on March 26, 2003
In his concluding remarks of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler points us to the nub of his experience in China:
"I had never had any idealistic illusions about my Peace Corps 'service' in China; 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 hadn'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 had 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."
In fall 1996, Peter Hessler, at the age of 26, took a Peace Corps assignment that relocated him to a small town in the Sichuan province of China. Many natives let alone a young American who made his inaugural entrance into the country did not know and hear of Fuling. It's a former coal-mining town that is bounded by the Yangtze and the Wu. Chongqing and the Three Gorges are just hours away by boats. The book chronicles, in a rather casual but detailed way, Peter's teaching experience at the Fuling Education College and his life and anecdotes in town. Interwoven into Peter's diary are descriptions of local landmarks and customs. This book is by far the most passionate and yet accurate and objective account written any foreigners. Peter really does possess a keen sense of his surroundings. Throughout his crisp, interesting prose and attention to details, the Chinese 'laobaixing' (common people) become alive as if we are actually interacting with them.
I am in awe of how far Peter has gone in making meticulous observations of the Chinese culture and its people. A lot of what he mentions in this book is often overlooked by foreigners. To cite some examples:
1)Cultural shock: Wherever Peter goes in town, he often gathers a crowd looking dagger at him, saying 'hello', calling name and following him. To his surprises later on, he realizes the town has never had a foreign visitor for at least 50 years. It is a mixed bag of xenophobia and curiosity for foreigners. No soon than Peter arrived in town than he realized that foreigners are usually treated differently in daily necessities and accommodation. Certain inns were forbidden to accommodate foreigners due to the untidiness. Foreigners often had to pay a higher fare for the steamboats.
2)Teaching style: Learning Chinese was excruciatingly painful for Peter (and for many Americans I'm sure). The Mandarin comes with 4 intonations and the thousands of characters have complicated strokes and dots. Suffice it to say that the slightest mispronunciation or missing a stroke in writing will reap a harsh admonishment from Peter's native Chinese teacher. 'Budui' is the devil word meaning 'wrong'. As Peter has pointed out, the Chinese teaching style is significantly different from the western methods. If a student is wrong, she needed to be corrected (or rebuked) immediately without any quibbling or softening. It is the very strict standard that motivates Peter to determinedly show his teacher he is 'dui' (right). His bitter encounter with the Chinese way enables him to finally relate to his Chinese-American peers, who go to school and become accustomed to the American system of gentle correction. But the Chinese parents expect more-unless you get straight A's, you haven't achieved anything yet! Hey, I can relate to this Peter!
3)Hong Kong handover: Little did I know about how the mainland Chinese made such a big deal about the turn-of-the-century event in 1997 until I read Peter's account. His students have been drilled on the shamefulness of history, of how the Britain defeated the Chinese in Opium War, of how China was coerced to cease the fragrant city for 150 years. I knew about how the Chinese (especially the Party leaders) awaited the moment when the five-star red flag ascend to full staff in Hong Kong but shamefulness? The magnitude of the colony's return to motherland simply overwhelmed Peter (and myself): the handover lapel pin, the handover umbrella, and the handover rubber flip-flops!
4)Chinese collectivism: This is something that not only amazes but also puzzles me and Peter has nailed it to the root. The Chinese people are often nonchalant, indifferent, and apathetic to politics, crisis or crimes. Well, according to Peter, 'as long as a pickpocket [or whatever] did not affect you personally, or affect somebody in your family, it was not your business.' So this is the usual Chinese mind-my-own-business attitude. This attitude is so implanted inveterately into the Chinese due to decades of isolation (from media and geography) and political control. I think Peter really brings it home. The consequence is a strictly standardized education system, common beliefs among the people, common reactions toward political issues, and an unchallenging submission to authority.
River Town is indeed one of the best books I've ever read for years. Peter is not only an on-looking 'waiguoren' (foreigner) but he has found his identity among the Chinese. He befriended the owner of the restaurant and his family. He established daily and weekly routines which include newspaper reading at the teahouse and chatting with the teahouse 'xiaojie' (girls), hiking up to the mountaintop, visiting the vendors at a local park, and hanging out with his students after class. During the summer vacation, he took an excursion to the Great Wall in Shanxi and Urmuqi in Xinjiang. The prose is vivid, crisp, and gripping. I really appreciate how he approaches the people and culture with an honesty-to have gone so far as some of the moments of candor become unpleasant. This is a page-turner, the kind of book that you don't want to end so soon. 5.0 stars.
on February 12, 2001
Humane and observant. I was thoroughly impressed by the author's willingness to share his life with the ordinary Chinese, for I know it is difficult to do.
