Interview: Michael Meyer

The author of The Last Days of Old Beijing on his new book In Manchuria

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 its people. 

"In-Manchuria-Michael-Meyer-"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 to them. 

Farmers are under pressure to sell their land to huge multinational agribusiness, should they give up the plough or continue farming? 

I taught English in Wasteland’s local 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 priced at 131RMB.