Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I hear hearts beating, loud as thunder

So much of the current writing on China is at the macro level. There are plenty of books about the rise of China, like the Writing on the Wall and China Shakes the World. Then we also get fear mongering about the (marginal) Chinese military threat to the United States.

Peter Hessler's River Town is about China at the micro level. He writes about what it is like to live and work, as a teacher, in a small (by Chinese standards) town on the Yangtze. This sort of book can easily become narcissistic. Fortunately, Hessler does an excellent job of using his experiences to describe Chinese life. I also taught English in China (in Xi'an) and his descriptions ring true. The strong nationalism of the students, the annoyance and fascination with America and the challenges of really standing out are well depicted.

One welcome trait of Hessler is his balance of the Chinese and American viewpoint. He points to cultural differences and analyzes them without bias. He notes that the Chinese have a mythical view of Tibet, but so do the Americans about Thanksgiving. Where appropriate, he is highly critical of the Chinese as in their ducking of the issue of the Mao. Instead of criticizing specific policies, they use the party line that he was 70% correct and 30% wrong. Hessler would test them by saying Mao was in fact 67% correct, and his Chinese interlocutor would correct him. These rigidities weakened when he interacted with the common people, or old hundred names, as they call themselves. Unlike the elites (such as students) they are less constrained by the need to conform.

There is quite a bit to enjoy in this book. If you want to read about life in China, or just see an excellent stylist in action, this is a great place to invest.

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