Peter Hessler’s memoir River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze chronicles his two-year experience as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching at the Fuling Teachers College in Fuling, a remote village in China’s Sichuan province. In addition to writing about his life and experiences in Fuling, Hessler provides detailed descriptions of the landscape, its people, and history. The village of Fuling had not seen foreigners in at least fifty years prior to the arrival of Peter Hessler and his colleague Adam Meier. When they arrived, they became a constant focus of attention. Over the course of his two years in Fuling, Hessler learned to speak Chinese and developed his own Chinese identity among the people of Fuling. Despite his efforts, Hessler remained an outsider. His observations of Chinese culture, politics, and the way people responded to his presence give the reader a glimpse into what life is like for a Westerner in Fuling. The following provides evidence that River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze is a valuable source for Western readers to learn about life in China during the late 1990’s. River Town is useful to Western readers in particular because Hessler views China through the eyes of an American, and while acknowledging Chinese viewpoints he illuminates numerous similarities and differences between China and America. Following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) implemented a variety of economic reforms to help reduce state control over agriculture, industry, and other economic sectors. One of the most notable forms of economic liberalization was a grassroots movement instigated by peasants in rural China. These peasants took the initiative to remove their land from commune control and began to farm it independently. China’s reformist leader Deng Xiaoping institutionalized the agricultural movement after he learned that it increased agricultural production. This agriculture reform allowed individual households to lease plots of land for fifty years. Households could independently decide which crops to produce. After meeting state grain quotas, households were able to sell their remaining crops and keep the profits. In addition to this liberalization of agriculture, individuals gained rights in urban industry and business markets. In 1979 the CCP implemented a reform allowing the market itself to make the decisions regarding the production and distribution of goods. Furthermore, rather than giving all profits to the state, an industrial responsibility system allowed enterprises to keep remaining profits after paying a 55 percent tax on revenue. For the first time, individual enterprises operated independently (within broad state guidelines) and for profit. Factory managers were given the right to make hiring and firing decisions, eliminating lifetime job security. These reforms have had a long lasting impact on the overall standard of living in China. During his time in Fuling, Hessler met a number of people operating their own businesses, something that would not have been possible prior to CCP leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization. From cab drivers, fruit stand owners, and “stick-stick soldiers,” to a restaurant owner, a man who owns a roller-rink, and the editor of a magazine, Hessler provided the reader with numerous stories reflecting the impact of economic liberalization. He spent a great deal of time with his friend Huang Xiaoqiang, the owner of a small noodle restaurant called “The Student’s Home.” Huang Xiaoqiang operated his restaurant from six in the morning until eleven at night with the help of his family with the dream of someday being able to afford a better apartment. Though he strove to improve his standard of living, Huang Xiaoqiang was thankful for what he had. Huang shared the story of his grandfather, a peasant landlord who was executed during the Cultural Revolution in 1958. He emphasized that life improved a great deal since Deng Xiaoping became their leader “The standard of living is much higher and we can have private business. We’re the same as landlords, really” (p 252). He used the term “landlord” in reference to the new opportunities available to individuals, rather than the exploitation associated with landlords of the past. Most people in China became independent workers and do not belong to a danwei (a work unit in a CCP owned enterprise). When an individual did not belong to a danwei, they enjoyed a certain degree of freedom. The individual could make his or her own business decisions regarding when to work and what to produce. Additionally, an individual’s profits were based on one’s intelligence, effort, and skill. While the effects of economic liberalization benefitted many and increased the average standard of living, some reforms and modernizations came at the expense of China’s natural and historical landmarks. The Three Gorges Dam project is a consistent feature throughout the novel due to the countless environmental, sociological and geological sacrifices that will be made when construction is completed. The forthcoming construction of the dam would flood the majority of Fuling and several surrounding villages. Millions of people would be displaced from their homes. Numerous tombs, ancient temples, historical artifacts, and cultural relics like Fuling’s White Crane Ridge would be buried under water. Construction of the dam would also endanger a plethora of species unique to the Yangtze River. The project’s plan to build the dam on a fault