Michael Meyer is the author of the acclaimed nonfiction book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. He first came to China in 1995 with the Peace Corps, and for over a decade has contributed from there to The New York Times, Time, the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Architectural Record, Reader’s Digest, Slate, Smithsonian, This American Life and many other outlets. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing, as well as residencies at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. He has taught Literary Journalism at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, and wrote the foreword to The Inmost Shrine: A Photographic Odyssey of China, 1873, a collection of Scottish explorer John Thomson’s early images. He is a current member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations‘ Public Intellectuals Program, and an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches Nonfiction Writing.
Since first arriving in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer 20 years ago, Michael Meyer has witnessed and written about the transformation of China, at the level of both an urban neighborhood and a remote village. His award-winning first book The Last Days of Old Beijing documented changes in the daily life in the capital’s oldest neighborhood as the city remade itself for the 2008 Olympics. In his second book In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China he describes a northeastern rice-growing village as it turns its land over to a corporate agribusiness.
This state-backed transition is the latest massive shift originating in Northeast China. In his talk, Meyer showed slides of contemporary village life in both Beijing’s oldest hutong neighborhood and the Manchurian countryside, including the ruins of the Qing dynasty’s Willow Palisade; the world’s last Manchu-speaking village; abandoned Russian-built stations along the Chinese Eastern Railroad; and the “Rising Asia” architectural style of Japan’s puppet state Manchukuo.
Meyer also discussed the line between what you are allowed to do as an unaccredited writer in China, and what you can actually achieve.