'City of Steps and Legs'

Times Literary Supplement, 27 July 2001

RIVER TOWN. Two years on the Yangtze. By Peter Hessler. 402pp. John Murray. Pounds 18.99. TLS Pounds 18.49 - 0 7195 6156 6.

RED DUST. A path through China. By Ma Jian. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew. 324pp. Chatto and Windus. Paperback, Pounds 12. TLS Pounds 10 - 0 701 16912 5.

Peter Hessler's River Town, about his time as a teacher of English literature in the town of Fuling on the Yangtze River during the late 1990s, is an elegant account of the experience of an outsider living in China. Thrust into a radically different society from anything he has previously known, Hessler presents a compelling portrait of a place caught mid-river in time, surrounded by astounding natural beauty, soon to be flooded on the completion of the controversial Three Gorges Dam. Hessler also poignantly recounts his experience of life in China and his attempts to come to grips with an alien culture. Like most foreigners, he is initially overwhelmed by noise, pollution and staring crowds. Fuling, like most cities in China, teems with noise from roaring televisions, honking cars, screaming loudspeakers and salespeople shouting to blaring music from street stands. It took him half a year to come to grips with the noise, dirt and bustle of street life in China. A 'city of steps and legs', surrounded by the terraced hills of the Yangtze River valley, Fuling is pressed against a mountain with a maze of tangled staircases and stone stairways. Dotted with coal-stained shrubs and dust- covered trees, with grey patches of grass boxed in by drab concrete buildings, the city is also covered with coal dust. When Hessler blows his nose, the tissue is streaked with black grease. He develops chronic sinus problems from the pollution and becomes infected with tuberculosis during his second year.

Hessler is one of only two foreigners in Fuling. Being the centre of constant attention does not help to ease the pressures of daily life in a strange land. Even his students project the entire outside world on to his person; so Hessler becomes a representative of the West and all its strange ways, from his habit of pacing the classroom to his impossibly long nose. The town itself can be a frightening place for the inexperienced visitor, as dozens of natives spill out into the street to watch the foreigner. The confusion of the language, compounded with shouting and stares, is stressful; Hessler's response is to cruise around wearing headphones, ploughing through crowds to the tune of Dr Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. The noise and pollution, however, as the author slowly grows used to the town, gradually fade away.

College life is suffused with political meaning. Even a simple game of volleyball is made to assume patriotic significance. The Motherland should triumph over America, so the referee allows Hessler's opponents to foul while whistling at Hessler for imagined violations (he and his fellow American wisely abandoned the tournament). Despite such cultural tensions, he attempts to share fully the lives of local people, even directing a production of Hamlet, with his students as actors, and running for his college in the town marathon. Like other foreigners who have opted to live in China for a few years in order to understand the country better, he is a quick learner; he masters such disparate skills as the way to sip tea with petals unfolding on the surface of his cup and the many drinking games which invariably take place during official banquets.

Even Communism, as seen through Hessler's eyes, seems no longer entirely alien; the author describes it as a system in which words and meaning have parted company, as all that seems to matter to his students is the correct terminology and appropriate theories through which to view the world. In this universe dominated by party politics, the Party recruits the most charismatic and intelligent students. Hessler is quick to point at parallels in the West; he observes that in American universities, for instance, pretentious words, such as postmodernism or new historicism, are peddled in English departments, while books, often written long before literary theory was devised, are invoked to serve political theories in literary criticism. Dead white males, paradoxically, are far better appreciated in Fuling College than at Princeton University, as, in Fuling, the students read for pleasure; perhaps they do so as an escape from classes on Building Chinese Socialism, just as Hessler had escaped from Deconstructionism. He happily reads poetry with his students, while Fuling goes about its business.

Hessler underlines the sheer predictability of so many ideas in a country which is often portrayed by outsiders as 'inscrutable'. He discovers myriad ways of eliciting a standard response, not only to the official evaluation of Mao's role during the Cultural Revolution (he was '70 per cent right': Hessler tries to suggest that he could have been 67 per cent right, only to be gently but firmly corrected), but also to more popular topics of conversation such as the 'greatness' of Adolf Hitler, the intelligence of the Jews, or the evil of the Opium Wars. Hessler is enterprising enough to abandon the relatively safe grounds of the college and ventures frequently into town to make friends with local people. He discovers that those lacking formal education are often left free to think; refreshing alternatives to the drone of official rhetoric are to be found far away from the educated elites.

