River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler. HarperCollins, 402 pp., $26.00.
April 22, 2001        

China’s economy is, or will soon be, the world’s second largest. Sometime in the 21st century, probably, it will overtake America’s. China is already the prime focus of American military-strategic planning, and vice versa. So far the cultural traffic has taken the form of reciprocal larceny: America looted Chinese high culture in the late 19th century, and China pirated American mass culture in the late 20th. But this is changing: the cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the mainland are poised to take the world by storm, while American high-culture impresarios will find the Chinese hungry to make up for a hundred years lost to civil war and Maoist lunacy.

Internationally, the story line of the 21st century will be the rapprochement (or if we screw up, the conflict) of China and the United States; everything else will be a sideshow. Getting to know each other will not suffice to prevent tensions between the two societies. But it’s bound to help, if only as a check on both governments’ ineptitude and propaganda. Which makes Peter Hessler’s “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze” as useful as it is entertaining and affecting.

After graduating Princeton and Oxford, Hessler worked from 1996 to 1998 for the Peace Corps. With another American volunteer, he taught English at the Teachers’ College in Fuling, a small city (by Chinese standards, that is – only 200,000 people) on the Yangtze River, in Sichuan Province. Despite the official auspices, he seems to have gone less as an ambassador of goodwill than as an aspiring writer. From the reader’s point of view, this is all to the good: there are no homilies to endure and no censoring of negative impressions. When Hessler wins through to understanding and affection for his hosts (he doesn’t always), it’s a good deal more convincing than an a priori, ideologically motivated solidarity would have been.

The Chinese certainly didn’t make it easy for him, at first anyway. They seem to have treated the innocent “waiguoren,” or foreigner, like a freak. Hessler was pursued by children shrieking “big nose” or “foreign devil,” surrounded and poked at by adults who cackled over his early attempts to speak Chinese, and scolded by his language tutor for America’s role in the Opium War 160 years ago. His mail, his movements, and his classes were monitored by the authorities; and his textbooks were Party-line pablum. Even the physical environment was a strain: the din of car horns was maddening, the air pollution so heavy that he could not blow his nose without blackening his handkerchief.

But, young and resilient, Hessler persevered. As his Chinese improved, the citizens of Fuling became friendlier. “The city itself was teaching me the language,” he writes. As he sat in teahouses and noodle restaurants, people would stop for a chat; soon they were inviting him home. It appears that xenophobia and warm hospitality are opposite sides of the Chinese coin. These urban encounters, along with his classroom experiences and occasional travels, furnish the scores of sometimes droll, sometimes poignant, always vivid portraits and vignettes that make up “River Town.”

His students were respectful, hard-working, and (the author does not use the word, but an American reader can scarcely refrain from doing so) brainwashed. Every so often, an offhand remark of Hessler’s – about history or democracy or race relations – would contradict the official line. Invariably an iron curtain of embarrassed silence descended. “The students stared at their desks. That was what always happened when you broke a taboo – there was an instant hush and you found yourself looking at forty-five circles of black hair as the students dropped their heads. … As a foreign teacher you learned to respond to the moments when the heads bowed, and mostly you learned that it was impossible to criticize China in any way.”

On the other hand, the directness of their response to English literature, unencumbered by the literary-critical theory that had nearly spoiled it for Hessler, startled and moved him. And more: “As time went on it almost depressed me. The Chinese had spent years [i.e., the Maoist years] deliberately and diligently destroying every valuable aspect of their traditional culture, and yet with regard to enjoying poetry Americans had arguably done a much better job of finishing ours off. How many Americans could recite a poem, or identify its rhythm? Every one of my Fuling students could recite at least a dozen Chinese classics by heart.”

Hessler quotes a fair amount of his students’ writing. Some of it is extremely funny, in much the same way his Chinese must have sounded to them. And he turns his student self into a character: Ho Wei, a hapless American trying to learn Chinese. Ho Wei’s teacher is very severe with him until he disarms her with his (carefully assumed and characteristically Chinese) modesty after Peter Hessler wins a college-wide athletic event. It’s a nice bit of narrative play.

The slender, stern Teacher Liao is one of many finely sketched personages. There is Father Li, a dignified, elderly Catholic priest who tells Hessler some heartbreaking stories about the Cultural Revolution; and Dai Mei, a bouncy 14-year-old celebrating the Day of Pure Brightness with her family on White Flat Mountain, who complains to Hessler that her father is “very, very, very feudal!” There are wonderful set pieces: a boat trip down the Yangtze to the Three Gorges; a hellish 50-hour trip on a packed train; an altercation with a street vendor; a drinking contest at an English Department banquet. And there are astute but unobtrusive reflections: on face, on Chinese crowds, on “collective thinking,” on “democracy with Chinese characteristics.”

“River Town” is a pleasurable book and, for readers (like this one) who know little about China, an instructive one. American readers may also experience an extra-literary pleasure. I, at least, felt unexpectedly proud and patriotic watching these two plucky, good-humored young Americans overcome much deep-rooted (not always unjustified) Chinese fear and mistrust. It makes you wonder: what if we’d sent out more Peace Corps volunteers over the years and kept our politicians and diplomats at home?