Through the decades that I have now been associated with China, I have met many foreigners who have had the privilege to live and work in the middle of it all, and not skating across the surface as I have tended to do. In many cases, I have urged them to keep a diary, write it down, leave a record of how China looks through foreigners' eyes from the other side of the curtain. I remember not one who did it. But then comes River Town by Peter Hessler, and finally the book I yearned for finally exists.
He writes from the perspective of a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in a small town called Fuling on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River in the mid-1990s. But the place, the role, the timing are not of great relevance. The key is that he bothered to throw himself into the confusing mess that is China and tried to make some sense out of it, leaving his preconceptions at the door.
The China he reveals is one that has infinite shades of gray. Which is the one that I know too.
He rejoices at the fact that his students actively enjoy classical English poetry, relating to Shakespeare and Beowulf with a freshness and ennui-free approach that Westerners, including myself, would today find impossible.
He complains about the stilted thinking processes which infect so much of China's education and political systems, but admirably analyzes why things are as they are, how the weight of history bears down on China and its people in a way that from the outside a foreigner can never fully appreciate.
With the help of significant research, he discovers the deeper truths of Chinese drinking culture, the games, stratagems and social manipulations that accompany every single sip of grain alcohol ever taken at any Chinese banquet table.
These are just a few of the insights. But to have achieved such a deep understanding in just two years is a measure of the humility and understanding with which he addressed the opportunity. Fuling is east of Chongqing and west of the Three Gorges which are currently being flooded as the level of the reservoir behind the dam rises towards its maximum height in 2009. When Hessler was there, the dam construction work was in full swing but the impact in terms of rising water levels had not yet been seen. He looks in depth at the question of why the people of Fuling don't seem to care about the negative potential of this massive project, and his conclusion, in brief, is that after the massive changes of the past few decades, the dam is within the ballpark of acceptable change and could on balance provide more positive improvements to the lives of ordinary people.
At the beginning of the book, he speaks no Chinese at all, and gradually picks it up. The more Chinese one speaks the better, of course, but his observations in the early parts of the book, when he is effectively a deaf-mute in terms of most of Fuling, confirm for me the view that language is simply a tool and that true understanding can be achieved in spite of it when necessary.
There is a serenity to this book, a timelessness to the narrative and observations which transcend the fact that China is changing so fast. It is destined to be one of the standard works for anyone trying to figure out this fascinating country.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, by Peter Hessler, published by Perennial, ISBN: 0060953748. Available on amazon.com at US$10.50.