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.

Traveling to Faraway Land, then, Farewell to It

Leafing through the pages of certain geography magazines full of picturesque attractions, I saw, in pictures, Tianshan mountain, Qilian mountains, and the Taklamakan Desert in the northwestern part of China.

By Lou Hsienhua

It is said that every dream has an origin. Yet, the origin of my dream to travel around the world, it appears, is hard to trace.

With ambiguities, I could remember what attracted my attention the most when I was a child: the beautiful landscape pictures. At that moment, the existence of picturesque natural wonders reminded me of how beautiful our ‘life journeys’ could be as long as we insist our wish to travel be fulfilled.

In the early 2000s, there was an inclination inside the circle of geographical magazines to narrow their focus on places that were topographically diverse and culturally central, such as big urban centers whose past was deemed essential to the formation of our specific cultural identity—like Beijing, Shanghai in China, Toronto, Quito, New York, Paris, London, Moscow etc. around the world—and mountainous areas in southwestern China.

Plains were not getting much attention from the geographical magazines or landscape photographers. Perhaps its geographical blandness is a put-off for an industry driven by ‘visual freshness’. And it turned out because my hometown locates in central China’s Jianghan Plain, I could hardly find any representative presence of it on media, geography documentaries, or geographic books. It’s the flatness of it that shaped the way I see the outside of it.

Faraway lands seem to be a metaphor for something we yearn for. Its unreachability represents the most prominent aspect of desiring passions

I saw, in pictures, the Loess Plateau in the north where lands were overlain by a mantle of yellowish alluvium. And where the mountains were bare, forestless, and standing like an old man with a face wrinkled, weathered but still looking unshakably strong.

In The Bloodstain of Mountain Changbai, Xiao Hong, a Chinese writer born in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang in 1911, wrote: the landscape of China’s north, comparing to that of the south where moistness and serenity defined its feature, is sublimely majestic and vigorous, which is second to none.

I have never been to China’s northeast.

I have only been to China’s north in Beijing several years ago midway in summer. That summer, in my memory, was characterized by aridness, and extreme heat. Though it’s common in the south to expect extreme heat in hot summer days, it’s considered less common to experience that kind of climate aridness in southerners’ living memories about summer.

Swaths of poplar saplings in a southern city in Hubei by Lou Hsienhua.

Onscreen, there were forest-covered mountains that seemed like a passing fancy for a ten-year old growing up in small villages. I knew, from an early time of my life, it would only be a matter of time before what I thought was normal gradually became what I could hardly afford to lose, and forget. As I stood gazing up aimlessly around the stary sky, I started to miss the things I could hardly afford to lose but that had faded away anyway. Things like buffaloes roaming around the wasted grassland near my childhood residence in the countryside, and blooming colza flowers yellowing the entire field. Something I could not afford to lose.

All four seasons are leaving me now.
What I could grasp were only these autumn winds in which
Falling leaves blew along the streets outside of the theatre.

You greeted me with a smile almost unnoticeable, gradually away.
’twas about five years past.
With tears welling up,
I recognize what hasn’t come would never come.

Walk along the beach in the evenings.
Inside windows that open and shut,
Candlelights are what appears the most consolatory for those with a broken heart.
Fishing lamps, where have they gone?

All four seasons are like waves both serene and rippling.
Welcoming autumn is for years what I wish to do.

Let the chrysanthemum bloom in fatigue, like a sigh.
Let it bloom like me unable to meet the one I love.
Spreading out the whitish notepaper,
I write down those summer days,
During which we walked together along the beach.

Welcoming Autumn by Lao Mu
Translated from Chinese by Lou Hsienhua

“It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” Joan Didion wrote in Goodby to All That. At that time, I could almost recollect, though with a little uncertainty that makes me less certain about the accuracy of the words I wrote, when the city of Qianjiang, in south Hubei, began for me but I could hardly figure out at which moment it suspended. Maybe it never ended. Maybe I could go back where it was again in my memory as long as I felt I was as expectant as I once was.

But the moment of change certainly starts when I reflected on the question of belonging. The problem of rootedness. There is always a pause when I was asked where is worth visiting in the city of Qianjiang. It’s hard to see the standards by which a place is considered worth visiting. For Chinese bibliophiles, a museum dedicated for the remembrance of Cao Yu, a Chinese playwright whose ancestral home is in Qianjiang may be considered a must-go. But for others whose personal interests vary, it’s harder to tell by which standard, a place is for them. Overall, it’s a small city not dissimilar to any other same-sized ones.

What do we mean when we express our love for travelling? Travelling is life, it is said. It’s like an ideal used by those who wish to metaphorize their desire for a fulfilling life. This metaphor is so widely accepted that it is almost our second nature to liken the places we haven’t been to anything desirable, majestically serene, or adventurous as if anything familiar to us is tediously uninteresting. Life, some may argue, is about pursuing things, instead of holding them. This, it is only too common to lose our interest to something when it’s gained, or obtained. We have goals. But in the end, we could hardly lay a finger upon the exact point that our goals are for.

