, few write about the rural China, and even fewer the Northeast. He's also right that (virtually) no Chinese wants to voluntarily move to that backward region! So this book has some rare stories he really spent effort to interview people to learn about and told in a nonchalant, sometimes positively satirical, way. He went on long bus trips just to fulfill a curiosity about the less-recorded history of the region, which I think spells genuine interest and authenticity in what he writes. I didn't know about a lot of the historical facts that the author covered - some I vaguely heard as well-known facts in China but didn't have a real clue of what they were.
What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?
The writing is very good, as is the audiobook reader. I hated history classes as a kid, because they were so dry and and all about dates and names I didn't care about. This book's writing and audio reader were able to grab my attention and keep my interest going. Perhaps it's because of the memoir style and the reader's matching satirical tone that's so suitable when it comes to China. The only way I myself can describe China is a sinister one, so I'm quite impressed with their work!
The author obviously became familiar with some of the Chinese ways, and he disagrees with some of the things, but he doesn't attack them, he just tells it objectively in a clever way and lets you decide. This keeps the book's mood light and leisurely enough that I listen to it in the evening after a day's work.
Which scene was your favorite?
The snow-covered Wasteland and the farm, the surprising Holy Mother's grave, the Japanese women who suffered after the Japanese army withdrew from Manchuria (that's a sad scene). The picture the stayed the most in my head was the little houses he lived in with a heated kang for bed. Whenever he's on a prolonged trip elsewhere, I'm waiting for him to come home to Wasteland and the little house! You can see he's painted the picture well!
Any additional comments?
I recommend this book, for unless you are from the northeast Wasteland in a farming family, you will hear some things you didn't know before. Be it the farm, the local regions, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the women who were left behind, the Party, the Cultural Revolution, the contradicting ways of the Chinese social interactions, or all of the above.
This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?
People whom love terrible narration. It is in that dramatic story-telling fashion that distracts from the material. Sure, this style works fine in A Christmas Story, where the material is fluff and the narration intermittent. In recalling real events in a non-fiction book, this style is nails on a chalkboard.
Would you be willing to try another book from Michael Meyer? Why or why not?
Maybe? I only made it about 40 minutes into this one before the narration was just too awful to continue. In that 40 minutes, the material seemed interesting enough, with neat cultural insights.
Who would you have cast as narrator instead of George Backman?
Someone a little more serious and who would not choose to narrate it like a kid's book.
You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?
It is difficult to say, I did not get very far into it.
Any additional comments?
1 of 3 people found this review helpful