line, coupled with the Three Gorge’s history of landslides brought the subject of increased earthquake risk and human safety into question. The project’s benefits included increased production of electricity, improved transportation and better flood control. Regardless of the numerous risks, the people of Fuling chose to support construction of the dam because the CCP stated that its advantages would benefit China. The people would willingly give up their ancestral home, accept the loss of revered landscapes, and relinquish their life, as they knew it. Those who would be driven from their homes accepted the project because the government would offer them monetary compensation, a new home and a job. Hessler pointed out that relocating approximately two million people would cost the government “one third of the entire project’s price tag – thirty billion dollars, according to conservative estimates” (p 104). This widespread attitude of unchallenging submission to authority can be attributed to China’s decades of isolationism and political control. Throughout his time in Fuling, Hessler came in contact with various opinions of Westerners and, in particular, Americans. As a waiguoren (foreigner) living in a village that had not seen a foreigner for over 50 years, Hessler was often the focus of local attention. He was met with a combination of curiosity and xenophobia. Whenever he ventured into town, he would find himself surrounded by a crowd, captivated by his presence. Some of the less educated residents of Fuling would taunt him for their own entertainment and because of his status as an outsider. These individuals believed that he was an ignorant waiguoren and would mockingly shout “Hello,” and “waiguoren” when he walked by. There were times when locals would shout less innocent terms like “yangguizi” (foreign devil), and “da bizi” (big nose) (p 65). The educated residents of Fuling on the other hand looked to Hessler as a symbol of the Western world and hoped that through observation, they would catch a glimpse into the life of an American. Hessler was watched closely, and every action quickly became a topic of interest and conversation. Not long after he arrived, Hessler’s students began to write papers about his habits and things he did or said. His physical appearance became a popular topic as well, “They wrote about my foreign nose, which impressed them as impossibly long and straight, and many of them wrote about my blue eyes. This was perhaps the strangest detail of all, because my eyes are hazel –but my students had read that foreigners had blue eyes, and they saw what they wanted to see” (p 16). Aside from the opinions and reactions directed toward Hessler personally, he was exposed to numerous stereotypes regarding Westerners. In one case, Hessler had a conversation with a man who had only seen one other American before. The American was overweight and ordering people around “like he was a great landlord” (p 202). Prior to meeting Hessler, the man had thought that of all Americans. The Chinese Communist Party’s involvement in the daily lives of individuals was evident throughout the novel. Hessler demonstrates that the CCP were very invasive in the lives of foreigners because they were deemed “politically risky.” Officials feared that foreigners would spread ideas of capitalism and democracy and should be kept at a distance. The CCP intruded on Hessler’s life in a variety of ways. Party officials attempted to intimidate him by reading and censoring his mail. On one occasion, Hessler’s father sent him a copy of the New York Times containing one of Hessler’s published articles. He found that the CCP had cut out his story about the Mississippi River (despite the fact that it was completely unrelated to China). In regards to this clumsy censorship, “the tampering was far more effective in giving me examples of the kind of pointless paranoia that composed Communist China” (p 174). Officials also quietly warned both students and other teachers not to interact with Hessler outside of class. This well-organized monitoring was not specific to Hessler or Fuling. Another Peace Corps volunteer in a nearby village was arrested after getting into an argument with a cab driver. When questioned, he found that the police had been keeping records of everything he said in class that could be considered controversial or politically sensitive. Hessler was aware that some of his students served as “political informants,” whose job was to report on the material he covered in class. While the CCP could be extremely violating, Hessler found that they were also inconsistent. They allowed him a great deal of educational independence, “Nobody checked our syllabi or hassled us about course content, and we structured our classes exactly as we wished. I was especially impressed that they even let us teach classes like literature and culture, which often had strong political over tones” (p 338). Hessler attributed the majority of the CCP’s actions to paranoia and distrust in foreigners. The student’s daily lives were also affected by the CCP in a variety of ways. The CCP enforced rules, appropriate behaviors, and carried out political assemblies. The CCP fined students for missing classes or not cleaning the classroom adequately. For example, when Britain returned Hong Kong to China, party cadres required students to watch ten hours of the television coverage, and students were kept awake until Hong Kong was returned at midnight. Earlier that year during Deng Xiaoping’s televised funeral, every danwei in the country