It’s not uncommon for some writers to appear a bit superstitious. Life is one of the most mythicized things that we feel no control of. Better believe in something. And for some writers, this believing in something turned out to be youth. If life is a floral plant, youth is certainly its blossom. And in the end, where we’d been in the early years of our life gradually becomes the memento of our youth. In Ernest Hemingway’s later years, he was trying to finish his ‘Paris stuff”, a recollection of his youth time spent in Paris that was later, posthumously, published and titled A Moveable Feast.

Perhaps in the end, the only way to reconnect to our youth, besides photographs, could truly be the places where our younger selves stayed. As Hemingway put it, “there were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”

Decades ago when I, for the first time in my life, headed for the city of Wuhan to start my college years, life after seventeen still seems mixed with complex feelings of bittersweetness and expectations of a better future. The lastingness of youth, we truly believed, seemed to be something we took for granted. My grandparents reminded me to get thicker beddings and quilts lest I get cold. Life outside home, at that time, seemed deeply unsatisfying, yet, it provided a priceless freedom whose value we took an awfully long time to realize. At first, it’s the kind of freedom that requires no other additional efforts to earn. Yet when we grew up, it gives no chance for us to regain it. It is the fleetingness of youth that is what we didn’t see. By the time we realise the value of it, it’s gone.

Life at that time seemed so beautifully innocent that even the most unendurable disturbances such as chaotic verbal conflictions witnessed on bus could be rendered as the bassline of a grand symphony of life.

When we talk about cities, what do we exactly mean? Do we, for example, mean we feel the time we spent there or the atmosphere that specific city posed bears a special meaning to us? Perhaps. More often than not, when I think of the city of Qianjiang, I start to recollect my teen years during which I learned various ‘life lessons’ others considered important by certain standards. When I think of the city of Wuhan, I, almost immediately, remember my early twenties during which I tried to explore the options for me to live my life in a fulfilling way.

Many years ago when I was there in Wuhan, it was largely under upgrade mode—a scheme to gentrify its old boroughs and blocks considered, by the officials, dysfunctional and cut off. I was, at that time, living in a rented apartment near the Nanhu region of the city, trying to build a life based on my own ideals, hopeful of freeing myself from the intellectual restrictions set by capitalistically caused financial difficulties by thinking only about the ‘fact’ that anyone alive should be free of defining what to love, what to value.

The city of Wuhan at that period was still under ‘infrastructure transformation’. Almost every street where I walked across in the city, as my memory has it, was gradually becoming unrecognisable in a matter of days. A speed faster than my ability to perceive it. And then, every time it rained, the roads near the lake-bound regions of the city would, usually, turned into muddy riverbeds, making it hard for pedestrians to walk back home, or go working. In the night, it was most expected that piercing noises of tracks carrying sands to disturb your sleep.

Looking back at the city of Wuhan across whose streets I roamed, taking photographs several years ago, I assumed that maybe every city under ‘upgrading scheme’ might look like this, messy and disorderly. But such disturbances like noises in the night were not considered a nausea during my stay at the city in my life after 18 because the power of beauty and self-regarding—all characteristic of youth—is so enticing and great that no thing—including those disturbances— seemed able to suppress it.

Soul-searching Reflections on Culture, Resistance, and Our Voice

With Mydans’ photography, this framed painfulness becomes eternal. One even without prior knowledge about photojournalism would know how hard and heart-rendering it is to experience war, indeed, any kind of war, whether firsthand or second.

Also known as Hsienhua Lou, Tome Loulin lives in Hubei’s Qianjiang city and is currently a graduate student of translation studies. Email: letters@zhexuezhe.com

Exclusiveness, it occurs to me, is the nature of culture. This trait has so far in our documented history shaped and redefined the way we live now since everything sophisticated enough to be taken seriously involves cultural elements. Thus, a radicalization of our cultural imagination in this digital era, whose power of shaping our views about other groups of people seems so powerful, may itself seem like a romantic defense of our right to reclaim our cultural identity, which defines the meaning of our life, because many people do see culture as a imagined home that harbors our dreams, ambitious or not. And home means being free, free to truly see ourselves as what we are, free of malicious attacks from those intolerant of what we value, love, and cherish. And sometimes, the yearning of a home, it holds, reflects a sense of insecurity inside us. Living is, overall, like a journey to find that home, one that’s ideal, free, safe, and accepting.

A harmonious in-group experience, we tend to believe, exists. And it does only when a specific kind of cultural idealization is backed by many inside of that cultural home. But this identity is truly a fleeting thing and its survival depends on the very values we hold. That’s where the generational gaps started and kept accelerating because a moral standard deemed widely accepting and normal may appear horrifyingly limiting and flawed. Time flies and people change their minds so fast that its process is sometimes unnoticeable. The notion of an inclusive community where every specific way of life is respected and accepted is usually filling up our growing discontentment with this rather dysfunctional and dystopian social reality. That the narratives told by those self-proclaimed cultural supremacists aim at defining moral righteousness demonstrates why certain talks about contemporary culture and society have been largely dominated by those intolerant of cultural equality and diversity. Our spiritual existence is, you may agree, constantly under threat from political-motivated hatreds against other groups because of their very preferences for certain ways of life or, in certain cases, of their biological features.

