Longitude's Book of the Month is a monthly feature focusing on a travel title that inspires us to leave our armchairs for new destinations. This edition centers on Michael Meyer's In Manchuria. The reviews and interviews are written and conducted by our editors. Our selections are culled from the regular Book of the Week feature on our blog.
By Michael Meyer
Chinese youth who live in the countryside often dream of moving to the city. Conversely, Michael Meyer lived in bustling Beijing but dreamed of moving to Manchuria, the northeastern province of China known locally as Dongbei (rhymes with "wrong way"), where he eventually resided among his wife's family in a village called Wasteland.
With his new book In Manchuria, Meyer uses trains as a vehicular lens through which to see and explore the region's history. When not teaching English in Wasteland (where students know him as "Professor Plumblossom"), he tours the countryside, searching for traces of history from before the 1950s. But in Manchuria, the past can be hard to come by. Even the back of a big stone dedicated to Wasteland's heritage simply reads "in 1956, it became a village."
Half of Meyer's narrative highlights cultural changes in Wasteland that occur when a large agribusiness, Eastern Fortune, begins acquiring farmers' land in exchange for jobs and high-rise apartments. Some residents embrace the change, others resist it, and Meyer wonders if the farmers entirely grasp what it means to give up their way of life and independence for perceived security and modern comforts. This is a familiar tale, and he acknowledges that "anyone who has spent time in contemporary China knows the feeling of traditions slipping away, of old landscapes being remade."
The other half of his book serves as a travelogue as Meyer traipses the cold, striking landscapes of rural China looking for the past. One particularly compelling quest is Meyer's search for the Willow Palisade. Comprised of soil and trees and comparable to the Great Wall of China, the Palisade once stretched 1,000 miles but is now all-but-forgotten. In fact, only one resident appears to have any knowledge of the once-mammoth structure and leads Meyer to a plot of land indistinguishable from the rest save for a stubby willow trunk. This is a recurrent scene for Meyer, as he arrives in town after town where collective memory is less than a century old. He finds that "history here [is] personal, and living, stretching back only as far as each resident could remember."
Meyer employs a personal tone throughout as he explores his relationship with his wife, a native of Wasteland, and her family, who welcome him into their homes while admonishing him for not yet having a child (spoiler alert: He's a father now!). Full of humorous observations about culture, portraits of the colorful characters he meets and ruminations on the differences between true history and constructed history, Meyer's book offers an insightful and intimate look at a part of China most of us know nothing about.
A Longitude Interview
Michael Meyer, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing, discusses his latest book In Manchuria. Traveling by train and bus across Manchuria in search of its history, which has been largely erased due to the Cultural Revolution, he gives voice to a phenomenon that is sweeping China as villages shift from communes to company towns. Meyer has written previously on China in Last Days of Old Beijing and first traveled to China in 1995 with the Peace Corps. Read the full conversation on our blog.
LONGITUDE: What was your primary motivation for writing In Manchuria? What do you hope readers get out of it?
MEYER: I wanted to read a book about the place, but none existed. As with The Last Days of Old Beijing, I found that to be the best reason to write a book: to fill a void on the shelf. This one takes readers to place few foreigners — and few Chinese, actually — get to see, yet one that has played an integral part in the formation of modern China, right down to the changes I describe on the family's rice farm.
LONGITUDE: You make train travel in Dongbei seem remarkably easy (if inefficient), but speaking the language and knowing the culture must help. What advice would you give to travelers less equipped?
MEYER: Research the routes in advance, via an English-language website such as seat61.com, which has a good beginner's guide to tickets and schedules. The attraction of rail travel in the northeast is that tracks lattice the region, which is the size of Germany and France combined — and just as linked by trains, including high-speed lines. You can cover a lot of (varied!) ground in little time.
LONGITUDE: Why is it important for the Chinese (or people of any nationality) to know their country's history? In your travels, have you experienced any tangible difference between cultures that know their history and cultures that don't?
MEYER: History is a narrative, and when you know what's come before, you realize you're part of the telling and get to contribute to the next chapter. Northeast China's map is a palimpsest of regimes; from the Qing dynasty to warlords to Russian colonizers and Japanese occupiers to Republican, then Communist rule. My middle school students thought they were living in the middle of nowhere — in, literally, a village named Wasteland. They had no idea how integral the area was to modern Chinese, even world, history. As a kid from Minnesota, I could relate! This is often the case, though — it takes leaving home to truly see it, or understand it.
I think Chinese do know their history; people can quote ancient poems and the great novels and talk of past dynasties and philosophers. But that's "national" history. Local and regional history is more elusive, in part because for the past 60 years the Communist Party has striven to construct the sense of nationhood. As I write in the book, all museums tell stories. China's tell political ones.
As a traveler, it's more interesting to visit a place that showcases its history, be it architectural, artistic, cultural or political. As a writer, I prefer the places that require some digging to find it.
LONGITUDE: You say that history in China is personal and stretches only as far as the residents can remember. Is there a kind of freedom in this way of living?
MEYER: When history is remembered and played out on such an intimate scale, you can't escape from the past. Every action is remembered and replayed and the younger generations are measured against them. Grudges steep like tealeaves. Social conventions — or mere habits — become de facto village law. Who cares what's happening — or happened — elsewhere? All eyes are upon what's happening in this field, on this street, at that market, in this home. But this is not unique to China; it's the reason young people leave villages, worldwide.
LONGITUDE: What book (besides your own!) would you recommend to a first-time traveler to Northeast China?
MEYER: In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin. It sets the tone for traveling in a far-away place whose history has to be heard in the telling.
LONGITUDE: You've now written about Beijing and Dongbei — which area of China will you explore next?
MEYER: I'd love to read a book about southern China, in particular Guangdong province. But that's for someone else to write. I'm starting a book about the ongoing battle over Benjamin Franklin's amazing last will and testament.