Filling Emptiness: On Reading Peter Hessler

By Lou Hsienhua (Tome Loulin)

The title of River Town by Peter Hessler in Chinese translation could very naturally coincide with the nicknames of several cities—in southern China—alongside the Yangtze River such as Wuhan, and Chongqing, to name a few. It can also stir up complicated feelings among the readers familiar with the concept of Shan-shui in China’s cultural imagination. At first glance, it’s relatively easy for the book to be mistaken as a collection of travel writings written by someone native of China. But as we explore further inside the world portrayed by the author, it’s even easier for a reader of Chinese to find out in deep awe that the carefully observed details about China’s southwest appear to have been so resonating that the nationality of the author becomes something we gradually forget. Perhaps, besides providing a different perspective on certain things that natives find uninteresting or unimportant, observations on things related to us from ‘the outside’ offer a rare opportunity for us to see how we are seen critically by those from other cultures. Overall, one may conclude, from the popularity in China of Peter Hessler’s books even in translated versions—mostly sold in the category of travel writing—that there is such a thing universally existed as a desire for critical reflections of oneself from the other side. People in one culture crave diverse views of themselves from outside observers perhaps for criticalness entails a sense of importance that needs to be put on the observed. To be observed in the first place suggests a sense of worthiness, a feeling of being valued at least temporarily.

Hessler’s language in his writings seems like a treasure rarely in lack of a sense of humor, even in his observations about small places in the southwestern part of China whose artistic presence—in creative nonfiction writing—seemed, at that time, in short supply as evident in his recollections of the noises from the retired teachers playing croquet in Fuling’s teachers college, which he found lovely. Lovely also is his choice of words in part because there was not much serious attention, then, being paid on areas where economic development was relatively lagged behind compared to large urban areas in the coastal regions of China.

Reading Hessler, anyone from China born before the year 2000 and perhaps many more born after that time would understand how nostalgic it seems to read and reread his recollections of the days and nights he spent living there in Fuling, a region in southwest China in part because China back in the 1990s is vastly different from where it is now and largely because of a reminiscence of—almost—an era of people—despite relative material and financial restrictions—living their life in simple ways. Certainly people living in the last 90s may not seem to be much different from people living in the current time in terms of humanity. But everyone knows that the social reality at that time is certainly different. The keywords that may be used to describe China in the 90s may be—depending on the personal experiences of the describer—morally harmonious or relatively conservative, socially cohesive or relatively financially stricken to name a few.

Photograph by Lou Hsienhua (Tome Loulin)

Back in the 90s, I was living mostly in rural areas where no one truly owns a colored television until they got married though housing didn’t appear to be such a big issue to many youngsters at that time as is now and I remembered from what my mother talked with her friends, that people desired a bigger size of family which means more children and living with grandparents. And, at that time, people didn’t appear to be so influenced by postmodern dogmas that emphasize the values of individualism that tend to put personal space at the center stage of one’s life. People, it seemed back then, tend to form more lasting friendships than now in part because social media didn’t emerge at that time and when social media did emerge as we came together to the age of information, we see the damaging effects social media could have on our sense of community and selfhood. It’s not considered news to discover that people seem to virtually all communicate online via certain social media rather than in-person means. Thus, the gradual death of letter writing practice becomes the most significant mark of a divide between the past and now. The 90s, many would agree, is already a distant past but how about the 2020s?

Perhaps, one should know very early on that River Town by Peter Hessler is not a book about nostalgia nor is any book by certain similar authors like Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Shark Fin and Sichuan Pepper, in part because time is a theme that we write about all our lives. What the authors who wrote and write about China share is the cherishing attention on the vastness of a artistic territory that was previously uncared for and overlooked by the mainstream and an understanding that artistic valuation doesn’t need to be centered on corners of the world that have already been relatively well explored. Certainly no truthful and visceral observations about anything and anyone like Hemingway writing about his experience of living in Paris or like Victor Serge writing about his participation in and reflection on Soviet revolutions would be considered superfluous instead they are essential to our moral and intellectual becoming.

Though, like many other observers from the West, political and ideological elements certainly —if not centrally—captured the attention of the author of River Town, seeing our world in the lens of ideological preferences is, well, almost inevitable. One without the need to cite George Orwell and Victor Serge could easily demonstrate the difficult relationship between politics and art. It’s something every person who wrote and write has to come across. Reflecting on and contemplating the eventful and significant years of the last 60-70s in the US characterized by the civil rights movements and segregation, Toni Morrison made a point about politics influencing art in her preface to her work Sula, stating that if the novel was good, it was because it was faithful to a certain kind of politics; if it was bad, it was it because it was faithless to them. One could not help but feel serious literary works of art could hardly be free of ideological influences perhaps in part because ideology is itself a central element that influences how we live. To many, politically influenced writing like those pieces appearing on the op-ed sections with hidden agendas is something whose presence gets larger day by day with the help of social media. What this age in which we live lacks is a calmer voice that tells firsthand experiences about certain matters somewhere distant from a readership that has been told different versions of a story far away from truth. Could we state plainly that what is most in lack in this age of social indifference is truth? Perhaps not with much certainty.