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Book Review

An Insightful Look at a Doomed Chinese City

RIVER TOWN. Two Years on the Yangzte By Peter Hessler; HarperCollins $26, 402 pages


The river town of Fuling in Sichuan province sits at the confluence of the mighty Yangtze and its fast-running tributary, the Wu. It is an insignificant, polluted city that might go unnoticed if it weren't lying in the path of imminent flooding that will be caused by the $24-billion Three Gorges Dam, which when completed in 2009 will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. In "River Town" Peter Hessler opens the door to this soon-to-vanish world most of us will never see or even hear of.

A writer in his 20s, Hessler spent the years 1996-98 as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in the Fuling Teachers College to peasant children and farmers who would then teach English to other Chinese. When he arrived, Hessler knew only about 40 Chinese characters, so as he went about the town or went running in the mountains, he could pick out only a few words from the characters in the ubiquitous propaganda signs. We are as baffled as he is by being in a small city (population: 200,000) where so much is going on--ominous red signs around town show the future watermark that will submerge the city--but so little is understood.

One of only two waiguoren (foreigners) in the town, Hessler is joined by his Peace Corps colleague, Adam, who also teaches English in the college. Crowds of staring people gather wherever they go. Sometimes young men taunt them. We are introduced to his students, the town and its inhabitants as he himself encountered them, moving from incomprehension to a growing understanding as his command of the Chinese language improved over the months.

"Much of what I learned in the early days," Hessler writes, "was from the students. My Chinese wasn't yet good enough to talk with the people in the town, which made the city overwhelming--a mess of miscommunication. And so I listened to my students, read what they wrote in their journals for class, and parts of Fuling slowly began to draw into focus."

Despite their humble origins, Hessler's students were a privileged few in China, as only 2% of all Chinese currently go beyond high school. They were, he writes, "a watershed generation." Most of their grandmothers had bound feet; most of their grandfathers couldn't read. Their parents had come of age "in one of the most horrible periods of Chinese history"--the turmoil following the revolution and the Cultural Revolution. Yet these students, though affected by their parents' and their country's past, were "entirely different," Hessler writes.

"They were educated," he says. "And although few of them had much money, they weren't desperately poor. They could buy things--fashionable clothes, books, radios. They went to college. They had studied English for seven years. They had seen great changes, both political and economic. Perhaps by my standards they were politically brainwashed, but compared to the past they were remarkably free."

As the months went by, Hessler found that his students had ideas going beyond the mindless repetition of regulations set by the school, which each student carried on a card (the list included such requirements as "Building Chinese Socialism," "Diligently Studying Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse-tung Thought"). Even as he slipped more easily into his Chinese name, Ho Wei, his students opened up to him. Still, it was difficult to debate issues with them because on the surface they all expressed the same ideology. But Ho Wei caught them off guard by staging a debate about Robin Hood: His students transferred their real thoughts about their own society to the medieval English legendary character. Some were critical, though all of them had faith in their country and their Chinese socialist system, even as it was changing into something like capitalism.

Hessler's Chinese improved strikingly, so that he was able to travel around China on vacation and move about the town, getting to know many families and their stories. It is a richly nuanced China he presents. Hessler tells his story in a prose that is both forceful and precise. His descriptions of the sheer pounding racket of noise that engulfed Fuling constantly--car horns, machinery, loud talking--are convincing, and his surveys of the countryside are lyrical: "Spring was everywhere in those valleys--the blooming [pink and white] paulownia trees, the golden fields of rapeseed that shivered in the breeze, the eager plots of radish and lettuce and onions and broad beans. The rice seedlings were bright and green beneath sheets of plastic stretched taut over bamboo frames." He also discusses the pros and cons of the Three Gorges Dam project with great sensitivity, letting the Chinese do the talking.

Hessler writes that "River Town" is "not a book about China," but about "a certain small part of China at a certain brief period in time, and my hope has been to capture the richness of both the moment and the place."

He has done both superbly.

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