River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
Author: Peter Hessler
Harper Collins (2001)
An American’s Observations in China
At first, artful prose, flowing like a river, draws readers in, and then it grips them with a sense of urgency. In River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler’s audience must experience the author’s unique take on Fuling’s local color--what he has seen and what he has felt. It’s almost as if Hessler’s words promise a firsthand account of the demise of the last specimen of an endangered species.
In fact, geographically, Fuling, in China’s Sichuan province, at the fork of the Yangtze and Wu Rivers, was an ill-fated city. Soon part of it, along with centuries of history, would suffocate under a lake created by the Three Gorges Dam. Hessler was one of a dozen or so foreigners allowed into the area in more than fifty years. As such, he would be among the few Westerners to gain a glimpse of it before the great rush of water would push the entire region into a new era.
“I had never any idealistic illusions about my Peace Corps ‘service’ in China,” said Hessler. “I wasn’t there to save anybody or leave an indelible mark on the town. If anything, I was glad that during my two years in Fuling I haven’t built anything, or organized anything, or made any great changes to the place. I had been a teacher, and in my spare time I tried to learn as much as possible about the city and its people. That was the extent of my work, and I was comfortable with those roles, and I recognized their limitations.”
Fortunately Hessler also recognized the importance of first preserving, and then sharing his impressions of the region. Perhaps he left no permanent marks on them, but they leave an indelible mark on those who vicariously join the author in his quest to understand the Chinese people, and especially residents near the fork of the Wu and Yangtze rivers.
Despite Fuling’s 200,000 population, it is a small city by Chinese standards, and the area considered rural. That is the least of the contradictions Hessler encountered.
Hessler’s students represented the region’s best, yet were not affected with self-pride. They spoke of admiration for rural culture, hard work, and the peasant’s life; yet they looked forward to a future different from their parents. “They were never suspicious of impossible tasks” writes Mr. Hessler. “The students would work at anything without complaint, probably because they knew that even the most difficult literature assignment was preferable to wading knee-deep in muck behind a water buffalo.”
A cultural plurality shows up in the writing of Hessler’s students. Aware of the suffering endured under Mao Zedong’s rule, students generally spoke well of him. One wrote, “One flaw cannot obscure the splendor of the jade.” Another defended him: “No gold is pure; no man is perfect.”
But that mindset also precluded honest teacher/student discussions if Hessler, their foreign teacher, moved to the slightest criticism of anything Chinese. As a group, his class, the region’s scholastic stars, would turn stoic. “Whenever that happened,” Hessler laments, “I realized that I was not teaching forty-five individual students with forty-five individual ideas. I was teaching a group, and these were moments when the group thought as one, and a group like that was a mob, even if it was silent and passive.”
During Hessler’s two years in Fuling, the British lease on Hong Kong expired, The Chinese government loosened its grip on the economy, encouraging a form of capitalism, and the Three Gorges Dam neared completion. Communities prepared for modernization to be made possible by reliable electric power and better control over the Yantze’s flood cycles.
But in China modernization does not mean Westernization, culturally or politically. “In the end,” said Hessler, “Fuling struck me as a sort of democracy—perhaps a Democracy with Chinese Characteristics—because the vast majority of the citizens quietly tolerated the government. And the longer I lived there, the more I was inclined to see this as the silent consent of people who had chosen not to exercise other options.”
Isn’t that an interesting perspective on what Americans call a Communist dictatorship? Read River Town to gain your own perspective of the book Kirkus Reviews described as “a vivid and touching tribute to a place and its people.”