Exactly because of that, many of his poignant remarks and analyses did not bother me at all. In fact, I envy him, for I cannot observe in the same way as he did, simply because I am a Chinese. I know he is so right on the numbness of the people who could quickly gather into a crowd over any stanger's suffering, so right about the linguistic violence to women done by the Chinese language, and so right about the senseless macho baijiu culture among men. I could have made the remarks, too, but I know they would lack the same sad humaneness. I do not have his detachment and therefore his penetrativeness.
There was a haunting scene of Father Li's conversing in Latin with the author's own father, while the author was standing by and watching. Like the book itself, this scene shows that any barrier between peoples and men is either false or self-imposed or downright intellectual sloth. I really respect Peter Hessler!
on September 20, 2002
Modern China is a place ripe with ironies, and among the greatest of them is them is that the Chinese have no sense of irony. It takes an understanding outsider to appreciate these ironic idiosyncracies that Chinese themselves are so oblivious to, and a gifted and sensative writer to portray them without resorting to caricature or mockery.
River Town is the most honest and insightful portrayal I have read of China in the late 1990s. Although it takes a small town in Sichuan as its focus, most of Hessler's astute observations are applicable to the rest the country, from metropolis to village. The book is not so much a travelogue as a 'socialogue'.
Personally, having lived elsewhere in China during the same periods that the book describes in Fuling, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the book, and laughing aloud in many a section. Hessler's characterizations, both of China and of how a Westerner changes after a few years in China, are dead on.
River Town is the best book available for getting a sense of what China is like, on the most basic level, and explains why we who live here simultaneously love and despise the place. If you are an old China Hand, you will love this book. If you are a total novice to the subject, you couldn't find a more accurate and enjoyable introduction.
on February 20, 2002
As a young Chinese-American who has traveled in China, River Town has quickly become one of my favorite books. Peter Hessler is both thoughtful and descriptive of his experiences as a PCV in China. I especially loved the parts of the book in which he talked about his students...he really brings them to life. It's easy to see that they changed his life as much as he impacted theirs.
I also found Hessler's acclimation to his environment particularly fascinating. His reactions to new and sometimes delicate cultural situations reflects his laidback attitude, but is also telling of how willing he was to be apart of Fuling culture and society. He is also brutally honest, even with his own shortcomings in the face of his new experiences.
It's true, he does come to the book with a Westerner's perspective, but then again, what do you expect? His love for China, however, and his willingness to engage the people in Fuling...to take on a Chinese identity, speaks louder than any detached political analysis could. He simply writes about his reflections, and I appreciate the honesty.
I plan to give this book to all my friends who have moved to and travelled in China. It's definitely one of the best books I have read in a loooong time.
on February 19, 2001
River Town is the best book I've read about China in a _long_ _long_ time. Having lived and traveled extensively in China, I can say that Hessler's descriptions are wonderfully accurate -- not only does he explain the physical features of the countryside well, he shows the complexity of being a _yangguizi_ in China, and how one's "foreign-ness" colors all of one's experiences.
Hessler's self-mocking tone when he talks with locals about cheating foreigners, his interactions with _xiaojie_, and his students (especially Mo's last name) are hilariously accurate. His dealings with authority and China's past are insightful and balanced.
I strongly recommend this book - those who have been to China will be flooded with memories, and those who haven't will learn about an important part of China from a perspective that is rarely seen.
on January 21, 2001
This book was an incredible eye-opener about Chinese culture. A sprinkling of wit binds together a string of vignettes which lay bare the society of this remote, interior, Chinese city. Hessler's personality rings through the pages as he draws you into his world and his experiences.
This is a must read for anyone who wants to travel in Asia or who wishes to understand the role that China will have in the coming century.
Simply a fabulous book.
on February 6, 2002
This is not an easy book to discuss because it does so many things so well. On the surface, it is the story of a young Peace Corps volunteer, named Peter Hessler, who goes to China to teach English literature to college students. The town where the college is located is known as Fuling. It is in the remote province of Sichuan along the Yangtze River. Hessler and his partner, Admam Meier, are the first foreigners to be seen in the town in 50 years. This alone would make Hessler's situation a little unusual, but the fact that both he and Meier immediately begin to question and indirectly challenge the roles they have been assigned, means that Hessler's experiences develop into real adventures.
