Book Review: River Town

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
by Peter Hessler
HarperCollins, 2001

First, I read Peter Hessler’s articles in The New Yorker.  Then, I encountered the author last month on one of his periodic visits to his alma mater.  Finally, I got around to reading his first book – and discovered what I’d been missing all this time.

River Town is en exceptional book that describes the two years that Hessler spent teaching English literature in Fuling, Chonqing as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Since my encounters with Hessler had taken place in reverse order, I couldn’t help but compare his .  The book has a fresher quality to it, for Hessler is is younger and perhaps a bit brasher than he is now.  It combines the personal development of a young man fresh out of college with China’s still-early steps into the larger world.

The China of 1996 is vastly different from the China of today, and Fuling is a long way from Shenzhen or Shanghai.  The teachers at his college still enjoyed the iron rice bowl, and his students were still looking forward to receiving job assignments through the central planning bureaucracy.  Indeed, 1996 is so early that his students were barely grazing against the one-child policy.  Most of his students had siblings, and those who were not the first-born had cost their parents only a few hundred renminbi in fines.  Their siblings were more expensive, costing as much as 10000 RMB.  Then, as he roams the countryside, Hessler meets a family whose third child was punished by having their housed razed.

In other words, Hessler recounts the tightening enforcement of the one-child policy through the youths he meets.  Such seamless interweaving of personal narrative and government policies is a trademark of his writing, and one of the main reasons why Hessler’s work is such a pleasure to read.  He also makes sure to give the reader a sense of the history that has built up in China, layer upon layer.  The carved fish at Baiheliang had stayed intact for 1200 years, but they were to be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam and then lost as sediment eroded away the rock face.  Dam-boosters derided the idea of an underwater museum as a luxury that could not be afforded for a country as poor as China.  And, in a fitting coda, it turns out that the fish carvings are getting their underwater museum, after all.  The China of 2008 is much richer than the China of 1996.

Throughout his travels, Hessler keeps an open mind and tries to see things from his subjects’ perspectives.  Sometimes he finds himself in dangerous situations, as when a mob is incited against the waiguoren in their midst (he always uses the Chinese term).  But after escaping from these situations, he recovers his good humor.  This attitude seems to run in the family.  His dad visited for ten days, had a miserable first two days, got sick from the air pollution, but enjoyed himself immensely in the end.