Wednesday, November 21, 2012

River Town by Peter Hessler

'That book has such small print!'  Tracy, my hairdresser's assistant said.
'Yes, it's pretty long too,' I said, flicking through the 400 pages.

I've been wanting to read River Town by Peter Hessler for a couple of years now.  It came highly recommended to me by a scholar of Chinese literature I'd 'met' on twitter.   In her opinion it was the best book on China that she'd read.  I bought it at once, and since then  I've picked it up, weighed it up and then put it down again.  It seemed so long, so dense, and I'd had the feeling that it was going to be a worthy sort of tome - academic and very serious.

But last week I picked it up and started reading, and was surprised to find it was not what I thought at all.  Although it has serious things to say about China and Chinese society, it is not at all 'worthy' but written in an engaging, honest and witty style.  For instance, he describes how a phrase in an essay from a book he is required to use 'But we should not give up eating for fear of choking' comes to dominate each essay of the class regardless of subject - or whether it is appropriate.  And how, when he innocently encroached on sensitive subjects (e.g racism in China) he was met with a embarrassed silence and a room of lowered heads.  I learnt a lot with a great deal of pleasure.

In August 1996 Peter Hessler and Adam Meier arrived in Fuling in central China to teach English with the Peace Corps.  They spoke little Mandarin, and every time they visited Old Town Fuling were subjected to taunts and jeers from the locals.  Things were different inside Fuling Teachers College, but although they were eventually accepted by a few in the two years of their stay, they found that they never really lost their status as outsider or foreigner or waiguorin.

The other members of the English department have been warned to keep their distance from the Westerners, and the students, although they eventually become friendly and more open, do not become close.  Instead it is with the entrepreneurs of the Old Town, that are not members of the party and are less influenced by the state, that they find kindness and comradeship.  These characters: the Catholic priest, the owner of a local restaurant, and a teacher from the Chinese department are the subject of character studies at the end of chapters in the middle of the book.  They are members of the 'Old Hundred Names' (the common people or peasants) who are not meant to know anything or be responsible for anything. They are used to 'eating bitter' (experiencing hardships) and Peter Hessler learns just how hard their lives have been.  Other chapters are finished with 'character studies' of aspects of the landscape e.g. 'Raise the Flag Mountain' and the Wu River and are a insightful supplements to the chapters themselves.

Peter Hessler says his book is not a book about China as a whole, but a book about Fuling at the end of the twentieth century.  Fuling is a noisy dirty city: a visiting friend calculates that a cab driver sounds his horn thirty-seven times a minute, and when his father comes out to visit he quickly becomes frazzled  by the lack of sleep.  It is part of a valley complex that is due to be flooded when the Three Gorges Dam is built - and Peter Hessler deals with that too.  The locals view the markers indicating the extent of the new river water levels with pragmatism.  Instead of mourning the loss of wildlife and archaeological remains the people are generally content  at the thought of a clean new environment as they are rehoused.

He takes part in races, celebrations and spends special holidays with locals - noting with disappointment that the average Chinese family spends these days with their family in front of the TV (very much like the average British family in fact).  Mainly he stays in Fuling, although he sometimes takes the opportunity to travel to other parts of China in the holidays.  Like Fuschia Dunlop he is mistaken for an Uyghur in Xinxiang, and he too observes the difference in temperament between the excitable Uyghurs, who are of Turkic descent and the Han colonists.  However, Peter Hessler aligns himself, to some extent, with the Chinese whereas Fuschia Dunlop's sympathies seems to lie more with the Uyghurs.

It is a book I wish I'd read before making my visit to China in 2009.  I would have understood a lot more about the country, and would also appreciated it more.  Reading it now it makes me want to return to see how things have changed in the twenty years since the book was written.  In the meantime, I shall read another novel about China, Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama.


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