Homesick for Manchuria

Since I lived in Beijing for the last 15 years of my time in China, it’s not often that I get nostalgic for Changchun, the city in Northeast China that was my home for most of the 90s. Recently I found myself thinking of my time there and the experiences I had. I am, dare I say, homesick for Manchuria.

I blame (well, give credit to, really) Michael Meyer and his book In “Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.”

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China

Here’s the description from Amazon:

For three years, Meyer rented a home in the rice-farming community of Wasteland, hometown to his wife’s family. Their personal saga mirrors the tremendous change most of rural China is undergoing, in the form of a privately held rice company that has built new roads, introduced organic farming, and constructed high-rise apartments into which farmers can move in exchange for their land rights. Once a commune, Wasteland is now a company town, a phenomenon happening across China that Meyer documents for the first time; indeed, not since Pearl Buck wrote The Good Earth has anyone brought rural China to life as Meyer has here.

Amplifying the story of family and Wasteland, Meyer takes us on a journey across Manchuria’s past, a history that explains much about contemporary China–from the fall of the last emperor to Japanese occupation and Communist victory. Through vivid local characters, Meyer illuminates the remnants of the imperial Willow Palisade, Russian and Japanese colonial cities and railways, and the POW camp into which a young American sergeant parachuted to free survivors of the Bataan Death March.

I particularly enjoyed his forays into the history of Manchuria, a place that most in the west have never heard about. Derived from the Chinese word Manzu (满族), which refers to the Man people group, Manchuria as a “nation” was a puppet state established by the Japanese during their occupation of the territory during World War II. Today the region is known simply as Dongbei (东北) – the Northeast.

Meyer (who, I might add, is a fellow Minnesotan) captures so well the sights and sounds of the region that I had begun to fade: wide-open spaces; the uniqueness of the northeast dialect; the blunt communication style, and glimpses of history at every turn.

If you have lived Dongbei, are planning to live in Dongbei, or perhaps simply know someone who does, this book is a must-read!

(Note: this post was originally published at ChinaSource)

Related Posts:

The Great Manchurian Scarf Incident

Manchurian Catholics

Night Train to Manchuria


The Great Manchurian Christmas Scarf Incident

“Welcome to Qiqihar,” they said in one accord. “There’s been an outbreak of bubonic plague.”

That ominous greeting notwithstanding, we were overjoyed to see our friends at the station in the middle of the night as we got off the train. We had spent the better part of 12 hours trundling across the Manchurian Plain, or what locals used to call The Great Northern Wilderness on an unheated train with outside temperatures in the double digits below zero.

Qiqihar is a small city in Heilongjiang Province — a midnight stop on the Trans-Siberian Railroad that runs from Harbin to Moscow. A few more hours up the line would have landed us on the Siberian border. We gained a new appreciation for the expression “middle of nowhere.” I and two classmates (Liz and Kristin) from language school in Changchun had arrived to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Dennis, Rose, and Vangie. It ended up being a trip for the ages.

To start with, our train going north from Changchun seemed to date back to imperial times. It had obviously been very ornate at one time, but was now a shadow of its former self. Furthermore, the wood-burning stove that was supposed to provide heat was broken, giving us a winter camping experience. We were a motley-looking threesome of foreigners (who are odd no matter what we are wearing or doing), made more so by the fact that Liz had a frying pan strapped onto the back of her backpack that nearly turned into a weapon of mass destruction as we made our way through the crowds in the station. One of the items on our Christmas agenda was to enjoy Dennis’ famous pancakes, and since he didn’t have a frying pan, Liz brought hers along. Not being able to fit it insider her pack, she strapped it on the back!

The first stop on our journey north was Harbin, where we had 3 hours to wait before catching our train to Qiqihar. We were frozen stiff, and the only way we could think of to get warm was to go to a ‘beauty parlor’ to get our hair washed. At least the water would be hot (we hoped).

The heat on our second train was a bit better, which was a good thing because by the time we arrived in Qiqihar it was close to 30 below F.On

Christmas Eve Day, we set out to do some last minute shopping. Even though it was minus 30, the bus had no heat and all the windows were open. Wouldn’t want to miss out on all that fresh air!

Our destination was the only department store in town. This was Christmas 1990, before the jump-starting of economic reforms that happened in early 1992. Politically and economically China was on hold as the government dealt with the aftermath of 1989.  Consumerism was nascent, and commercialism still non-existent. There were no private stores or malls; only the state-run stores which sold what the government had determined the people needed. Red thermos, blue spittoons, plastic basins, and drab clothing were the staples.

Based on who needed to buy what for whom, we split up into pairs. I went with Dennis; Liz went with Rose, and Kristin went with Vangie. We wandered around, trying not to bump into one another. I had no idea what to get for Kristin, and just wasn’t seeing anything that looked interesting, much less nice–until we got to a counter that was selling scarves (which were definitely ‘in’ back then). Suddenly, things looked promising. They had 2 scarves that weren’t ugly to death, a red one and a blue one. I liked the blue one, but Dennis tried his best to convince me that Kristin would prefer the red one. He failed; I bought the blue one. What he wasn’t telling me was that he had already bought the blue one for Rose, his wife. With my insistence on purchasing the blue one, he now knew that both Kristin and Rose were going to open the exact same present on Christmas. “Well, this should be pretty funny,” he thought.

