A satisfying, elegant personal journey in China’s fabled Northeast.
A Peace Corps volunteer in China in 1995, Meyer spent subsequent years teaching English in a rapidly changing Beijing, where he wrote his first book, The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (2008). Against the usual logic (the Chinese were leaving the land to flock to the cities), the author settled in the remote Northeast, in a town called Wasteland, Manchuria, the hometown of his Chinese wife, Frances. There, working as a middle school teacher while living among Frances’ eccentric relatives, Meyer realized that he was interested in exploring China’s past. A rice-growing center, Wasteland (founded in 1956) was closer to Vladivostok and Pyongyang than the Great Wall. It was once the heart of the Manchu, who stormed through the country on horseback and seized Beijing in 1644, ruled for 300 years, and added the territory of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Eventually, the Manchu mingled with the infiltrating Han Chinese; as a result, today Manchu make up less than 10 percent of the region’s 110 million residents. In addition to providing a variety of tender tales of the local folk (e.g., “The Ballad of Auntie Yi”), Meyer inserts profound and troubling observations, such as the official desecration of cultural artifacts in the name of development and the fact that many of the residents first came with families fleeing the famine of the Cultural Revolution era. Throughout, Meyer moves gingerly through Manchurian history—the gradual weakening of the Qing court as China opened to the West; the building of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, bringing geopolitical hostilities; and the conquest of the region by imperial Japan and creation of Manchukuo in 1931—yet the author ends in a hopeful fashion: a pregnancy.
A work of enormous heart as well as research.