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The Big Book

The Chinese villages of Wasteland, Mud Town and Lonely Outpost

Kai Ryssdal Mar 5, 2015
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There is a small village called Wasteland in the Northeast China region. Despite its name, looks nothing like a wasteland, according to Michael Meyer, author of “In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.”

Meyer spent three years living in Wasteland, while his wife pursued a legal career in Hong Kong. He explains early on that Wasteland was his wife’s childhood home, however, she had no interest in returning to the village.

“In the village, there is that divide right down the middle where there’s an older generation, say people over age 40 like myself, who want to stay and want to keep their roots there,” says Meyer. “And then there’s this younger generation that says ‘no there’s nothing for us here, we want to leave.'”

Villages surrounding Wasteland have similar names. There is Dunes, Mud Town and Lonely Outpost. So, Meyer spent some time investigating why the villages have these names.

“Although the villages were all founded in the early 18th century, the closest I could come to why they have these names is this sort of Greenland, Iceland name reversal – where the people who originally settled these areas didn’t want other migrants to come there, they didn’t want bandits to stop there,” says Meyer. “So they gave them these very undesirable names, but in fact, they look nothing like what they are named.”

In his book, Meyer finds that a privately owned rice company, called Eastern Fortune, buys the farmers off their land and moves them into company-built apartments, in order to use the land to grow rice. Some villagers welcome the new apartments and crop prices the company offers, while others don’t.

Read an excerpt from “In Manchuria”:

chapter 1
Winter Solstice

In winter the land is frozen and still. A cloudless sky shines off
snow-covered rice paddies, reflecting light so bright, you have to shield
your eyes. I lean into a stinging wind and trudge north up Red Flag Road,
to a village named Wasteland.

The view is flat, lifeless, and silver fresh. The two-lane cement road
slices through the paddies like the courses plowed across frozen lakes in
my native Minnesota, but there are no icehouses to shelter in here. Ten
minutes ago, I set off from the coal-fueled warmth of Number 22 Middle
School, where I volunteer as an English teacher. Already my beard is
beaded with ice.

Tufts of dry husks sprout through the snow, resembling ripening brooms.
To my left, the sun sinks over the far horizon. It is 3:22 p.m. at December’s
end—or, as Chinese farmers know it, dongzhi (Winter Solstice), one of
twenty-four fortnight-long periods describing the seasons based on the sun’s
longitude. The previous solar term was Major Snow, which fell on schedule,
blanketing Wasteland in white. Next up, in early January, is Slight Cold,
which, given today’s high temperature of minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit, makes
me fear what “slight” will feel like. At school, a red nylon propaganda
banner lashed to the accordion entrance gate urges us to PREVENT HAND, FOOT AND MOUTH DISEASE and, less helpfully, announces that WINTER BRINGS THE BIGGEST CHANGE IN TEMPERATURE.

Red Flag Road’s single traffic sign displays a speed limit of forty kilometers
an hour. On school days I never see anyone break it; bicycles and
three-wheeled motorcycles saunter and sputter to the crossroads’ Agricultural
Bank, seed store, noodle shops, and train station. Painted bright pink and
crowned with a peaked tin roof whose cobalt-blue matches Wasteland’s
usual sky, the station has been rendered all but obsolete: the new highspeed
trains that cover the seventy miles between the cities of Jilin and
Changchun do not stop here. For passengers in the sealed compartment,
Wasteland whooshes by in a silent four-second blur, looking like any other
village in northeast China.

Closer inspection reveals a dotted line of trash aside Red Flag Road:
empty boxes of expensive Panda brand cigarettes and bottles of Moutai
brand liquor; broadsheets of stock tips, real estate flyers, and fortune-telling
booklets advising the most auspicious days to buy property; and selfpublished
circulars, sold in big cities, with titles such as Intriguing Stories
and Strange Affairs. In addition to the latest gossip about the private lives
of top officials, the pamphlets answer questions such as Will our capital be
moved from Beijing? (No.) Did the 1989 student protest movement fail? (Yes.)
How many people were killed during the Cultural Revolution? (Lots.)

Today the only sound on Red Flag Road comes from another banner,
strung between two Manchurian ash seedlings, whipping in the wind. The
cloth twists and unfurls, then twists again. Between gusts spin the Chinese
characters for plant, then seeds, then record and yield. I pass the banner
every day and, unlike the farmers, study its message. In the Chinese
countryside—free of newsstands and street signs—propaganda is my
primer, even when written by Comrade Obvious. This red ribbon teaches
me the characters that form: PLANT QUALITY SEEDS TO PRODUCE A RECORD YEILD.
For decades, the three-story middle school was Wasteland’s tallest structure.
From my English classroom window I can see all the village’s homes,
whose clusters make an archipelago across the fields. Now I walk toward
a billboard whose message I can read a mile away: BUILD THE NORTHEAST’S TOP VILLAGE. It was erected by Eastern Fortune Rice,
a private agribusiness company based in Wasteland. I never thought about
this propaganda—just another exercise in blatancy—until Eastern Fortune
began making it come true.

Gossip says that, like the railroad, Red Flag Road will be upgraded, too.
Locals wonder if it’s their way of life that will be made obsolete. There’s
even talk of changing the village’s name.

No one can say for certain why the place is called Wasteland. It may
have been a ploy by homesteaders to discourage other migrants from moving
to this fertile floodplain, stretching from the western banks of the Songhua
(Pine Flower) River to forested foothills. Neighboring hamlets, also
comprising a few dozen single-story homes abutting table-flat rice paddies,
include Lonely Outpost, Zhang’s Smelly Ditch, the Dunes, and Mud Town.
In the movie Caddyshack, Rodney Dangerfield boasts that he and his
partner, Wang, just bought some land at the Great Wall: “On the good
side!” Wasteland is in the other direction. Beyond the wall begins China’s
northeast, or Dongbei (rhymes with wrong way). Chinese say a map of their
country resembles a chicken, which makes the Northeast its head, squeezing
between Mongolian grasslands and the Ever-White Mountains before
bumping up against Siberia.