A Visit to the River TownWritten 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.
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.