The time I started noticing certain reports posted on serval internationally influential news media is a time of recognizing how far this ongoing cultural alienization could go. Truth be told, rarely would there be a writer whose creative power wasn’t influenced, in some ways, by the anxieties posed by the geopolitical tensions occurring at the his/her time. The cultural scenes dominating today’s news media are, indeed, aimed at being ideologically, culturally correct, meaning what we see now is merely a controlled representation of how should this world we share be viewed by countless eager minds. In his ‘1984‘, Reality, Orwell wrote, exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Yet, to concretize his phantasm of an internalized cultural and political dystopia, it appears, proves to be tormenting. Human imaginations–or idealizations–of a fixed, permanent home are indeed an expected universality whose meanings we should, as expected, have no difficulty of comprehending. But why—given this century’s rapid advancement of information technology and our expanding knowledge about a swath of cultural terrains previously unknown to us—are the misunderstandings about people from different countries gotten deepened?

Public opinions are prone to manipulations. There comes this new experience of living in this culturally radical era and of being immersed in a sea of phenomenal misunderstanding of what does the concept of being ‘the cultural and social Other’ mean. ‘People’ as a concept widely used in journalistic and cultural talks to get certain manipulators’ agenda done is a cliché whose power to make us feel home would hardly subside for this imaged cultural home is so much in need at a time characterized by social indifference that impacts the way we live now.

There have been so many opinion pieces warning us about the danger of certain countries as it turns out. Also, there are war talkers whose ‘analyses’ or ‘opinions’ published or deliberated on mainstream media impact the way the readers make sense about the perceived ‘enemies’. Theirs was a way of ceaselessly warning about the threat from an ‘enemy’ usually out of the reason that its political system is different or not rule-based. It’s since when that the notion of protecting the values become synonymous with boundless hatred and violence inciting? Warmongers often believe in order to have peace kept, wars are inevitable or, in some extent, worth waging as long as it is good at achieving their agandas. Those who voice their concerns about wars, any war, are often attacked and labeled as apologists.

War of any kind is a selfish act as its impact on the displaced, wounded, homeless, affected could only be the worst thing ever thinkable, something not only hard to behold but to experience. Yet, on certain newspapers, there are opinion sections full of pieces telling, or warning if you will, readers how dangerous is a perceived geopolitical competitor or the threat from it. It will, some may argue, disrupt the way of life as we know it if we don’t take critical actions against those perceived enemies.

“Sooner or later, an explosion will occur. Yet substituting confrontation for engagement is reckless and futile if the west is not prepared to put its money, political muscle and ultimately its armed forces where its mouth is.” the opinionator, Simon Tisdall, lamented in his piece published on the Guardian in July, warning that there will be ‘an explosion’ occurring between the two countries he mentioned. What kind of an explosion? How damaging is it?

“Confrontations, political muscle, armed forces, explosion, and futile” these words, it turns out, have the power to get the least political-sensitive person shocked if it didn’t seem crucial for the reader to see the evidences required to prove the urgency of taking measures against the described and perceived ‘threat’ before reaching out to a conclusion. Since it is always the cautious ‘analyses’ about other countries that come first to readers before facts, it is no exaggeration to say that now despite recognizing that ideological one-sidedness and partiality defined the characters of today’s news media, holding a more friendly and positive attitude towards another culture different to ours becomes unlikely. War-wagers are praised, in many instances, as guards, fighters whose precautious talks about war are to be widely disseminated from one era to another, compulsorily learned by all members of the society’s young. Often forgotten are the horrors experienced by so many who were displaced, resettled, homeless and died during various wars.

There is a photograph by Carl Mydans—first published on LIFE magazine—captioned: ruins of village near Penghu in Chinese civil war. Framed in the black and white picture is a woman, her head turbaned with traditional Chinese headwear, simple-dressed, in despair, helplessly and heart-brokenly kneeing in front of what appeared to be her hut that was ruined in the war, perhaps, by fire. The ruined hut that was almost unrecognizable with only some brunt pillars remaining standing. With Mydans’ photography, this framed painfulness becomes eternal. One even without prior knowledge about photojournalism would know how hard and heart-rendering it is to experience war, indeed, any kind of war, whether firsthand or second.

Yet photographs, overall, do not provide us a visual experience that had them taken in the first place; instead, what photography does provide are various visual spaces it creates in our minds, leading us through the scenes similiar to the original ones that led photographers to press the shutter. The looking of photographs, it appears, always suggests a secondhand, alternative reality whose psychological significance brings us to a limited area of subjective imagining. But after seeing Mydans’ pictures, one could only get more uncertain about the war than about the sufferings immortalized inside the frames: where had the woman affected by the war gone? And how was she?

There were no answers.

It seems confusing perhaps for—if the horrors of war suffered by those silenced, wounded, killed in wars remain disregarded—such photographs, indeed, will be innumerous.