A Visit to the River Town

Written by Julen Madariaga on November 12th, 2009

This business trip in Sichuan is really full of surprises. Today we went to visit the Project, a giant industrial complex which will be, upon completion, the largest factory in the World to produce X. A typically Chinese megaproject on the bank of the Yangtze.

But the surprise came when we went to town for lunch, and I found out that the river that flowed into the Yangtze at that point was called the Wu. I hadn’t realized before, because the industrial park takes a different name, but sure enough, our client confirmed this point: we were in the riverside town of Fuling.

If you have read the classic China book “River Town”, you know why I was so thrilled. If you have not, then go and get it now. Since you are reading my blog, chances are you are one of those crazy Westerners that seek to understand the Chinese. This books explains them all for you, and in the process it gives you a rare glimpse into the life of inland China. It is fascinating, especially if you don’t live in the country already.

The Book

I am taking this chance to do a little review of River Town, so I can start to catch up with my old plans of running a book reviews section. Considering this book is relatively old and already well known, I will just stick to the main points and try to keep this post reasonable.

The story is very simple, it tells the experiences and feelings of the author during his 2 year stay as Peace Corps in Fuling, a third tier town on the Yangtze.  Nothing really happens, except that it is inland China in the 90s, and everything happens. The book is enjoyable from the beginning, almost every page right to the end.

Here are the key points as promised:

- Very enjoyable natural writing, with vivid descriptions of the places and the people. One of the best examples I know of literature meeting anthropology. Memorable is the description of the Fuling streets and their “stick-stick soldiers” in the initial chapters.

- The author is a fine observer, and he has the advantage of direct access to his students, who write down for him their opinions about a variety of subjects. One of the main highlights of the book is the contrast between the Fuling and the Western mentality, expressed on the background of the classics of English literature.

- For the sake of balance, some points I liked less: towards the end the  book looses some strength (not surprising, after the great first half). The scientific detachment of the author can become a bit exasperating, and sometimes it feels like the anthropologist has taken over the writer. The last dramatic scene with the mob doesn’t help to fix this, and I couldn’t help feeling that it was an unnecessary addition. But then, that is only my opinion, and I was never in Fuling in the 90s.

The River Town

From what I have seen today, the town of Fuling is doing pretty well, changing so fast that it is almost impossible to recognize it in the descriptions of the book. For one thing, it took us less than an hour to get there from the center of Chongqing, which qualifies it as a close suburb. This is in great contrast with the backwater river town of the 90s.

Now the Fulingers are going to have some World class production facilities, and a good part of the population will be working there, with thousands more coming from all over China. It feels strange to realize suddenly that I have become myself one of the characters (although a very secondary one) in the story of the transformation of Fuling.

There seems to be only one thing eternal in China, and that is the masses of the working people, the “laobaixing”. Sure enough, the stick-stick soldiers are still there and in good shape, running up and down the stairs with massive loads hanging from their bamboo poles. For them, nothing has changed.


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Comments so far ↓

  1. Nov

    I read the book and I loved it. I remember we spoke about it during our visit to Shanghai.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Nov

    Wow, I didn’t remember speaking about it last year. Yes, it is a great book, now I also bought the second one by the same author :o racle bones” but I still havent had time to read it. The problem is since I started reading books in Chinese I am always short of reading time (I am so slow!)

    BTW, did you read the original or the translation? I know in Spain it is not always easy to find originals.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Fapiao Reply:

    I read the original. I have an english bookshop just by my house in Madrid. I`ll see tomorrow if they have Oracle Bones available.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Nov

    classic book. interesting the city is basically a suburb of chongqing now. do you have any more pictures?

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Nov

    Yeah, I regret not having more pictures. The thing is I had no idea we were actually in Fuling until I was already in town, so I couldn’t take the camera. Besides, I was invited by a potential client and it would have been difficult to explain my sudden interest in such a place, not to mention that cameras are a delicate matter when visiting industrial projects, especially in China.

    Anyway I will probably have to go back in the coming months so I will try to add some images to this post. In the meantime, Time ran an article a few years ago called River Town Redux, you can see some pictures of the changes there, and then imagine them doubled by 2009.

    As you will see, although it has become more or less a suburb of Chongqing, it is not exactly what you would call “gentrified”.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Jan

    Aw, this was a very nice post. In concept I want to put in writing like this moreover – taking time and actual effort to make a very good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and under no circumstances seem to get something done.

    [Reply to this comment]

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