When we got back to their apartments, I decided to show Rose what I had gotten for Kristin. I proudly showed her the scarf. Dennis was there too and took note of the fact that Rose thought the scarf was beautiful. What Rose didn’t tell me was that Liz had just purchased the same scarf for me! “Well this should be pretty funny, she thought.”

We spent Christmas Day cooking up a storm: roast beef in a rice cooker; mashed potatoes; green beans; carmelized carrots; and I think an apple pie. It was comfort food heaven.

After dinner it was time for the gift exchange. For some reason, I went first, opening the gift Liz had gotten for me: a blue scarf. Dennis, having been prepared for the humor of seeing two of us get the exact same scarf suddenly realizes that there are three scarves in circulation not two, and proceeds to fall off the couch laughing. Rose and I are laughing too, but we still think there are only 2 scarves.

Rose was up next, opening the present from her husband — the blue scarf. Having just recovered from our laughing fit at the thought of 2 scarves, Rose and I now realize that there is a third one in circulation — the one for Kristin — and we proceed to descend into uncontrollable laughter. By this time, of course, the others are laughing at the fact that 2 of us have now gotten the exact same present. This misinterpretation of events dies, of course, when Kristin opens her present from me — the blue scarf. At that point the gift-giving was done and we laughed ourselves sick for a long long time.

In an entire department store, there was only one thing that suited western aesthetic sensibilities — a blue scarf. I visited Dennis and Rose this past weekend, and, as always, the story of what has come to be known as The Great Manchurian Scarf Incident came up. We had a good laugh, but unfortunately, were unable to come up with a picture of the scarves.

Oh…and none of us ever came down with bubonic plague.

Do you have a funny “China Christmas” story? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

Memorial Cookies

As we were milling around the old Orthodox Church in Harbin on Sunday, an older Chinese woman came out of the church with a small bag of cookies in her hand. She came over to where we were standing and offered some to us.

“It’s been12 years since our last priest passed away,” she said. “Here, please eat a cookie to honor his memory.”

A little puzzled, but also a bit hungry, we each took one. Our Russian friends told us that it is a tradition to eat something in commemoration of the death of special people. In this case the special person was Father Zhu, the last Orthodox priest in China.

In some ways, it seems that his death 12 years ago marked the end of era that began when, according to the website Chinese Orthodoxy, the first Orthodox Church was opened in Peking in 1685. It goes on to say that by 1949, there were 106 Orthodox Churches in China, with approximately 10,000 Orthodox followers. Many of those were actually Russians who had fled to China (settling in what was then called Manchuria, but today called Northeast China) in order to escape Bolshevism. Finding themselves once again under Communist rule, most fled China, leaving behind a small number of Chinese believers.

All of the churches were closed during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980’s when China’s religious policies changed, this church in Harbin, officially called The Church of the Protection of Our Holy Mother of God, was the only Orthodox Church that was re-opened. From what I have been told, and from what I have read, it seems that itis now the only functioning Orthodox Church in the entire country. There is one on the grounds of the Russian embassy in Beijing, but it is technically on Russian soil, not Chinese.  (To read more on the history of Orthodoxy in China, please visit this site:

I found a section from a book published in 1931 called “Orthodox Churches in Manchuria” that gives quite a bit of information about the church, calling it the Ukranian Parish:

 The Ukrainian parish, together with its church dedicated to the Holy Protection of the Mother of God, was established in 1922, with the authorization and blessing of Archbishop Methodiusof Harbin and Manchuria. […]


At first, the church was actually a house church located at the Ukrainian Residence. When this building was taken away from the Ukrainians, the church moved to a basement at B. Avenue, and thus the need came about for building a proper church. The Property Administration answered the requests of the parish and allocated a spot for free belonging to the Old Cemetery, where on June 1, 1930, a marvelous stone church began to be erected according to the project of the civil engineer Y. P. Zhdanov.


The church building was finished during the same construction season, and it took only six and a half months for that. It was finally consecrated by Metropolitan Methodius on December 14, 1930. […]


At the cemetery many pioneers of the Russian culture lay to rest.

Since it is in the heart of the city today, there is no trace of that cemetery. I do wonder, however, what might have been found when digging for the subway line that is being built underneath the road in front of the church.

I haven’t found any specific information about the bell, though. This past week I have been corresponding with someone I knew in the 1980’s who worked in Harbin and occasionally attended services there. He told me that he once even heard the bell being rung.

Oh… and back to those memorial cookies. It reminded me of the tradition that my family started a few years ago of gathering at a Dairy Queen on the anniversary of my father’s death, where we all raise a Dilly Bar in his honor. That man loved his ice cream!

I also found a website that has old photos of the church from the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Taken from the same spot as my photo above.

This one shows the church set in the cemetery, with the large monument. The steeple down the road was the Lutheran Church. Today it is the Nangang Protestant Church.

There are lots more photos of the church here. (Don’t you just love the internet?)