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Two Years on the Yangtze
By Peter Hessler
HarperCollins -- 402pp -- $26
In River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, author Peter Hessler provides a perceptive and engrossing account of an outsider in fast-changing China. The first foreigner, or waiguoren, to visit the remote Sichuan city of Fu-ling in half a century, Peace Corps volunteer Hessler taught literature and writing at the local teachers college. In ways that regularly surprise and delight the reader, the teacher quickly found himself becoming a student.
Throughout his two-year adventure, Hessler maintained a low-key, affable demeanor, which helped him win over the locals and fly under the radar of the college's strict Communist cadres. Whenever possible, he tried to avoid propaganda-laden textbooks by assigning great works--William Shakespeare, Beowulf, and Langston Hughes. But, he found, discussion of politics was unavoidable. Shakespeare's work, his students felt, offered insights on "English Capitalism," "the Proletariat," and "Revolution." Debate raged over whether Robin Hood was "a revolutionary against injustice" or "the sort of person who would stir up trouble and disturb the economy."
Hessler also gained instruction while fending off a local prostitute, and in obligatory drinking contests among the faculty. An ability to imbibe serious amounts of baijiu, or grain alcohol, won him an immediate rise in status.
Hessler--or as he was known there, Ho Wei--immersed himself in the culture. At first, it was difficult being such an obvious foreigner: He was mobbed by curiosity-seeking crowds and suffered from sensory overload, made up of the sounds of a then-incomprehensible language, pollution, and the incessant honking of auto horns. In time, he gained proficiency in Chinese and close friends among town residents. But China retained an ability to shock and perplex him. He heard haunting stories of persecution, hunger, and starvation during the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. He discovered that suicide was common, especially among women, and one of the school's brightest students succumbed. He found it difficult to engineer frank discussions of such subjects as capitalism, democracy, the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which is soon to flood part of Fuling and transform an area where millions live. Chinese "passivity" in the face of daunting change remained something of a puzzle to him.
As the dam causes the river to begin its slow ascent in 2003, among the victims will be priceless relics, including ancient stone carvings at Fuling harbor's White Crane Ridge. With its thousands of characters engraved over many years, "there is no other place where man has left such a vivid record of the river's life," the author says. At least readers will have Hessler's elegant account, preserving the beauty of the town and its residents as he knew them. By Karin Pekarchik