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Excerpt from In Manchuria by Michael Meyer, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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In Manchuria

A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China

by Michael Meyer

In Manchuria by Michael Meyer X
In Manchuria by Michael Meyer
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2015, 384 pages
    Feb 2016, 384 pages


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Print Excerpt

In Manchuria

For the first half of the twentieth century, Manchuria was the prize in battles between China, Japan, and Russia. Brokering the end of one war earned President Theodore Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize but gave Japan control of much of Manchuria's railroad—China's longest and most lucrative— linking its mineral-rich heartland to Pacific Ocean ports. Russia had failed to yoke Manchuria to eastern Siberia; Japan tried shaping it into the toehold for its imperial dream of the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere."

Due to its similarity to Manchukuo, the name of the puppet state Japan founded here in 1931, the term Manchuria fell from use after Japan's surrender, ending the Second World War. But Manchuria long predates the Japanese invasion, appearing on nineteenth-century Chinese maps and in European atlases—often replacing Tartary. Even the Communist Party's regional office once used it, in publications with names such as the Manchurian Worker.

Western press reports revived the term during the Korean War, but Manchuria faded from use after Soviet advisers withdrew from the region in 1955 and it was—at last—wholly controlled by the central government in Beijing. But as its status as geopolitical hot spot dimmed, the Northeast still retained its Otherness. China is a patchwork of places as diverse as America's, each with its own local language, cuisine, and character. Append Dongbei (Northeast) before any of these nouns, and it will, to a Chinese person, evoke a ringing lilt of elongated vowels, sour cabbage served with potatoes and boiled pork dumplings, and tough, yet self-effacing, people known for eccentricity. A recent national pop hit, "All Northeasterners Are Living Lei Fengs," poked fun at the natives' overcompensating virtuousness, familiar to anyone who has experienced the placating temperament known as "Minnesota Nice."

I'm attracted to all of this, especially the eccentrics, who remind me of my childhood neighbors. And unlike in China's other borderlands, where the native mother tongue is Tibetan, Uighur, or Cantonese, the Northeast today uses standard Mandarin Chinese—which I speak and read fluently—and a closely related dialect. But it was the region's history that drew me here most.

Chinese civilization, as my middle school students have been taught to recite with stentorian solemnity, "has fi ve thousand years of history." In their textbooks, the Northeast claims only a sliver of that time line, making its past feel comparatively intimate. The bulk of its recorded antiquity began in the early seventeenth century, around the time—on the other side of the world—that Shakespeare wrote his plays and the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Anyone who has spent time in contemporary China knows the feeling of traditions slipping away, of old landscapes remade. In Beijing you could return to a neighborhood where you ate noodles the week before and find it flattened to a field of rubble. A decade ago, at a Buddhist nunnery that would be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam, I met an elderly novitiate who said she wanted to live there forever. She asked if I could put her into a story so she always would.

But the Northeast's history still seems near. Its artifacts spill across the region like playing pieces left on a board game named Empire. You can travel on railways built in the name of the czar; pace not through ancient Buddhist temples but into onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedrals; walk down boulevards lined with Japanese pines and colonial ministries constructed in an architectural style dubbed Rising Asia; tour Puyi's "Puppet Emperor's Palace"; visit sites where the Japanese held Allied prisoners, including Bataan Death March survivors; and stand on the bridge —reaching halfway across the Yalu River, separating China and North Korea—that American pilots dive-bombed during the Korean War. I saw these sites—and the stories missing from their official plaques—as markers that charted the rise and fall of the Manchu, and the nadir and ascent of modern China. Uniquely for a Chinese region, foreigners played a prominent role on its stage.

Excerpted from In Manchuria by Michael Meyer. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Meyer. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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