My rating: 3 of 5 stars
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2001) by Peter Hessler is an evocative, sometimes disturbing portrayal of Hessler’s time spent as one of the first two Americans in fifty years to live and work as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching literature at a university in Fuling, China from 1996 to 1997.
Hessler at the time was twenty-seven years old and learning to speak Mandarin for the first time. His wit and ability to recapture otherwise mundane events and reform them into a moving glimpse of China’s daily life before the nation joined the WTO and opened its doors for the Olympic Games gives the reader a sense of familiarity and immediacy unlike most other nonfiction books about China.
River Town, however, must be read in its full scope by understanding the writer who presents the events to us, the readers. Despite being a captivating tale by the young wonderer/wanderer who graduated from Princeton and studied at Oxford for two years only to later cross political and cultural boundaries in China, I have to stop and question whether or not this book would have ever been published if it were not for Hessler’s socio-economic and familial ties to New York and its publishing industry. Nepotism is never practical nor is it legal, but it exists in the world—this is fact.
At the time of publication, Hessler’s sister Angela—who he dedicates Oracle Bones (2006), his next book, to—worked for the Wall Street Journal while his mother worked for Columbia University. It is hard to imagine anyone else in the same situation—traveling to China and writing stories, etc., but without insider connections to New York’s finest publishers—would be given a second glance at even a fraction of consideration for publishing this kind of diary-type book. Without Hessler’s Ivy-leagued background and inside relations in New York, I doubt this book would have seen the light of day.
Why even bring up Hessler’s pedigree? Why mention his uptown family? Why mention the connections to New York publishing at all?
When reading this book as a native speaker of English who is highly trained in the arts of writing and literature, I’m stunned to stop and see the elites smirking and making fun of the lower-classes in China.
Hessler often lacks sympathy with the local Chinese. He certainly is not sentimental, and that comes from the restraint in writing more than it does from his personal character. Hessler at times blatantly lies to his Chinese counterparts and has little to no compunction for doing so. As the book closes it is hard not to imagine Hessler the Writer reporting back to the elites in New York and the U.S. and perversely quipping on the episodic rituals of the ordinary Chinese daily life.
Incredibly accurate, Hessler does recreate the life and landscapes in China during his stay in the late 1990s. He writes well and captures the essence of the land only to end many passages with a quip which might go unnoticed by a speed reader:
“To travel through Sichuan countryside is to feel the history, the years of work that have shaped the land, the sheer weight of humanity on patches of earth that have been worked in the same way for centuries. But Sichuanese cities are often timeless. They look too dirty to be new, and too uniform and ugly to be old” (p 30).
Instead of stopping after the sentence which begins “But Sichuanese cities”, Hessler continues with that last remark calling the city “dirty” and “ugly”, ultimately descending his character into that pit of aesthetic godhood who decides the beauty in the eyes of the beholder. I do not question Hessler’s accuracy, but I do question the necessity of these details at this place—and he often does this throughout the book: holding China in the light of pure reflection only to quickly turn and taint the memory with unwarranted criticism. And that’s when I cringe.
Hessler keeps going, diving down into his own psyche and removal from the Ivy-league life he escaped from, and finds a connection to the university students at the Fuling Teachers College where he taught literature.
Commenting on one of his Chinese students essays — I often question if he had their permission to use/quote their writing/ideas in his book; at one point he says he decided to keep their essays and not hand them back (?) — Hessler remarks on the differences between Oxford and Fuling styles of analysis in literature, where I imagine a professor at Harvard would sniffle and snort upon hearing this kind of report from abroad:
“You couldn’t have said something like that at Oxford,” remarks Hessler on part of his student’s essay he reprinted, “You couldn’t simply say: I don’t like Hamlet because I think he’s a lousy person. Everything had to be more clever than that; you had to recognize Hamlet as a character in a text, and then you had to dismantle it accordingly, layer by layer, not just the play itself but everything that had ever been written about it. You had to consider what all the other critics had said, and the accumulated weight of their knowledge and nonsense sat heavily on the play…
“As a student, that was all I wanted—a brief moment when a simple and true thought flashed across the mind: I don’t like this character. This is a good story…
“This was what I was looking for as a student—some sign that literature was still enjoyable, that people read for pleasure and that this was important in and of itself. In Fuling, however, there was no question that the students enjoyed what they read, and I realized that for the rest of my life I would try to think of literature as they saw it. Sometimes, when they were working on an assignment and I was looking out at the Wu River, I’d smile and think to myself: We’re all refugees here” (p 46-47).