was expected to watch the service together. Classes were cancelled, students and faculty gathered in the lecture hall to watch the televised Deng Xiaoping’s memorial service. Party Secretary Zhang led the ceremony, giving the students sharp commands to kowtow throughout the program. The student’s lives and their adherence to party dogma were closely monitored. The CCP held such influence over the lives of Chinese students that “they were hesitant to criticize any thing Chinese because they were constantly being indoctrinated by the Communist Party” (p 23). Some students found their lives under the CCP’s microscope. During Hessler’s second year, a student named Susan had an abortion. When party officials found out, they had her expelled and attached a note to a personal file that would follow her around for the rest of her life. If she ever took a job with a danwei her superiors would know what happened. “One thing that I came to understand very early was that Fuling Teachers College served a dual purpose. It trained teachers, but like any Chinese school, it was also an educational extension of the Chinese Communist Party” (p 38). While Hessler recognized that the school served a dual purpose, he also demonstrated the differing views on the function of education in the eyes of both party officials and individual students. Due to the fact that his students were training to become teachers it was of utmost importance to party officials that the students’ education was based upon the framework of Chinese Communism. CCP officials recognized the fact that after these students graduated, they would get jobs teaching China’s next generation. The CCP created the curriculum for Fuling Teachers College based around eight student regulations. These student regulations were listed in order of importance and academic study came in third. Supporting the CCP and serving Socialism’s undertaking was the first regulation and top priority. Based on the CCP’s curriculum all first year students studied Marxism-Leninism, and in their second year students took a course on law. Third year students studied Building Chinese Socialism, which as Hessler points out is ironic considering that directly across the Wu River was home to “booming private businesses and bankrupt state-owned enterprises” (p 38). He also notes that, even though these “free-market contradictions” to Chinese socialism appeared across the college, his students still believed in their Communist courses and some even joined the Communist Party. Hessler’s students viewed their education as a privilege because at this time in China less than two percent of the population received any schooling beyond high school (p 24). His students came from very humble backgrounds and admission into Fuling Teachers College not only honored them, but their families as well. Hessler’s student’s parents had come of age during the Cultural Revolution, a horrible period in Chinese history. Their parents did not have educational opportunities because Mao Zedong’s Red Guards attacked intellectuals, labeling them “counter-revolutionaries.” For his students, getting an education would not only fulfill their personal hopes and dreams, but it would also fulfill the buried hopes and dreams of their parent’s generation, who could not pursue or even voice their desire for an education. Hessler compares this to the American generation of his parents, who grew up listening to stories about the Great Depression, and who rebuilt the America of today (p 23).
Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze is a valuable source for learning about China at the end of the 20th century. The novel details a unique moment in Chinese history. A moment when Hessler’s students could both praise the communist ideas of Mao Zedong, then go seek their fortunes in the prosperous cities of Southern China. As a foreigner in China, Hessler contended with centuries of Chinese isolationism and the local’s distrust of waiguoren. For two years he struggled to learn Chinese in order to communicate outside of the college. With the addition of the Chinese Communist Party’s strict political control and constant warnings to Chinese to maintain their distance from foreigners, it is surprising that any outsider can gain such insight into life in China. Much of the novel’s value lies within Hessler’s consistent honesty. He begins “This isn’t a book about China. Its about a certain small part of China at a certain brief moment in time” (p ix). Throughout the novel, he emphasizes the presence of ethnocentrism in China, and even though he worked to blend in, he was never able to shed the waiguoren stereotype but eventually came to accept it, “I had been a teacher, and in my spare time I had tried to learn as much as possible about the city and its people. That was the extent of my work, and I was comfortable with those roles and I recognized their limitations” (p 396). The fact that Hessler recognized his limitations as a foreigner working for an American government institution, who spent a mere two years in Fuling says a great deal about the value of this novel as a source for learning about China. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze provides an abundance of information about a remote area of China near the end of the 20th century. A Western reader can truly appreciate and understand Hessler’s American perspective. Through his meticulous observations about Chinese life and culture, and interspersed historical context one can sincerely begin to grasp what it is like to be waiguoren in China.