Hessler may be an example of patience and open-mindedness; yet some aspects of life in Fuling none the less start to disturb him, not least the discovery that his mail is monitored and his letters censored; some of his students -no doubt the best -are political informers. On the other hand, the benefits of being a foreigner in China can outweigh the difficulties. Foreign guests are often treated much better than the average person, and Hessler is approached with unexpected kindness by complete strangers. With patience and trust, Hessler sees that it is possible to participate in and understand local life, whether a social encounter, an invitation to dinner from a stranger, or an unexpected gesture from a difficult cadre. Hessler learns how to live alongside 'He Wei', his given Chinese name, as he develops a different self and assumes a free identity. Even in his apartment, Hessler takes to using two desks, one for the American writer and one for the student of Chinese. He Wei takes time and effort to deal with an alien culture, and only at the end of his stay realizes how much has also been done by his local friends to reach out to him. His teacher Kong, the photographer Ke Xianlong, the noodle-shop owner Huang Xiaoqiang, are all described as big-hearted people who made many efforts to cross the cultural divide. River Town is a poignant and beautifully written account of a backwater about to face the onslaught of socialist modernity.

As Hessler is attuned to the sounds of daily life in China, so Ma Jian's universe is permeated with smells. In Red Dust, his enthralling account of three years spent on the road, bad odours, of coal smoke, dirty teeth, used socks, putrescent dung and stale urine, assault the reader on almost every page. Ma Jian is an artist and photographer who lives in a crumbling old shack surrounded by red-brick tower blocks, pigeon droppings and prying eyes. He is harassed by the police who dislike his long hair, loud music and denim jeans, is estranged from his divorced wife and daughter and betrayed by his girlfriend, so he decides to buy a ticket to Urumqi in search of himself and his country. As the red walls of Beijing slip by, an extraordinary journey starts to unfold, taking the author and the reader to havens of beauty in the desert and haunting scenes of human cruelty in the country's overpopulated cities. From the isolated grasslands in the hinterland to the teeming cities of the coast, this book offers a unique portrait of Chinese society in the early 1980s.

Ma often abandons public transport to take to the road with a pair of plimsolls, a straw hat and a backpack, sojourning in small villages with mud houses in Gansu, staying with Kazak nomads in a tent, crossing the desert to reach the Qinghai Lake, or finding a path through the jungle to visit the Li people on Hainan Island. A compass helps him to orient himself, although at times he loses his way and once or twice comes close to death. Bleak and backward villages are only a part of Ma Jian's odyssey. He relies on fake letters of recommendation - indispensable in China for every move - to visit places of institutional desolation, such as a detoxification centre, a maternity ward and a leprosy camp. Where a country is ruled by a band of thugs, Ma observes, men behave like savages, and he rarely misses an opportunity to seek out human misery. On his spiritual pilgrimage, however, he expresses little sympathy for the many individuals - friends from literary circles, party cadres or complete strangers - on whose extraordinary hospitality he so crucially depends. Contrary to Peter Hessler, who seeks to understand local people on their own terms, Ma Jian is keen to pass judgment, dismissing the various places and people he encounters as so many black holes unsuitable for his higher aspirations. Seeing himself as a key figure of the country's artistic community, he disparages the pursuit of material goods by the very friends who generously give him their money.

Ma's disdain for the uneducated is even more telling; when one brick bed has to be shared with four peasants in a cave in Yanan, he waits for them to nod off before stretching out on top of them. Whether this is "one of the most important voices in Chinese literature", as the Nobel Prizewinner Gao Xingjian claims on the dust jacket, or merely a self-important voice whose lack of empathy for fellow human beings fatally mars a promising book, is open to debate. As a painter and poet, however, Ma Jian has an undeniable talent for bringing China to life, from the primeval jungle with a canopy resembling a deserted cathedral to the moths glowing under the dirty ceiling light of a cramped room filled with sweating bodies. River Town and Red Dust provide an unforgettable sense of what it is like to live in China since the death of Mao.