River Town discussion questions

1. Peter Hessler felt like he was “on display” in a way that was uncomfortable for him at first. Have you ever been in a similar situation here in the US or in another country? Who in this country feels like that – who do we as a nation stare at or call uncomplimentary names? What stereotypes did the Chinese have about Peter that he was able to dispell? Which were a little too close to the truth?

2. Peter Hessler indicated that there were several topics that the Chinese all appeared to have the same opinion about. What were those topics? Which of our national myths could be questioned in a similar way? Which did Peter learn to question?

3. China is definitely experiencing a generation gap, as those who experienced the cultural revolution and the hunger/poverty that went with it become grandparents and parents. The children of this “one child is enough” country are all single children and many of them have never known poverty. They will not have the insecurity and thriftiness that their parents have. How is this similar or different from our generation who experienced the Great Depression versus us as following after that?

4. Peter was in China in the Peace Corps from 96 to 98. He was in a rural area rather than a large city. We will see many changes in China from the descriptions that Peter made even 10 years ago. We may not get enough background in this book, but we need to explore and discuss the events in China since 1911 to get a flavor for what the various generations experienced. The story of the priest in Yulin is an example of the kind of life story that bears study.

5. The differences between rural, small city, and large city people in China is striking. America had or has similar differences. Certainly “The Waltons” TV series had episodes where they contrasted New York City to Walton’s mountain. Are the current disparities in China greater in magnitude to those differences? Need to note that historically those involved in agriculture had a higher social status and standard of living than those in the cities. At what point historically did things start to shift in China?

6. The Chinese truly have and still do view themselves as the center of the universe, strong and capable of being a dominant superpower. America has tended to view the Chinese as backward in some manner even though they have never viewed themselves in that way. I’d like to take time to talk through the history of technology and knowledge in China, their musical notations, the history of their written language, etc. The concept of a continuous civilization for 3500 years. This would mean that they were around since the time of the Egyptians, through the Greeks, through the Romans, and through until today. (See .gif file on Veatch desktop)

World history timeline
7. Pg. 45 – Peter’s struggle with the politicization of literature in the West, and really is the co-opting of literature for Communist propoganda that much different than using literature to support feminist views or Marxist views?

8. Is Fox News the American version of the group thought machine that Chinese schools end up being? Television, chain restaurants, chain stores, advertising, mass culture here in the US has been responsible for a homogenization of views across the country and between big cities and small towns. Is anything similar to that happening in China? Is the consumer culture what keeps all of us in line? Will that work the same way in China?