In Manchuria is the new book from The Last Days of Old Beijing author Michael Meyer, which looks at the transformation of rural China by focusing on the country's northeast. He tells Timeout about his experience making the book.
Your new book centres on a village called Wasteland. How did it get its name?
No one can say, for certain. It looks
nothing like a wasteland: fertile
paddies running from the Songhua
River to foothills that surround it on
three sides. Qing-era settlers may
have named it to keep bandits and
other migrants away. Surrounding
villages include Lonely Outpost,
Zhang’s Smelly Ditch, The Dunes
and Mud Town.
To research the book you spent
three years in the same house,
minus heat, minus plumbing – what
was hardest to get used to?
My crippling Nescafe addiction,
followed by the thorny situations that
arise from writing about family and
village life, where resentments can
steep like tea leaves.
The village is located somewhere
in between Russia, North Korea,
Mongolia and The Great Wall; how
does this impact the identity of the
place and its people?
One of the book’s main characters,
an elderly rice farmer, constantly
reminded me that the farmland I
admired as naturally beautiful was,
in fact, manufactured by pioneer
settlers such as his family, carved
out in between clashes of empires,
colonization and civil war. The
resiliency of the place is matched by
Given the scale and diversity of
China, how representative is this
village of the country?
It’s not, because there
is no such thing as a
typical Chinese village,
just as there is no
typical farm. The
diversity of size, crop
and location is too
great to be summed up in a single
book. But Wasteland’s transition
to corporate agriculture is at the
forefront of a business model that
the central government supports
in its drive toward mechanized
production, a more efficient use
of land, better food safety and the
urbanisation of farmers.
How does this book follow on from The Last Days of Old Beijing?
The Beijing book describes the
changes underway in Chinese cities,
with the capital being the foremost
example. In Manchuria looks at the
same process from the viewpoint of
a farm. Both feature outhouses.
By 2030 China’s urban population
will reach 1 billion. What impact
is this having on the Manchurian
economy and way of life?
In the Northeast we see, as
elsewhere in China, the redrawing of
metropolitan borders, absorbing the
surrounding farmland and villages.
Poof! Instant urbanites! There are
many benefits for villagers, however,
the chief among them being better
elementary and middle schools that
have city-trained teachers assigned
Farmers are under
pressure to sell
their land to huge
they give up the plough or
I taught English in
elementary and middle
school and never met a child
who wanted to grow up to be
a farmer – nor a parent who
aspired to that for their kid.
There is no equivalent of the 4-H
club, for example, or annual fairs
where kids exhibit the results of their
gardening or husbandry, as there
is in Minnesota, where I grew up.
The agribusiness model frees this
and future generations of children
of that life. The thornier question is
what to do with the land assigned to
them, which – since the land reform
of the 1950s – has brought the
Communist Party such widespread
support, despite the ups-and-downs
of the past 50 years.
In Manchuria is available from
amazon.com priced at 131RMB.