Better Read Than Never: Hessler’s RIVERTOWN

“This isn’t a book about China,” claims author Peter Hessler about the first of his three books set far from his American upbringing. “It’s about a certain small part of China at a certain brief period in time.” And Rivertown: Two Years on the Yangtze is certainly that, though his disclaimer is among the first evidences of the clear-minded humility that is one of the book’s greatest recommendations. It is a first-person account of a young man’s two-year immersion in the life of western China, and it is many things: a wide-open window into a place and a time, a travelogue, a coming-of-age tale, and a teacher’s diary. Besides the mature and clear writing by a young author, the book is also remarkable for the humility of its narrator – while he is not stingy with personal stories, it really is not all about him. And despite Hessler’s protestations above, this is the best book about China that I have read, and I thought Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China was superb.

It’s 1996. China is Reforming and Opening, but still most citizens of the People’s Republic have never seen a waiguoren in the flesh, especially those in northeastern Sichuan province. In Fuling, a city of 200,000 just upstream from the planned Three Gorges Dam, Peter Hessler and his buddy Adam Meier are the first Americans in 50 years, and they are objects of feverish curiosity at their obscure teacher’s college, and in the town and the hills and valleys beyond it. Hessler is 27, a Peace Corps volunteer. With revolutionary and counter-revolutionary upheavals vivid in memory, Tiananmen Square blandly ignored and “pointless paranoia” widespread, though, he cannot be called by that politically tainted name. Therefore, he is insistently termed a U.S.-China Friendship Volunteer by the local authorities, “and so with a euphemism for a job title, I came to teach at a college that was built on the ashes of the Cultural Revolution, where history was never far away and politics everywhere you looked”. Hessler and Meier walk right into it. They arrive not long before college students and staff return from 1000 miles of walking, their part in a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the fabled Long March by the People’s Liberation Army. Their alien celebrity threatens to derail the ceremonies, and they end up sheepishly taking part in the processions, and posing in shorts and tees alongside the bedraggled marchers, the uniformed hospitality girls and the sober-suited cadres. It’s the first of their many miscalculations and brushes – benign, bemusing or hostile – with Chinese history and culture. At times, Rivertown has the flavour of an “innocents abroad” narrative, yet our guide is thoughtful, eloquent, and above all a penetrating observer.

Hessler loves to watch, and thoroughly records what he sees. His work is paid (1000 yuan per month, about $125 but more than double what urban locals and five times more than country folk), despite the volunteer moniker. He teaches English literature and writing to kids from the Sichuan countryside who will, by and large, return to be middle-school teachers in rural schools. He downplays his classroom experience – “I wasn’t there to save anybody or leave an indelible mark” – though he must’ve been a shock and an inspiration to his students. His most powerful reflections, though, were not on his teaching work but rather on the lives lived by his students. He dutifully copied passages from their writings into his own journal; one assignment yielded writing so poignant, so telling, that he simply kept them, telling the students simply that they had done well. His reflections, peppered with excerpts from student work, are among the most moving and amusing passages in the book.

Hessler also loves to learn, and his utterly heroic dedication to living inside Fuling culture, learning not only Mandarin but the peculiarities of the local variety of Sichuanese, reproached me for my own fitful efforts in grasping Chinese. We are allowed to watch as, step by grinding step, the inscrutability of the people and the menus and the propaganda banners around him gives way to understanding, his and ours. His observations of life in Fuling, though admittedly a tiny corner of China, are so detailed, comprehensive and humane – and so richly layered with historical, political and even agricultural background – that readers come away with a much greater grasp of the country as a whole, and of the variety of its people. He wins roadraces. He takes epic walks through the countryside and chats with farmers. He eats every meal in the streets of Fuling, eventually able to read the local newspaper and chat comfortably, even jokingly, with shopkeepers and passersby. He records, with a novelist’s eye for nuance, street scenes that unfold around him.