From the above passage one can accurately guess that Hessler would not last long in academia. A refugee, indeed. Hessler returns to China and later works for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing (his sister Angela again?) and then becomes the first official correspondent for The New Yorker, and more of that is told in his next book, Oracle Bones.
As much as I liked River Town — honestly, I did, because the stories therein reminded me of my own stories I’ve often experienced across Asia in South Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Bali and China — as an unbiased reader, however, I stop to question the character of this writer and his often hidden and misguided intent on sharing certain selected events from his brief time in Fuling. River Town, more often than not, reads like a journal from an Ivy-leaguer who knows no better, and parts of the text display and remind readers of this viewpoint.
Often when Hessler is telling of a beautiful moment, a slip comes at the end like a sliver in the eye to reveal something deeper, darker from the Western world’s inherent inculcation on Hessler of its own traditions and values which causes me to stop and re-evaluate what has been written and read.
To extrapolate, when Hessler describes Fuling and ends with a hint of the imperialist glaring down from his high palace-like balcony — it must be inserted here that the Chinese gave Hessler a cadre’s apartment, one of the richest and nicest in all the city — and sees Fuling as something that could belong to him:
“Downtown Fuling looked good from my balcony. Often I’d gaze across the Wu River at the maze of streets and stairways, listening to the distant hum of daily life, and I’d think about the mysteries that were hidden in the river town. I wanted to investigate all of it—I wanted to go down to the docks and watch the boats; I wanted to talk with the stick-stick soldiers; I wanted to explore the network of tangled staircases that ran through the old part of town. I longed to figure out how the city worked and what the people thought, especially since no foreigner had done this before. It wasn’t like living in Beijing or Shanghai, where there were plenty of waiguoren who had discovered what the city had to offer. As far as foreigners were concerned, Fuling was our city—or it would be once we figured it out” (p 62).
As if Fuling and its people could ever be “figured out”. Hessler the Refugee is seeking a refuge in the old river town along the Wu and Yangtze Rivers. The question is: will he ever find solace for what he discovers about himself during his time in China?
But this is expected from Hessler who is still reporting on the darker, nastier sides of non-American cities. Still a writer for The New Yorker, one of Hessler’s recent articles is from Cairo about a troglodyte who digs in other people’s trash and then reports the findings to Hessler, who then writes and publishes an article called “Tales of the Trash” or, for another example, he publishes another article called “Learning to Speak Lingerie” to make a fat paycheck by reporting on the mundane. Again Hessler in his expensive apartment in Egypt looks down from his window and watches the beggars and lower-class struggle and strive and burn and dive and persist while he reports back to New York and to Americans who might foolishly think: things are bad here in America but at least it’s not that bad.
Let me make something clear, if it is not already, for everyone around the world reading this: there are beggars and trashmen and troglodytes and the poor in every country of this good world; these people who are stuck in poverty (an economic trait/stigma known as a “Poverty Trap” according to Professor Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University) are also included un-willfully into nepotistic systems favoring the wealthy which support this kind of elitist attitude—looking down from above—and this is nothing new nor is it interesting to read about in The New Yorker or elsewhere.
Now the learned, academic side of my brain rises, testing the passionate side of my spirit, and reminds me that this kind of study is legit—yes, studying garbage to recreate “truths” to reveal various aspects (say economic or socio-political or even cultural) to society is a legitimate form of study and I have attended at least one conference on this discipline.
But I am not impressed. This world is truly strange—yes—but Cairo has more to offer than trash and lingerie.
As an American, however, living and working in Asia and reading River Town about another American living and working in Asia, it is hard not to cheer for Hessler and his struggles, albeit superficial when compared to the hardships the Chinese citizens have had to face over the last half decade.
In one section of River Town called “Running”, Hessler describes the day he joined a city-wide race in Fuling which would raise him to infamy in the eyes of the locals. As a competitor myself, I cannot blame Hessler for what happened next, nor would I want to:
“To lead any big race is a strange feeling. People speak of the loneliness of running, but I’ve always felt that the sport is lonely only in the races, and especially when the pack breaks and you find yourself alone in front. In the pack you usually feel some solidarity with the other athletes, even though you are still competing, but in front there are no illusions. That’s when the race becomes a chase—one man against the rest of the field—and I’ve always felt that this is the loneliest feeling in the world. And it’s even lonelier when you are the only foreigner in a field of more than two thousand, and all along the course of spectators are calling out ‘Waiguoren, waiguoren, waiguoren.’ Out-of-country person, out-of-country person, out-of-country person.
“I looked back. Behind me I could see the rest of the field—an endless stream of people, a black-haired mob” (p 91).
As you may have guessed, Hessler the American easily won the race—which probably had never been done before in the history of Fuling’s races, or China’s for that matter.
Again, however, Hessler imposes the imperialist within upon the meek city folk of Fuling by demolishing their pride in the race and looking back on the scene to call them a “black-haired mob”. One can begin to see Hessler the Cynic peep out from behind the thin veneer of the sweet-and-innocent mask of being the lone foreign-victim in a Communist country.
A few pages later Hessler describes another mob, which could have easily been in South Korea or Vietnam:
“This same instinct led the mobs that gathered around the accident victims, staring passively but doing nothing to help. Crowds often formed in Fuling, but I rarely saw them act as a group motivated by any sort of moral sense. I had witnessed that far more often in individualistic America, where people wanted a community that served the individual, and as a result they sometimes looked at a victim and thought: I can imagine what that feels like, and so I will help” (p 112).
Hessler is spot on in this memory. Mobs are common in Asia, where people stand for countless minutes watching and doing little to help the injured.
In Hong Kong—a few days ago for me as I write these words—on August 8, 2015, which was the hottest day in the city’s history, a 62-year-old man died of heatstroke; he had collapsed thirty meters from the hospital entrance. It took medics over twenty minutes to move him out of the sun and into the hospital.
River Town is filled, however, with beautiful moments and offers a rare insight into Asia and China for anyone who has never traveled there. But Hessler is at his best when the imperialist, pro-Westerner has fallen asleep and allows China to be what it is, as he does here:
“The Chinese writer Lu Xun once remarked: ‘People with good memories are liable to be crushed by the weight of suffering. Only those with bad memories, the fittest to survive, can live on’” (p 171)…
“Two or three times a week I stopped to chat with Ke Xianlong, the forty-seven-year-old photographer in South Mountain Gate Park, and the more I got to know him the more I was surprised at his political views. He was completely uneducated but he had interesting ideas; sometimes he talked about the need for more democracy and other political parties, and these were views I never heard on campus. Once I mentioned Hong Kong, but he simply looked bored—it meant nothing to him.
“‘If Hong Kong hadn’t been British for so many years,’ he said, ‘it wouldn’t be as rich as it is today. If it had been Chinese, it would have had the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and all the other problems, and those would have affected its development. We would have ruined it like everything else’…
Hessler remarks how different these ideas sound from others, often more educated, in Fuling and China. Ke Xianlong responds,
“‘Of course! They have those political classes every week—they have to believe whatever the Communist Party says. We Old Hundred Names can have our own ideas. I don’t have to study that stuff they study in the college.
“I realized that as a thinking person his advantage lay precisely in his lack of formal education. Nobody told him what to think, and thus he was free to think clearly.
“It wasn’t the sort of revelation that inspires a teacher” (p 173).
River Town does one of many things well: it helps the reader question the norms of society by dropping the reader into a land often misunderstood by outsiders.
When reading nonfiction, readers should question everything: the selection of events, the authenticity of the characters, the accuracy of the history, and the writer’s own persona should also carry some weight. Reflecting on the poet Lu Xun, readers should also question if Hessler has a good or bad memory.
To question things and people and places and events does not belong to the world of the Easterner or the Westerner; instead, curiosity and close examination belong to human nature, and in part that is how humans learn to evolve.
River Town will certainly help readers question what they know about China, and at the end of it—perhaps, just perhaps—a few of those readers just might fall in love with the people and the place that have finally decided to open its doors to the outside world.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 440,000+ followers