Review: River Town — Two Years on the Yangtze

I realize I’m about a decade late posting a review of Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, but it was only recently that I finally took the time to read it.

I can’t be certain why it took me so long to pick up Hessler’s seminal work, but I think it was due to the weight of it. Not the book itself mind you, though a bit weighty for a travelogue, it reads quick and handles well. Rather, because for any post-Y2K laowai, Hessler is definitively known as the laowai. Next to Mark Rowswell, few foreigners in modern China are as well known.

I suppose I was worried that reading Hessler’s experiences might colour my own. Lord knows I’m susceptible to such things, as it took me more than a couple years to stop spouting off facts learned from Jung Chang as gospel (worry not Changites, when last I visited an expat pub the doctrine was alive and well).

When I came to China in 2005, River Town was the book to read about living and teaching in this country. Like Wild Swans and Mr. China — it was all but handed out in the laowai welcome package. In the years since though, it slowly drifted further and further down my list of books to read, until it was largely forgotten. That is until I was browsing the impressively stocked bookshelves of a friend of mine recently. The title jumped out at me as noticeably absent from the glut of words I’ve read about China since moving here, and I had no handy excuses for avoiding it any longer.

What struck me as most surprising about the book was its continued relevance, 10 years since being published and nearly 15 since experienced. Daily I’m bombarded with how fast China’s rising/developing/growing/building/expanding, and yet so much of the way China was in 1997 is just as true in 2011. Just as likely, so much of it was also the same in 1911, and will still be in 2097. It’s a testament to the complexity of the country that never-ending development and timeless non-change can exist so roughly blended.

It was interesting to read Hessler’s descriptions of a pre-Three Gorges Dam Yangtze, something completely unknown to me, and then go into the following — something I’m sure most foreigners in 2011 China can relate to all too well:

One night near the end of the holiday I ordered five kebabs from Mr. Zhang, who invited me to sit on his stool, as he always did. A few of the other vendors came over to chat, as well as a number of passersby who stopped to stare at the waiguoren.

After a while the attention died down. I finished the kebabs and sat there reading the Chongqing Evening Times. I felt somebody come close, and then he leaned forward and shouted “Hahh-lloooo!” in my face. He shouted as loudly as he could, and after that he laughed. I didn’t look up–there was no reason to acknowledge people like that.

I felt him move away and I assumed that he had left; usually the people who harassed me were best handled by being ignored. But a moment later he returned, grabbing one of the sausages from Mr. Zhang’s barbecue stand. He shoved the sausage past my nwspaper and into my face. “Chi! Chi! Chi!” he shouted. “Eat! Eat! Eat!”

Hessler’s Fuling could be any second- or third-tier Chinese city. The place itself seems only peripherally different than any number of Chinese cities I’ve visited. I think this “sameness” is an integral part of modern China, where 30 years of glass and steel built on top of 30 years of communist concrete has forced much of the differentiating culture of a place out of the surrounding environment and into the local customs, food and dialects.

At the heart of it though, River Town isn’t about a small city on the set-to-rise Yangtse, but about a foreigner experiencing China with fresh eyes. There were many before Hessler, and many many more after; and I think most all of them, time regardless, could relate to the vignettes he skillfully relays. Whether the stoic absolutism of dutiful students, the welcoming smile and big dreams of the local noodle shop owner, or the optimistic patriotism of a career-minded party member; there are numerous characters in the book we’ve all met.

It’s also an interesting read knowing a bit about what Hessler has gone on to do, and write, since. With two other critically acclaimed books under his belt, and a slew of articles penned under the mastheads of some of the most prestigious periodicals around, it’s appealing to have an image of him not as a bestselling author, foreign correspondent, and old China hand; but as an FOB laowai teaching in China’s hinterlands.

From start to finish I truly enjoyed River Town, and can clearly see why it was so eagerly recommended in my early days in China, just as I will be continuing to recommend it. It is aging well, and has encouraged me to check out Hessler’s other books to see how they compare.

Next up though I continue my visiting of books I should have read long go by switching to the other writer in the Hessler home and reviewing Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls.