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River Town by Peter Hessler

The greatest disservice a reviewer could do to River Town would be to simply summarize the story. Imagine it: a young American Peace Corps volunteer is assigned to teach at a college in an obscure Chinese city. He has no background in China studies. He speaks no Mandarin. His stay in the city lasts two years, and in the book he later writes he tells us about everything that happened to him.

River Town by Peter Hessler
River Town, Peter Hessler (John Murray General Publishing Division, March 2002; Harper Perennial, May 2006)

The truth is, even for a reviewer who spent two years himself in a Chinese city, and who wrote a book about everything that happened, this sounds a bit dull. Factor in the Peace Corps component, which is left largely unself-examined in River Town and the prospect of reading Peter Hessler’s account of life on the Yangtze river seems unappealing, to say the least.

Which only proves that you can’t judge a book by its jacket copy. For every one of its 400 pages, this is a smart and humane walkabout in contemporary China. For about 200 pages, it is as insightful a foray into the Chinese worldview as any tome published by a professional sinologist or foreign correspondent in the last decade. That those pages of observation are mixed in with long sections of good, if unoriginal, takes on daily living in a small college may keep River Town from having the influence it should.

Peter Hessler is not your average American kid. When he volunteers for the Corps, he has already earned English degrees from Princeton and Oxford. He is also a published writer. Though he uses his literary training mostly in his teaching, he also imbues his narrative with a sensibility that is at once learned and curious. He is, in short, an excellent guide into Sichuan province.

The river town in question is Fuling. By Chinese standards, its 300,000 residents make it a bloated village. On either side of the Yangtze are the terraced hills of an ancient landscape; a few hundred kilometers away lies the Three Gorges Dam, still under construction. Thus, the city is positioned between the past and future of China, and its rhythms and attitudes are a far better reflection of how the country’s population is grappling with so much change than the international beats of Shanghai or Beijing.

Peter Hessler and a fellow Peace Corp worker are the first Americans to live in Fuling in a half- century. They arrive in 1996 and are immediately made welcome. Accounts of epic banquet drinking and cross-culturalmiscommunications allow for a genial opening. Right away, we sense that the author is a sharp observer. He is also funny and self-deprecating, core qualities for writing about on-the-ground encounters with Chinese.

The narrative is full of such encounters. Peter Hessler sketches his students with obvious affection, and offers chunks of their essays and stories, composed in earnest but tortured English. He is clear-eyed about howdifferent they are to him. If the students dislike something their teacher says, especially a comment relating to China, they subject the foreigner to the “great head bow.”

“Whenever that happened,” Peter Hessler says, “I realized that I was not teaching forty-five individual students with forty-five individual ideas. I was teaching a group, and these were moments when the group thought as one, and a group like that was a mob, even if it was silent and passive.”

As the American grows more confident in Mandarin, he ventures into Fuling. By establishing a routine of roadside restaurants and tea houses, he is able to befriend a range of people. Matter of fact, by the end of River Town he has made genuine friends, and through these experiences outside the gates of academia he is able to tell extraordinary stories and draw out truths.

His meditation on the thin divide between a crowd and a mob in Fuling is typical of the kind of thinking the book does so well. Unlike in the West, where people might empathize with the victim of an accident on the basis that they know what it feels like, the average Chinese seems to instead think: “This is not my brother, or my friend, or anyone I know, and it is interesting to watch him suffer.”

Peter Hessler earns these comments. To truly engage with China, one must think hard about hard things. The criteria for an outsider taking on the country include compassion, humility, and a willingness to work diligently to understand concepts and values that you may never quite agree with. Like most good books about the place, River Town is by obligation outspoken, angry, whimsical, and humble.

It is also too long. China watchers, especially those who’ve taught there, will enjoy each and every detail the narrative offers up. More armchair travellers, however, may find the energy uneven and the subjects of Peter Hessler’s attention of varying degrees of interest. His travels around the rest of the country, for example, are unexceptional, and I’m not sure he needed to share with us his father’s visit to Fuling.

But then, China is so hard to pin down, never mind to sum up. Add this terrific title to the shelf of straining, overlong books that engage with the Middle Kingdom.

Canadian Charles Foran is the author of three novels and three non-fiction works. His most recent work is House on Fire.