The most important thing you need to more fully experience and appreciate another culture is an open mind. And Peter Hessler has one. Because of that he was able to teach English and navigate the culture of Fuling, a small river town along the Yangtze River, and report back to his readers what it was like in a very rich way. Hessler was a volunteer English teacher in the Peace Corps for two years, serving at the Fuling Teachers College in Sichuan Province, China from 1996-1998. In River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, he recounts his experiences and shares his insightful observations.
This book resonated strongly with me. My wife is from Sichuan and most of what Hessler writes about in the book was from his experience there. We visited Chongqing and took the Yangtze River cruise from Chongqing to Yichang in 2011. So, when Hessler talks about cruising down the Yangtze through the Three Gorges, the Three Gorges Dam, and what it is like in other river towns like Fengdu, I can see it so much more vividly because of having been there. The breathtaking scenery of the Three Gorges, the enormity of the Three Gorges Dam, and the history of the Ghost City in Fengdu were such rich experiences for me.
This book has something for everybody. Above all else, it is just plain great storytelling. One aspect of the book is political. It covers all of the problems that two foreign English teachers faced as they navigated the Chinese higher education system, which is heavily influenced and controlled by the Chinese government. One hot button political issue covered was the decision to build the Three Gorges Dam, with many of the mind that the economic gains realized from building the dam outweigh the ecological risks, the relocation of over a million people, and the destruction of historical places and artifacts. And many are of the mind that the gains don’t outweigh the losses. The book is also a good starting point for someone wanting to learn about Chinese history because it touches on a number of important historical events of the 20th Century including the May 4th Movement, Nanjing Massacre, Korean War, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Cold War, Tiananmen Square, Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening, and the return of Hong Kong to China. One fascinating thing I didn’t know about before reading this book was the Third Line Project. Hessler pointed out that the Third Line Project occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s and involved moving much of the Chinese defense industry from Shanghai to remote areas in Sichuan and Guizhou at the direction of Chairman Mao. This was to make the factories less susceptible to a feared nuclear attack by the United States.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze is also an excellent travel story about Hessler’s riverboat rides up and down the Yangtze and the towns along the way from Chongqing to Yichang. It also covers his hikes through the mountains along the Wu River. One of my favorite things about the book is the prose Hessler uses to describe his surroundings as he travels, such as this passage from page 341:
“The nighttime river is peaceful. The summer stars are out tonight; the Big Dipper glows steady above the gently rocking boat, and a quarter-moon hangs bright in the southern sky. The Yangtze is black except for the lights that streak across its water. By now there are few homes along the banks, and even fewer with their lights on. Most of the light comes from the river-from the low strips of sandstone along shore, faintly luminescent in the evening, and from the dinghies and the shore markers. Red lights blink on the south side of the river, green on the north; the night boats pass between, their searchlights sweeping silently across the water.”
This passage really evoked for me how it was pitch black up on the deck of the boat at night on our Yangtze cruise. And then we would pass from the darkness on the river that Hessler describes to the lights of a place like Hanzhou, a district of Chongqing Municipality with a population of approximately 1.6 million. The bright neon signs, in Chinese characters, shining brightly at night in the city seemed so striking and exotic to me at the time.
What Hessler did best in the book though was to capture, as good as any foreigner could have, the lives of the ordinary Chinese people, and particularly the Sichuanese, at that time in history. He was able to do this because he went there with an open mind and he was genuinely empathetic to his students and the local people. He learned Chinese and that made a big difference in his ability to be a good teacher and to reach the people, including his students, and get them to share their thoughts and life experiences with him.
Initially, Hessler struggled to learn Chinese and to adjust to life in Fuling. However, with many hours of study and determination he was able to learn Chinese pretty well by his second year. Another Peace Corps volunteer, Adam Meier, served with Hessler and they were the first waiguoren, foreigners, in Fuling in 50 years. At first, it was hard for them to adapt to everyone staring at them whenever they went out in Fuling, with a few even shouting “Hah-loo” in a mocking manner. Everywhere they went they drew large crowds of people who just wanted to get a look at the foreigners. Hessler and Meier learned to handle this with grace and understanding. It reminded me of visiting Chongqing and having so many people stare protractedly at my white face. It was a bit unnerving at first but I quickly came to see that they were just curious because even in a huge city like Chongqing white faces are not an everyday sight. Everyone was really quite friendly and I never felt threatened.
Hessler understood his role well. In the last chapter of the book he says:
“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.”
One random thing I learned from the book that I just can’t quit laughing about is a Sichuanese insult. In the Sichuan dialect you say Gui’ erzi, which means “son of a turtle.” My wife tells that the meaning of this can range from a fairly minor insult to a fairly major one, like “son of a bitch”, depending on the context.
I enjoyed this book very much and would highly recommend it to you.
Other books by Peter Hessler:
Strange Stones: Dispatches From East and West
Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory