REVIEW

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

by Peter Hessler (China 1996–98)
New York: HarperCollins, $26.00
416 pages
2001

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1965–66)

    TO EXPERIENCE CHINA GENUINELY is to undergo a profound personal change in awareness about the human story. To write coherently about this experience is possibly even more difficult than understanding this complicated and ancient culture. But in his “travel/memoir” River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler has delivered a tour de force. It is, in fact, one of the best books ever written about the Peace Corps experience.
         From late August 1996 to the summer of 1998, Hessler taught English, mostly literature, at Fuling Teachers College in Fuling, a “small” city (200,000 people) near the confluence of the Yangtze and Wu Rivers in Sichuan Province. Near the end of his tour, he celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday; he writes: “in some ways I felt much older.”
         China will do that to a person. Its a journey into history. One becomes aware, in mysterious, transcendental ways, of the timeless current of human affairs. And it is a difficult journey. A foreigner must contend with China’s centuries-old isolationism and distrust of weiguoren, or outsiders. In addition, a foreigner must struggle with one of the more difficult languages in the world just to speak to someone outside of academia. Add to these handicaps the Communist Party’s warnings to Chinese not to be too friendly with foreigners, and it is surprising that any outsider can really understand China.
         Hessler overcame these as much as anyone could possible hope to in such as short period. Part of his success is a tribute to his intelligence, but a good part is a tribute to his Yankee stubbornness. Instead of sticking closely to his college compound during the school months and taking government-sponsored tours during his vacation, Hessler spent his afternoons walking around the city, away from students and instructors who would naturally want to speak English. Most afternoons, he would walk into the city and spend a couple of hours at his favorite noodles restaurant talking to the local people. During his first summer break, he traveled alone to Yunan in Northern Shaanxi Province and into Xinjiang Province along the old Silk Road, living in hotels supposedly off limits to foreigners.
         But as a writer, Hessler is most effective when discussing his students. With a delicacy that reveals his deep respect for their struggles, Hessler records and comments on their journals. He writes that “there was an unpolished quality to the students that I had never seen before.” He continues:

    [In the U.S.] Education was a game and students played it, but in Fuling they hadn’t yet reached that point. Their intelligence was still raw — it smelled of the countryside, of sweat and muck, of night soil and ripening rapeseed and everything else that composed the Sichuanese farmland. And in their thoughts were flashes of the land, glimpses of the same sort of hard beauty that surrounded the teachers college.

    It’s difficult to avoid harsh cynicism when pointing out the great ironies of China. Hessler avoids this extreme with subtle but consistent humor. For example, in China there is little silence; and in Fuling, with its heavy stone buildings, concrete streets, and steep hills, the noise is amplified. But the distracting sounds did not come from traditional culture — the steady, loud chatter of people or the boat horns from the Yangtze and Wu Rivers. His adjustment was to the wonderful absurdity of automobile horns. He writes:

      Drivers in Fuling honked a lot . . . . Most of them were cabs, and virtually every cabby . . . . had rewired his horn so it was triggered by a contact point at the tip of the gearshift . . . . They honked at other cars, and they honked at pedestrians. They honked whenever they passed somebody, or whenever they were being passed themselves. They honked when nobody was passing, somebody might be considering it, or when the road was empty and there was nobody to pass but the thought of passing or being passed had just passed through the driver’s mind. Just like that, an unthinking reflex: the driver honked&Mac197;the other drivers and pedestrians were so familiar with the sound that they essentially didn’t hear it. Nobody reacted to horns anymore; they served no purpose. A honk in Fuling was like the tree falling in the forest — for all intents and purposes it was silent

    Beyond the humor, though, Hessler has created a monument to this courageous young generation who will lead China for the next fifty years. Hessler points out how his peasant students have catapulted generations ahead of the world of their parents who struggled through the Cultural Revolution. These young men and women possess the innate intelligence and ability to climb out of the muddy fields from behind an oxen into the technological wonders of modern life. One student with “a peasant’s quiet smile, and a peasant’s modest politeness” handles metaphor with a sophistication and tightness of a literary artist.

      I’m working in the fields. The ox suddenly becomes a machine with an ox head. So I finish my task ahead of time. Because of that I am recommended to be the leader of our town. Then I go to Beijing by air to report my deeds to President Jiang Zemin. He doesn’t believe it’s true, because he’s never seen a machine with an ox head. He orders that I be sent to prison. On my way to prison, my ox appears. It becomes a train with an ox head and . . . . 
           My fortune and my changing ox is closely connected.
           Fortunately I get back with the help of the train-like ox. I go into the town government office. The ox, now it is really an ox, follow me and murmurs something . . . . It turns into a computer which looks like an ox head. The screen shows: My young master, you are not suitable for politics. What you should do now is to go to school to learn more knowledge . . . .
           Perhaps for the ox’s advice I will abandoned farmwork for study.

    And there is more, much more to discover in this lyrical account of an American’s life in the middle of the Middle Kingdom. Most of it will turn the reader’s heart. I suspect it will change the reader’s view of contemporary China. Hessler offers us poignant stories of students and citizens.
         Hessler balances his praise with stories of silly Communist Party games. Everything he said in the classroom was reported to the Party leaders at the college. The Party tried to intimidate him by opening his mail regularly. In one case, his father had sent him a copy of a New York Times travel section which carried an article by Hessler. The Party had cut out just his article, leaving in the bio at the end.
         But even more significant, Hessler describes what I consider the key to understanding China today. He writes, “I came to realize that, although much of the [Party] propaganda still disgusted me, it wasn’t necessarily the most important issue. The slogans wouldn’t last forever — nothing in China did — but the children who were educated would stay that way, regardless of the country’s changes.”
         The reverence most Chinese, whether urban or rural, still feel for education is remarkable. Hessler writes about school children from poor peasant families “doing their homework on their families’ threshing platforms” for long hours daily. This experience led him to conclude: “Here I could see the point of my job — not just the literature I taught, but also the simple fact that for nearly two years I had a role in an education system that included children like this.“
         I heard echoes of my own teaching experiences in China throughout the book. Make no mistake about it: Hessler has written a masterpiece. Until now, Bill Holm’s Coming Home Crazy had been my own favorite of the few non-fiction accounts of experiencing China. No longer! This book is an award winner awaiting the opening of the envelope.

    Tony Zurlo is a poet/writer living in Arlington, TX. He has written books about China and Japan, and his newest book, The People of West Africa, will be published by Lucent Press in 2001.