Hessler's first year in Fuling is characterized by culture shock, disillusionment and a stubborn refusal to give up on his goal of learning to read and speak Chinese. He is shocked by the brainwashing of his students, by their intelligence and insightfulness when they are dealing with subjects that they don't have preprogrammed responses to. He struggles with the isolation imposed on him by the rest of the faculty, and begins to make forays into the hills just to get away from the regemented college routine, pollution and crowding.
In his second year, his Chinese improves and he begins to make friends in Fuling. He is still frustrated by attempts to control what he teaches, still struggles to understand his students' behavior, but he has begun to find his way in this strange new land. He makes friends with two of the professors, is befriended by a family in town and by a few of the people who have stopped to talk with him. On his breaks he travels to other parts of China. He hikes back into the hills for a second year and talks to the farmers.
But for all his understanding and insight, Hessler is never really happy in Fuling. His health is poor, he is disturbed by events at the school, by the fact that all his mail is opened before he receives it, by the political climate of the town and most especially by an alarming encounter with a group of angry townspeople. This last incident seems to crystallize many things for him, and he is ready to leave as the last few weeks of his term come to an end.
What makes this book special is Hessler's ability to capture the essence of Fuling - its sights, smells, people and overall character- and his willingness to share his inner process. We are there with him during drinking matches sponsored by the head of the English Department, and are introduced to each of his students. We watch as he struggles to understand their responses, and feel his frustation as he struggles with Chinese. Likewise we can see and smell the food at his favorite noodles shop, applaude his victory in a local cross country race and know his feelngs of anger and helplessness when he learns that one of his students has died.
If you have ever wondered what is is like to live in a foreign country, to try to cope with a culture that is radically different from your own; if you have wondered about China and its people, then this is a wonderful place to start your exploration. When you put down River Town you will feel that you have been there too.
on June 27, 2001
Peter Hessler's "River Town" ranks among my favorite three books about China, the other two being Mark Salzman's "Iron and Silk" and Simon Winchester's "The River at the Center of the World".
More than the other two books, "River Town" is the story of a love-hate relationship with China. In my experience, this is the mode of existence that is predominant among expatriates in this country. What is quite unusual about Peter Hessler is the determination with which he tries to see China through Chinese eyes (quite unlike W. Somerset Maugham in "On a Chinese Screen"). He learns the language, he travels hard-seater, takes the slow-boats on the Yangtze, goes hiking among the rice fields, talks with the locals. He takes note of what he sees, and he takes notes. Lots of notes. They become the basis for the abundance of details about everyday life in the city and the college where he teaches.
The book is an impressive document of Hessler's love for the country, and at the same time, beneath the armor of his love, there is the anger and frustration he feels about not being accepted as the well-meaning, open-minded individual that he is (almost like a missionary whose good intentions are not valued). He works admirably hard at understanding the people, the culture, and the land, but the majority of Chinese do not change their idea of who he is, and very few change their behavior towards him. His frustration at being treated as a wai guo ren (the summary term for a person from a foreign country), as opposed to being treated as an individual, is palpable.
I am confident that this book will find readers years from now. For the time being it provides the most comprehensive picture of city life in the rural hinterland of a country in transition. Hessler has witnessed a very traditional China that is about to disappear in the process of the economic modernization, just like parts of the river town are about to be submerged in the lake created by the Three Gorges Dam. He is not sentimental about the old customs and traditions, but there is a whiff of nostalgia and a sense of loss in his book.
River Town is a memoir with an ambition to be more. It is not as original, crisp and witty as Salzman's memoir, and not as erudite as Winchester's travel book. Its ambition is to be poetic and realistic at the same time. Poetic in its depiction of the land, realistic when describing life in Fuling. This makes for a somewhat uneven mixture, and I think the book would have gained if Hessler had kept his talent for poetic evocation apart from his talent for reporting. He is very good at both, no doubt. My feeling was simply that the book would have been even better, albeit shorter, if he had concentrated on just one of his strengths.
