A deluge of books about China in the past decade has sometimes made us forget the extraordinary diversity of a country inhabited by close to one-fifth of the global population. In a way similar to the Indian literary landscape, the pan-China book now seems close to exhaustion. At the same time, a new wave of literary output seems to be emerging, offering us a more intimate glimpse of the many constituents that make up the world’s largest nation.

Manchuria, the north-east region beyond the Great Wall, spawned China’s last imperial dynasty, yet its life and people still seem distant and exotic to most Chinese and the world at large. Its strategic importance has, however, remained undimmed through most of modern Chinese history, as a region buffeted between Russia and the two Koreas and colonized by the Japanese before and during World War II.

The region still bears remnants of this contested history. “You can travel on railways built in the name of the czar," writes Michael Meyer, “pace not through ancient Buddhist temples but into onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedrals; walk down boulevards lined with Japanese pines and colonial ministries…"

Married to a Manchu, Meyer has chosen this fascinating region for his investigation into the upheavals and transformations of modern China. Meyer’s book is an ambitious enterprise, a mélange of history, reportage and memoir, seeking to illuminate our understanding of Manchuria through the immediate lens of the personal and the present, as well as the long view of history.

Books such as In Manchuria—A Village Called Wasteland and The Transformation Of Rural China demand simultaneous intellectual capacities: a high degree of academic rigour honed after years in the archives, a skilled and nuanced level of reportage that avoids the pitfalls of the beginner and, finally, an ability to write lucid, contemplative prose that can create an interconnected, yet freewheeling, text.

Meyer possesses each of these abilities in fitful measure, and the result is a book that is mostly less than the sum of its parts. An early chapter, narrating the trajectory of his courtship with his future wife, is so full of unnecessary detail and deadwood conversation that it nearly capsizes the book. Romantic banter may be vital to the life of a relationship, but it has little place in serious writing, especially as Meyer seems eager to reproduce an endless realm of supposedly cute conversations with his spouse.

Despite its claims, the interplay of reportage, memoir and history is rarely achieved with any degree of success. The personal story is largely reduced to maudlin recollection, while attempts at reportage and history seem to operate in different silos, with little of the synergy that one suspects could have elevated this book from its humdrum narrative.

Even more surprisingly, the story implied in its subtitle—how an obscure Chinese village was transformed by the energies of a sharp entrepreneur—is told with a curious lack of energy and vigour, and, in a sense, it is a tale that never gets off the ground.

The narrative arc of Eastern Fortune Rice—one of thousands of bottom-up companies that lie at the root of the Chinese economic miracle—remains largely confused and diffuse. The gravity and import of unfolding events, as China’s rural landscape becomes unrecognizable from its not-too-distant past, rarely feels visceral or urgent.

Recourse to history is found through a repetitive and formulaic narrative device. Meyer visits museum after museum, using these to dive into linear, and oddly flat, narrations of the region’s history. Unlike a book such as Ian Buruma’s dazzling Wages Of Guilt, Meyer’s visits to museums and shrines aren’t framed within a compelling intellectual quest and, for the reader, a kind of tedium gathers steam with every subsequent visit.

It is a shame, for Meyer’s premise began as interesting and novel, but its many failures appear in sharp contrast to books like David Eimer’s The Emperor Far Away, a rigorous work of reportage focused on China’s restive borderlands, that continue to add to a diverse and growing corpus of literature on the Middle Kingdom.

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