by Peter Hessler
In examining Peter Hessler's excellent
memoir, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtzee, with its theme of slowly
dawning cross cultural understanding, it seems peculiarly appropriate to briefly
recall its predecessor of thirty years, I Saw Red China: Candid,
Revealing Notes on Life Behind the Bamboo Curtain Today, By the First Staff
Newspaperwoman Ever To Enter Red China, by Lisa Hobbs.
No one can doubt, from the title on down,
that some meaningful degree of change in the western perception of China, and
vice versa, has occurred between the publication of I Saw Red China and River
Town. I Saw Red China was published in 1966 on the eve of Chairman
Mao's Cultural Revolution. China was closed to the west, and American Lisa Hobbs
basically snuck into a guided tour due to her dual citizenship in Australia.
Hobb's visit reads like an expose of a high security prison planet, which
happened to house lots of precious artifacts.
Peter Hessler came to China in 1996 to
spend two years as a peace corp volunteer, teaching English literature and
writing in Fuling, a small city of 200,000 in the Sichuan province. Knowledge of
China had been slowly spreading outwards from Beijing since the Nixon
presidency, but remote areas such as the three gorges district in Sichuan had
remained outside western ken. Fuling, In fact, had not seen a westerner in more
than fifty years.
Hessler is an exceptionally good observer,
his narrative voice carries with it a quiet, but firm self assessment that
establishes both authority and intimacy with the reader. A strong topical
organization allows the book=s
underlying continuities to flow unimpeded though an array of concise subjects.
Above all, Hessler's drive to understand
the Chinese world around him in its own terms and language, a determination
requiring a strong, but not inflexible sense of self to succeed, gives the book,
a clarity, depth and warmth, which is both disarming and rare.
Throughout the book Hessler avoids
clinging to his predispositions. The lower portion of Fuling lies in the
permanent flood zone of the impending Thee Gorges Dam, and one would think that
the submersion of the town would dominate the Fuling mind. Yet, though surprised
to find otherwise, Hessler is interested in observing rather than projecting
upon his surroundings, and his discussion of the coming Dam is exceptional in
its balance, its subtle dislocation of judgement for the purposes of
There are many highlights and pleasures to
be found. The interpretation of Shakespeare by his students, his victory in the
Twenty-Second Annual Long Race To Welcome Spring, and his experience of The
Chinese New Year at the home of a restaurant owner, stand out particularly.
Yet, the primary element of River Town
lies in its capturing of the intersection of millennia old custom, tradition and
history, with the protracted and continual presence of rapid change. In Fuling
even the Yangtzee river, the living emblem of both continuity and flow, awaits
being turned into a four hundred mile lake.