Review: 'In Manchuria' doesn't live up to its promises

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Posted: Mar 24, 2015 8:23 AM
Review: 'In Manchuria' doesn't live up to its promises

"In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China" (Bloomsbury Press), by Michael Meyer

The title of this book was so promising. An American writer who speaks Chinese settled in a rural village in a region that's often overlooked by the parade of books about modern China.

Here was someone exploring the back end of that country's dazzling climb into the world's second-largest economy, choosing to live where the eight-lane highways dwindle into single-lane concrete roads.

No writer seems to get romantic about China's northeast, or Dongbei, whose impression can be sketched in just two words: cold and coal. But the region is tucked among Mongolia, Russia and North Korea, and surely with neighbors like those, there are good stories to be found.

"In Manchuria" doesn't tell them.

Author Michael Meyer did a fine job in his first book, "The Last Days of Old Beijing," using the small geographic focus of a single neighborhood to tell a larger story of transformation.

"I had written about change in urban China, and now I wondered how the other half lived," Meyer writes in the opening chapter of his new book.

But once he moves into a small home in the farming village called Wasteland, he refuses to stay there.

What should be a thoughtful portrait of a changing China through the lens of that village is instead a wandering travelogue through time and space.

The book visits far too many museums and historical sites throughout the region, which are the last places you need to go when you have the benefit of a bright, engaging guide who speaks the local language. The book could use more everyday encounters, or more drunken conversations on trains.

Meyer does make it to the region's borderlands, but the Russians are nonexistent and the North Koreans are voiceless figures on an opposite river bank. There's a richer portrait in Ben Judah's "Fragile Empire," where his exploration of modern Russia brings him to one of the large Chinese farms leasing Russian land while ragged local women curse Vladimir Putin and sell mushrooms by the road.

"In Manchuria" also spends too much time in the past, especially in its recounting of the long Japanese occupation of the region that ended with that country's surrender in World War II. This has been told elsewhere.

After the Japanese, Dongbei transformed itself under the Chinese communists with a boom in heavy industry. Now it's transforming again as that economy goes the way of America's Rust Belt. But into what?

"In Manchuria" suggests that in Wasteland, a rice processor that is the village's largest company has plans to take over the community and even name it after its brand. But that plot struggles to stand out among the book's digressions.

Far from China's showcase cities are thousands of villages like Wasteland where the ancient concerns about having enough to eat are now joined by worries about income inequality, pollution and the flight of young people to the cities. Private companies replace the old government bosses. Strange foreigners come to town.

How are people's lives changing out there? What do you observe if you have the luxury of sitting still? It's these questions that "In Manchuria" should have explored.

Instead, we're left wondering about the narrative direction of the book, not that of China itself.