River Town has the potential to become a classic China memoir. Peter Hessler is a gifted observer, and a person who has great empathy with the Chinese people. He is someone who tries to understand the country from the bottom up. Very admirable.
on May 17, 2005
During his two years spent as a volunteer teacher at the Fuling Teachers College, Peter Hessler learns much about modern Chinese culture. He takes the Chinese name He Wei, and immerses himself in the local Fuling culture as much as possible. He keeps and open mind while observing every day life around him while keeping a detailed journal which he later uses to write and publish River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze in 2001.
It is hard to imagine a place like Fuling, a remote town in the Sichuan province of China. It is amazing how different it is compared to the suburban America that surrounds us. The experience Hessler describes often sounds like something that could have occurred decades ago, not something that happened within the last ten years. This contemporaneous nature of the novel makes it all the more intriguing.
Fuling is a place where no American had been for over fifty years until Peter Hessler and Adam Meier arrived in 1996 as Peace Corps volunteers. It is also a place where the term Peace Corps has such a negative connotation that it was changed to U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers.
When Hessler first arrives in Fuling his status as an outsider is painfully awkward. He does not know the language. His uncommon physical appearance draws unwanted attention everywhere he goes. Neither he nor Adam know or understand the social norms or taboos and both make frequent blunders.
Yet, Hessler is undaunted by his "waiguoren" status. He does not allow the locals' taunts, or the administration's isolationist policies deter him. Instead, he bravely and eagerly sets out to learn all things Chinese.
First, and foremost he must learn the language. Naturally, both Hessler's and the reader's understanding of Fuling parallels his progress with the language. As he becomes more fluent he is able to communicate with local people outside of the college. He prefers the company of the working class and discovers much about everyday Chinese life through these people. It is as if a veil is slowly lifted from the city around him as he forges new friendships and gains experiences.
He talks to as many people as possible and one of the most interesting topics is that of the building of the Three Gorges Dam. At the time of Hessler's visit, the proposed dam is to be the largest in the world. To make way for the reservoir behind the dam, the massive project will flood a huge area of land. The dam will drastically impact everything: environment, local ecology, economics, historical sites, as well as where people live and work. He tells how there are signs everywhere marking where the future water level will be in a few years. In total, all along the Yangtze River 1,352 villages will be submerged (Hessler, River Town 103).
Yet, when Hessler asks people their opinion on the project, few seem to know exactly what will happen and none seem worried about the impending changes. A project like the Three Gorges Dam in the United States would have spawned constant protest, debate, and controversy. Yet, the Chinese continued to go about their daily lives and put their trust in whatever the government has planned. Hessler questions people's faith in the project, and the feasibility of the government's promise to build a 150 foot dike around the town. Especially, since there was no sign of a dike when he left Fuling in 1998 with the reservoir was scheduled to start rising in 2003 (Hessler, River Town 102).
Several years later Hessler returned to the Fuling teachers college to give a lecture on why he wrote the book. While there he found much progress had been made including a new dike (Hessler, Time). So it seems faith of the residents of Fuling was not unwarranted.
Overall, River Town is a fascinating and fast read, and I am not surprised by the cover's statement that is a "New York Times Bestseller". It does an excellent job at capturing Fuling at a specific moment in time as well as provides glimpses of Chinese cultural as a whole. Being the same age as Hessler during his time in Fuling I could not help but wonder how I would fair in a similar situation. One can only admire Hessler and the other Peace Corps volunteers for their willingness to throw themselves into such a completely foreign world. I would love to read a follow up book, since according to the credits Hessler choose to stay in China and now lives in Beijing.
on March 20, 2005
I spent three years in China on the Yangtze River (Wuhan), overlapping one of those years with Hessler. It has been five years since I left but the memories remain fresh and intense. I read Hessler's account of his two-year teaching stint in the smaller town of Fuling, with delight and astonishment. It was as though someone had read my own journals and put into words what I never could. His ability to evoke the Chinese character and nuances and place his subjects in authentic surroundings is an amazing feat given the complexities of Chinese life. There are no sterotypes here. I had so many similar experiences and conversations with my own students, it defies logic. Yet such is the nature of a country that idealizes uniformity of thought and practice. Hessler is a hero for mastering the language in so short a time for the sake of clarity and understanding those around him. His two-year linguistic journey and the revelations they unfold, are the heart of this book and the one area I so miserably failed in. My regrets are tempered by his success and the fact I now have a brilliantly written book to hand someone when they ask about my experiences in China.