River Town – Two Years on the Yantze
by Peter Hessler (2001)
Reviewed by Graham Mulligan
I left a copy of this book in the apartment in Xiamen for teachers to read. The book is about the author’s 2-year stay in Fuling, Sichuan Province, in 1996-98, as part of a Peace Corps project to teach English and American literature to prospective teachers at the local Normal School. Hessler’s book is set in a city that is fated to be drowned by the rising waters of the Yangtze River 3 Gorges dam project. It is also about Hessler’s own journey into understanding China and its people, especially in the context of that period when Reform and Opening were still very new ideas and the Hong Kong handover was taking place. The book is essentially a diary with chapters that focus on individual characters in the school culture and in the town around the school.
Hessler learns to speak Chinese and gradually begins to find more ways to enter into his surroundings through his contacts with various individuals at the school and in the town. His descriptions of teaching and school life are authentic and will be appreciated by teacher-readers of this book. Throughout the book he ‘thinks out loud’, trying to understand such things as culture shock, the political situation around him, and the Chinese way of thinking, particularly the stereotypical contrast in attitude toward the individual and the group, characterized as “the West is individualistic; the East is collective minded”.
An even more complex issue is the perceived complacency of the Chinese people. Here is what one reviewer says of this:
“Chinese collectivism: This is something that not only amazes but also puzzles me and Peter has nailed it to the root. The Chinese people are often nonchalant, indifferent, and apathetic to politics, crisis or crimes. Well, according to Peter, ‘as long as a pickpocket [or whatever] did not affect you personally, or affect somebody in your family, it was not your business.’ So this is the usual Chinese mind-my-own-business attitude. This attitude is so implanted inveterately into the Chinese due to decades of isolation (from media and geography) and political control. I think Peter really brings it home. The consequence is a strictly standardized education system, common beliefs among the people, common reactions toward political issues, and an unchallenging submission to authority.”
(Mathew M Rau)
I thoroughly recommend this book and hope you will take the time to find it and read it. Let me know what you think in the comments.