Hessler is a wry and reliable reporter with a gift for apt description. He tells of his friend Adam teaching Western culture from a Chinese-produced text whose “chapter on American religion didn’t mention charities, communities or schools, but said quite a bit about the Jonestown mass suicide”. His experience with his Chinese tutors, notably the proud and austere Ms. Liao, leads him to this terse summary of Chinese education, still a little too true in 2012: “The teacher teaches and is right, and the student studies and is wrong.” He recounts, with considerable sympathy for the individual administrators (with one exception), the tangled web of bureaucratic resistance to even his most innocuous requests, and the bizarre changes and declarations made for reasons unclear. His conclusion stills rings true a decade and a half later in China: “fear and paranoia pass from one level to the next, creating a network of perfect distrust”. In the summer between his teaching years, he travels north to Shaanxi province (where the Long March had ended), seeing portions of the Great Wall substantially less great than the usual photos. Heading west, he notes the increasing Han Chinese presence in several outposts of Xinjiang, the “new frontier” previously inhabited mainly by Muslim peoples who look more Arab than Chinese. Among other oddities, he is fascinated by an insta-city of 50,000 plopped in the middle of the desert, whose purpose nobody seemed to know. He wonders, “What was it about the Chinese that made them come slightly unhinged in the border regions? What inspired them to build walls, forts, cities…” and, though he has theories, he concludes that “all of that showed how far the Chinese could go with a bad idea”. The book is full of well-sharpened sentences like these. 

Such pointed criticism, though, is actually quite rare in Rivertown. The book is full of repeated admissions (and rejections) of his own biases and blind spots, and Hessler has generous sympathy and admiration for the people he meets. He has a good ear and eye for humour, noting the “Pentium Intel Inside” stickers frequently adorning (yes) the rear fenders of Fuling bicycles, or the English names chosen by his students: House, Yellow, Lazy, Soddy, Ker, Pen, Coconut, or Silence Hill, and boys named Daisy and Rebecca. Towards the end of his second year, there is a sudden enthusiasm among students to adopt Western surnames, as well, and Willie begins signing his papers as “William Jefferson Clinton”. Mo, meanwhile, class monitor and Party secretary and the liveliest of the young men, looks for help from the Americans. They cannot help suggesting that he should be called Mo Money, and he loves it, the beginning of a series of inside jokes and general intercultural weirdness. He and Adam laugh with their students, grieve at their losses and hardships, and introduce more than a little anarchy and delight into their studies of English.

Peter Hessler and “Ho Wei”, his Chinese name, in one of the book’s most intriguing and revealing personal sidebars, even become separate personas. Each has a desk in the apartment, one for Ho Wei and his rigorous study of Chinese and the other for Pete, the American writer and teacher. The introspective Hessler becomes Ho Wei each time he goes to town, a gregarious, talkative and, because of his linguistic shortcomings, rather lovably buffoonish character to the restaurant owners, merchants and shady ladies of the town. He is honoured for his (too them, incredible) achievement in language, though it is also a source of fun. Ho Wei is adopted by the Huangs, proprietors of the noodle restaurant where he eats at least once most days, including for a Chinese New Year meal that feels like the most wonderful supper of his life. When he goes back to the apartment, he tosses his journal on Pete’s desk.

One of the amazing features of Hessler’s two years is his openness, his willingness to accept his environment and its people on their terms, not his. To an impressive degree, he avoids judgement. Still, of course, there were irritants, especially the constant and often rude “Halloooooos”, mainly from young men, one day followed by a sausage being thrust in his face, and a shouted “Chi, chi, chi!” (Eat, eat, eat!). Hessler snaps, armed as he finally is with the verbal skill to return the abuse, but later cannot justify it even to himself: “I had been educated at Princeton and Oxford, and yet for some reason I felt the need to face off with a Sichuanese shoeshine man until the locals said he had no culture” (a substantial insult). Having lived three years in a much more foreigner-friendly time and place, I couldn’t help but sympathize with his rage, but admired again the sense of proportion and fairness that Hessler brings to his accounts.

Rivertown is 400 pages of dense observation, but it is a deeply pleasurable and compelling read, I think especially for those living as ex-pats in this fascinating, rapidly changing country. For him, and therefore for us, “Fuling…was a human place, brightened by decency and scarred by flaws, and…for two years I had never been bored”. Nor was I, in reading about them, and even better news is that Hessler has followed this first book with two others I’m looking forward to. The 2006 Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present follows up, among many other things, on some of his former students, while 2010’s Country Driving: A Journey From Farm to Factory recounts his epic trip in a rental car from the northwest of China to its super-industrial southeast. I’m on board for those, and I’m looking beyond, too. Hessler is in Cairo now. He’s learning Arabic, and I expect to hunker down one day with a new book — probably still a manual transmission model — to learn more about the Middle East than I’ve ever imagined knowing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *