What is it about America’s mid-west and China? Certainly, some of the recent eloquent works on China have come from writers from the heartlands of America, from Minnesotans if you please—think author Mara Hvistendahl with Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (2011), Adam Minter with Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, and now Michael Meyer with In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and The Transformation of Rural China.
I must confess I had not read Meyer’s earlier work, The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (2008), and so was unprepared for the ride into Manchuria—that expanse of land where China meets Russia in the north, Korea in the east and which, by the way, covers three provinces: Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin with an estimated 110 million residents.
Most may recognise that China’s north-eastern expanse has a rich, layered history—slighted, neglected or conveniently forgotten in China’s race for modernity. The north-east has not been entirely successful in shrugging off the baggage of backwardness and cultural distance. Thus, most Chinese (and foreigners) turn a blind eye to the region. But history is writ into the nooks and corners of the region. For example, the Jurchens, who established the Jin (literally meaning gold) dynasty in 1115, traced their roots to this soil, so too the Manchus, who, apart from the Mongols, were the only other foreign dynasty that conquered Beijing in 1644, establishing the Qing dynasty between 1644-1911.
Manchuria stands a silent spectator to critical slivers in China’s and world history. The northern precincts experienced near colonisation by Czarist Russia, when it set up the China Eastern Railway (CER) in the last leg of the 19th century. Then came the slide into Japanese hands after Japan’s decisive win in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war. In many ways, Manchuria took on the hue of its colonisers: from onion-domed orthodox churches of Russia to the markings of Japanese architecture, from Cyrillic to chemical warfare units such as Unit 731. Japanese colonisation took finite shape, as it set up the Manchukuo in 1932, with China’s last emperor, Pu Yi, as a titular head. Then 1945 came, which brought on defeat for Japan: the Communists were round the corner. The 1945 war played out in Manchuria, too, as the victors (Japanese) turned vanquished.
American soldiers came calling to the Allied prisoner of war (POW) camps in the region. And if this roll was not enough, the Korean War in 1950 played out at the Yalu river in the region, along the bend of the river that marks the border between China and North Korea.
Meyer follows the curve of history from the vantage point of a village called Huangdi—Wasteland in English—close to Jilin city in Jilin province. Meyer’s personal connection with Wasteland plays out in the backdrop—his own love story with Frances from Wasteland and its due course charts Wasteland’s own transformation with Manchuria’s grand past hovering in the background.
At one level, this is a personal story of Wasteland’s dramatic dash to modernity unfurling before Meyer’s eyes. It is, as Meyer initially sees it, a small, nondescript, idyllic little village set against a blue sky, a cloak of green rice fields and hills in the distance, a contented extended family and a retinue of farmers who till their land. An auntie who loves to grow poppies by the sidewalk; an uncle who loves his flash-fried pork and greens, and a landlord who loves to fish eels.
Things begin to stir with the arrival of the Eastern Fortune rice company. The company seeks to lease farmland from the farmers—to consolidate farmland to grow rice, taking over from where the local government left. Farmers are cajoled into giving up their land. The bait is the modern monstrosity of apartments. These apartments offer shallow compensations of rural life—a future without their little patch of land, without their free-ranging hens and poppies by the sidewalk. Most of us will remember that it was the success of rural reforms in China in the early 1980s that heralded reforms elsewhere. Thus Wasteland’s metamorphosis reflects the reversal and reneging of the promise of rural reforms.
Interwoven into the story are Meyer’s trysts with history that make Manchuria come alive. Lilting journeys play out, as Meyer goes in search of the Willow Palisade (a barrier like the Great Wall, only, not as fortified) constructed by the Manchus in the 17th century, only to find its traces languishing in forgotten glory.
Following the wheels of the CER to the border town of Manzhouli (west), to the border town of Suifenhe, on the east that sidles close to Vladivostok, Meyer notes the superfluous nature of man-made borders, the intermingling of cultural confluences and the fast pace of sinification. In Qiqihar, a forgotten speck of a place on the map west of Harbin (capital of Heilongjiang), Meyer finds the stamp of China’s most famous archaeologist Liang Siyong, the son of China’s revered scholar and philosopher Liang Qichao and the brother of China’s great architect, Liang Sicheng. Liang Siyong started excavations in Manchuria that sealed his stature as China’s ‘Father of Archaeology’. Besides, there is plenty of history to grasp from forays into Harbin, Shenyang and Changchun (the respective capitals of Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin).
Meyer also traces the tragedies and the victories of history laid bare in Manchuria—the Japanese who died in Manchuria rest on lolling Manchurian hillsides; the banks of Songhua river where many Japanese women committed suicide. And then is the remarkable story of that one Japanese soldier who got left behind, but made it back home to Japan and who lived to set up an organic farm in America! And there is the trip into American memory lane with American war hero, 92-year-old Hal Smith, reminiscing how he saved the Allied POWs from a camp in Manchuria. And if you did not know, Neil Armstrong served during the Korean War and lived to go to the moon.
I could neither fault its pace nor its fruition, but for the fact that it is rooted firmly in an ‘all-American’ frame of reference. Meyer narrowly brags of being a cheapskate—roughing it out in China, and being called so by a curator of a museum, who later takes him out for sushi. Brother, you forgot that being American and Caucasian opens plenty of doors in China; just try being on the rough side of the Third World. The book is also a reminder why America—love it, hate it, but also admit it—is a superpower. Precisely, because of America’s wad of resources, rich archives, generous endowments and investments that have trickled in different directions, including Sinology.
That said, at least, here was one American who put all this to good use—buffering his book with rich history, lacing it with acute, melodic observations up-close in China, which makes this song of the road a real treat.
And, of course, Wasteland’s transformation provides a deeper reflection into the complex macrocosm of rural China—as the peasantry gets flash-fried in development, Chinese-style. From communes to Household Responsibility System (1978) to now, that the Chinese revolution was built on the back of its peasants is one fact easily forgotten, but for the footnote in history.
Anurag Viswanath is a Singapore-based sinologist and is currently visiting fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi