River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

( 27 )


A New York Times Notable Book

Winner of the Kiriyama Book Prize

In the heart of China's Sichuan province, amid the terraced hills of the Yangtze River valley, lies the remote town of Fuling. Like many other small cities in this ever-evolving country, Fuling is heading down a new path of change and growth, which came into remarkably sharp focus when Peter Hessler arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer, marking the first time in more than half a ...

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A New York Times Notable Book

Winner of the Kiriyama Book Prize

In the heart of China's Sichuan province, amid the terraced hills of the Yangtze River valley, lies the remote town of Fuling. Like many other small cities in this ever-evolving country, Fuling is heading down a new path of change and growth, which came into remarkably sharp focus when Peter Hessler arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer, marking the first time in more than half a century that the city had an American resident. Hessler taught English and American literature at the local college, but it was his students who taught him about the complex processes of understanding that take place when one is immersed in a radically different society.

Poignant, thoughtful, funny, and enormously compelling, River Town is an unforgettable portrait of a city that is seeking to understand both what it was and what it someday will be.

Third-place winner of Barnes & Noble's 2001 Discover Great New Writers Award for Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
When President Kennedy conceived of the Peace Corps, he probably didn't imagine that it would give birth to a body of such poignant and powerful travel literature. Peter Hessler's River Town is a delightful addition to the pantheon of Peace Corps literature that recounts the trials and triumphs of "the toughest job you'll ever love."

The erudite Hessler volunteered to teach English literature at a teacher's college in Fuling, China, a small city -- by Chinese standards -- of 250,000 along the Yangtze River. Fuling wasn't renowned for anything in particular, but the city's fate was soon to change as the Chinese government unrolled its highly controversial Three Gorges river dam project. Hessler beautifully depicts the rhythms and sounds of a sleepy city on the cusp of great transition. He alternates descriptions of his daily adventures in Fuling with character studies of its notable, colorful, and sometimes wacky residents. He excels in bringing Fuling to life and sharing with the reader its unique qualities and complexities.

But it's in the classroom that Hessler finds writer's gold. His wry and warm descriptions of his students and their stories are rich and real, and make for excellent reading. The tales include Hessler's role in aiding an individualistic student's quest for government-suppressed information and advising a naïve graduate on the trappings of men and life in the big city. There are also tense sessions with Hessler's fiercely patriotic, party-line-toeing Chinese-language tutor, whose daily debates and language lessons he describes as "opium wars."

By far the most brilliant aspect of River Town is the way in which Hessler uses his students' own words -- from their essays to retellings of the plays they put on in class -- to provide insight into the experiences of a new generation of Chinese people. His students' perspectives on communism, democracy, America, civil liberties, and the great protagonists of English literature are simultaneously earnest and priceless, and Hessler's clever use of them to enrich his own narrative is the mark of a great storyteller.

Hessler also travels extensively throughout some of China's far-flung, lesser-known regions. His encounters on boats and trains provide another look at the issues facing China at the end of the millennium: its struggle for identity, its tense relationship with itself and other countries, and the basic human struggles of its massive population.

While each Peace Corps experience brings with it a host of unique and compelling circumstances, Hessler's two years in Fuling coincided with several especially important moments in modern Chinese history. Among them were the death of Deng Xiaoping and Britain's transfer of Hong Kong back to Chinese control, both in 1997. These events serve as the context within which Hessler explores and explains China. By his own admission, he was only able to scratch the surface of this multifaceted, intricate, and deeply complicated country during his two years of Peace Corps service. But readers doubtless will be moved and enlightened by Hessler's stories of life in China. His thoughtful and well-written account will enrich and educate, as well as incite a yearning within readers for more information about this incredible land. (Emily Burg)

Emily Burg is a New York-based freelancer.

Adam Goodheart
River Town is an important work of reportage, and not just because of the peculiar historical moment it describes -- a moment when Hessler's students can speak of their sincere admiration for the Communist ideals of Chairman Mao, then go off after graduation to seek their fortune in the tumultuous prosperity of China's southern cities. It's also a window into a part of China -- the province of Sichuan -- that has rarely been explored in depth, even though, as Hessler notes, it is home to one out of every 50 people on earth.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In China, the year 1997 was marked by two momentous events: the death of Deng Xiaoping, the country's leader for two decades, and the return of Hong Kong after a century and a half of British rule. A young American who spent two years teaching English literature in a small town on the Yangtze, Hessler observed these events through two sets of eyes: his own and those of his alter ego, Ho Wei. Hessler sees China's politics and ceremony with the detachment of a foreigner, noting how grand political events affect the lives of ordinary people. The passing of Deng, for example, provokes a handful of thoughtful and unexpected essays from Hessler's students. The departure of the British from Hong Kong sparks a conversational "Opium War" between him and his nationalist Chinese tutor. Meanwhile, Ho Wei, as Hessler is known to most of the townspeople, adopts a friendly and unsophisticated persona that allows him to learn the language and culture of his surroundings even as Hessler's Western self remains estranged. The author conceives this memoir of his time in China as the collaborative effort of his double identity. "Ho Wei," he writes, "left his notebooks on the desk of Peter Hessler, who typed everything into his computer. The notebooks were the only thing they truly shared." Yet it's clear that, for Hessler, Ho Wei is more than a literary device: to live in China, he felt compelled to subjugate his real identity to a character role. Hessler has already been assured the approval of a select audience thanks to the New Yorker's recent publication of an excerpt. (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This moving, mesmerizing memoir recounts Hessler's two years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in the city of Fuling, located in the heart of China. Before Hessler's arrival, no one in Fuling had seen a foreigner for 50 years. Hessler was rudely thrust into this forbidden land, completely isolated from the world as we know it. Armed with astute powers of observation, acute sensitivity to cultural differences, and a good command of Chinese, he explores the culture, politics, traditions, and ideas of a people completely unknown and mysterious to the Western World. Hessler also watches as the city--torn between tradition and the onslaught of modern times--reacts to the death of Deng Xiaoping, the return of Hong Kong to the mainland, and the inevitable construction of the Three Gorges Dam on its beloved, and sacred, Yangtze River. This touching memoir of an American dropped into the center of China transcends the boundaries of the travel genre and will appeal to anyone wanting to learn more about the heart and soul of the Chinese people. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/00.]--Melinda Stivers Leach, Precision Editorial Svcs., Wondervu, CO Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A two-year sojourn in a small city in central China yields this youthful, gracefully impressionistic portrait of a time and place from newcomer Hessler. In 1996, Hessler reported for his Peace Corps duty to Fuling, a city of some 200,000 souls astride the murky Yangtze River, which cuts through the green and terraced mountains of Sichuan Province. This account is a chronicle of the author's days in Fuling and of a brief summer interlude of travel farther afield. Hessler's writing is unselfconsciously mellow, a lazy pace that works admirably in conjuring up Fuling as a place. There is the gentle knock of the croquet ball in the morning when the court below his window comes to life. There is this river city of steps pressed against hills; there are ridgelines cut with ancient calligraphy and pictographs that disappear under water during the rainy season. There are his students—a poignant, watershed generation who delight him to no end. Big things happen while he is in China (the Three Gorges Project is in full swing and Deng Xiaoping dies), but it is the everyday stuff that is so affecting. The surprise and unpredictability of the townsfolk catch him unawares more than once, he feels the sensitivity of being a foreigner, with all eyes upon him and little cultural abrasions everywhere:"Those were our Opium Wars—quiet and meaningless battles over Chinese and American history, fueled by indirect remarks and careful innuendo." And he loves it, despite the dislocations and frustrations: even the creepy drinking bouts at banquets ("Every banquet has a leader, a sort of alcoholic alpha male") and the relentless mocking of his foreignness by strangers (for, althoughthePeaceCorps is no longer considered a running-dog outfit, foreigners are nonetheless seen as freaks) become sources of nostalgia after a while. A vivid and touching tribute to a place and its people. First serial to the New Yorker
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060855024
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/25/2006
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 154,838
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as the Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007, and is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He is the author of River Town, which won the Kiriyama Prize; Oracle Bones, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and, most recently, Country Driving. He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting, and he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011. He lives in Cairo.


Peter Hessler, one of four children, was born in 1969, in Pittsburgh, but moved shortly thereafter to Columbia, Missouri. His father is a recently retired professor of sociology at the University of Missouri, and his mother teaches history at Columbia College.

Hessler attended Princeton University, where he majored in English and Creative Writing. The summer before graduation, he worked as a researcher for the Kellogg Foundation in southeastern Missouri, where he wrote a long ethnography about a small town called Sikeston. This became his first significant publication, appearing in the Journal for Applied Anthropology.

In 1992, Hessler entered Oxford University, where he studied English Language and Literature at Mansfield College. After graduating in 1994, he traveled for six month in Europe and Asia. One of the highlights of that trip was taking the trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Beijing. That journey resulted in his first published travel story, an essay that appeared in The New York Times in 1995. And that journey was his first introduction to China.

He spent the following year freelancing and attempting to write a book about his travels. Although the book didn't work out, he was able to publish travel stories in a range of newspapers, including The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, and The Newark Star-Ledger, among others. In 1995, he received the Stratton Fellowship, a grant from the Friends of Switzerland and spent two months hiking 650 miles across the Alps. Afterwards he continued to freelance, writing travel stories for American newspapers while teaching freshman composition at the University of Missouri. He also organized volunteer projects for students on campus.

In 1996 he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to China. For two years, he taught English at a small college in Fuling, a city on the Yangtze River. While living in Fuling, he studied Mandarin Chinese and became proficient in the language.

After completing his Peace Corps service in 1998, he traveled to Tibet, where he researched a long article, "Tibet Through Chinese Eyes," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in February of 1999. Following that trip, he returned to Missouri and wrote River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. While working on the book, he continued to write travel stories for The New York Times and other newspapers. In March of 1999, Hessler decided to return to China independently and try to establish himself as a freelance writer.

Over the following years, he traveled widely in China and freelanced for a variety of publications. For a brief spell, he was accredited as the Boston Globe stringer in Beijing. In 2000, The New Yorker began publishing some of his stories; the following year, he became the first New Yorker correspondent to be accredited as a full-time resident correspondent in the People's Republic.

In 2000, Hessler also started researching stories for National Geographic Magazine. The first assignment was a story about Xi'an archaeology, which sparked his interest in researching antiquities. Subsequently he accepted an assignment for a story about China's bronze-age cultures, which led to his interest of the oracle bones of the Anyang excavations.

River Town was published in 2001. It won the Kiriyama Prize for outstanding nonfiction book about the Pacific Rim and South Asia. It was also a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover award, and in the United Kingdom it was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. The book has been translated into Korean, Thai, and Hungarian. The Hungarian translation won the Elle Literary Prize for nonfiction in 2004.

Peter Hessler's magazine stories have been selected for the Best American Travel Writing anthologies of 2001, 2004 and 2005, and also for the Best American Sports Writing anthology of 2004. "Chasing the Wall," a National Geographic story published in 2003, was nominated for a National Magazine Award.

Hessler first conceived of Oracle Bones at the end of 2001 and spent the next four years researching and writing the book.

He currently lives in Beijing.

Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.

Good To Know

"The only steady job I ever held in journalism was delivering the Columbia Missourian," Hessler revealed in our interview. "I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was sixteen years old. Mary Racine, who taught sophomore English at Hickman High School, first encouraged me to take writing seriously. Mary Ann Gates taught juniors and Khaki Westerfield taught seniors; they were all remarkable teachers It makes a big difference to be encouraged at such an early stage."
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    1. Hometown:
      Beijing, China
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 14, 1968
    2. Place of Birth:
      Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
    1. Education:
      Princeton University, Creative Writing and English, 1992; Oxford University, English Language and Literature, 1994

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


I came to Fuling on the slow boat downstream from Chongqing. It was a warm, clear night at the end of August in 1996-stars flickering above the Yangtze River, their light too faint to reflect off the black water. A car from the college drove us along the narrow streets that twisted up from the docks. The city rushed past, dim and strange under the stars.

There were two of us. We had been sent to work as teachers, and both of us were young: I was twenty-seven and Adam Meier was twenty-two. We had heard almost nothing about Fuling. I knew that part of the city would be flooded by the new Three Gorges Dam, and I knew that for many years Fuling had been closed to outsiders. Other than that I had been told very little.

No Americans had lived there for half a century. Later, I would meet older people in town who remembered some American residents in the 1940s, before the 1949 Communist Liberation, but such memories were always vague. When we arrived, there was one other foreigner, a German who was spending a semester teaching at a local high school. But we met him only once, and he left not long after we settled in. After that we were the only foreigners in town. The population was about 200,000, which made it a small city by Chinese standards.

There was no railroad in Fuling. It had always been a poor part of Sichuan province and the roads were bad. To go anywhere you took the boat, but mostly you didn't go anywhere. For the next two years the city was my home.

A week after we arrived, everybody in the college gathered at the front gate. A group of students and teachers hadspent the summer walking from Fuling to Yan'an, the former revolutionary base in northern Shaanxi province, and now they were returning to school.

It was the sixtieth anniversary of the Long March, the six-thousand-mile trek that the Red Army had made during the most critical part of the civil war, when the Kuomintang was on the verge of destroying Mao Zedong's forces. Against all odds the Communists had marched to safety, over the mountains and deserts of western China, and from Yan'an they had steadily built their strength until at last their revolution carried the nation, driving the Kuomintang to Taiwan.

All semester there were special events in the college to commemorate the anniversary of the march. The students took classes on the history of the Long March, they wrote essays about the Long March, and in December there was a Long March Singing Contest. For the Long March Singing Contest, all of the departments practiced their songs for weeks and then performed in the auditorium. Many of the songs were the same, because the musical potential of the Long March is limited, which made the judging difficult. It was also confusing because costumes were in short supply and so they were shared, like the songs. The history department would perform, resplendent in clean white shirts and red ties, and then they would go offstage and quickly give their shirts and ties to the politics department, who would get dressed, rush onstage, and sing the same song that had just been sung. By the end of the evening the shirts were stained with sweat and everybody in the audience knew all the songs. The music department won, as they always did, and English was near the back. The English department never won any of the college's contests. There aren't any English songs about the Long March.

But the summer walk to Yan'an was not a contest, and the return of the Fuling group was by far the biggest event of the Long March season. They had walked more than a thousand miles, all of it in the brutal heat of the Chinese summer, and in the end only sixteen had made it. Thirteen were students, and two were teachers: the Chinese department's Communist Party Secretary and the math department's Assistant Political Adviser. There was also a lower-level administrator, who had burst into tears in the middle of the walk and gained a measure of local fame for his perseverance. All of the participants were men. Some of the women students had wanted to come along, but the college had decided that the Long March was not for girls.

A week before the assembly, President Li, the head of the college, had traveled to Xi'an to meet the marching students, because at the finish of the trek they had run into trouble.

"The students have some kind of problem," said Dean Fu Muyou, the head of the English department, when I asked him what had happened. I think they probably have no money left." And it was true-they had run out of cash, despite their sponsorship by Magnificent Sound cigarettes, the Fuling tobacco company. It struck me as a particularly appropriate way to honor the history of Chinese Communism, to march a thousand miles and end up bankrupt in Yan'an.

But President Li had been able to bail them out, and now the entire student body of the college met in the plaza near the front gate. It was a small teachers college with an enrollment of two thousand students, and it had been opened in 1977, one of many that were founded after the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution had destroyed much of China's education system. On the spectrum of Chinese higher education, this type of teachers college was near the bottom. Courses took three years and the degree was considered lower than a bachelor's, and nearly all of the students came from peasant homes in the countryside of Sichuan province. After graduation they returned to their hometowns, where they became teachers in rural middle schools.

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay

I had a lot of time on my hands in Fuling. My teaching job took about 30 hours a week; I had no access to the Internet; and during my first year there was only one other foreigner in town. There wasn't much on TV. Anybody who called from the outside had to speak Chinese to get the operator to dial my extension. Nobody called from outside. I didn't have many books. I didn't bring a CD player. I traveled light when I came to Sichuan, and my salary of $120 a month made sure that I stayed that way.

All I had was time, which is both the blessing and the curse of the Peace Corps -- all the empty hours and the long days, the slow weeks that stretch to slow months until eventually you find yourself removed from time as you knew it before. Occasionally letters arrived, jarring me with echoes of the world I used to know: wedding invitations, birth announcements, new jobs. My sister had a baby, and I found out three weeks later. My mother wrote every week, but other than that I had few regular correspondents. One of the most faithful letter-writers was my alma mater, which sent regular solicitations looking for a chunk of that 120-dollar salary. I never sent them anything, but it was nice to get the letters anyway. Somebody knew where I was.

At the beginning I spent most of my time studying Chinese, and as I became comfortable with the language I wandered through town, looking for conversations. I was fascinated by daily life -- I got to know the porters who worked down by the Yangtze; I chatted with the shopkeepers; I became friends with the family who owned the noodle shop by the college. In the spring I spent hours in the countryside, watching the peasants plant and transplant the rice. I watched them weed the crop in summer and harvest it in the autumn. The peasants followed a life of cycles, and I sensed that my own routines were slipping into a similar pattern -- not so much aiming toward any particular goal, but rather doing things at a steady pace until it was time to do them again. A semester ended, another began; Chinese language lessons gave way to more advanced lessons. In the evenings I wrote in my diary, knowing that the next day I'd go out and find something else to write about.

Then with six months left in my service, time started to straighten out again. Fuling got access to the Internet, and suddenly I remembered that there was another world out there waiting for me. There were jobs and grad schools and other opportunities. A friend sent me a letter encouraging me to write something about Sichuan. Soon I was thinking seriously about it, and then I started writing, and almost without realizing what had happened I found myself working on a book.

I had always taken extensive notes throughout my time in China, but now the shape of the thing began to form in my mind. I wanted to write it for myself -- I didn't really have any faith in publishing a book, but I figured that someday I'd want it as a souvenir of those wonderful slow months. I started writing sketches -- short third-person descriptions of places and people I knew. Sometimes I'd spend a day in a certain part of town, or with a certain person, and then I'd write five or six pages about it. But I found that I couldn't yet write about my own life in Fuling; I was still too close to that experience. I didn't write anything in the first person until I left China.

I returned to my parents' home in Columbia, Missouri, and wrote the rest of it. The first draft went quickly -- four months, basically. I took the short sketches and put them between the chapters, and I gave the manuscript to one reader -- a writing professor at the University of Missouri named Doug Hunt. He gave me good editing advice, and finally I sent the whole thing to some literary agents whose names I had found on a list.

After that things happened quickly. Most of the agents didn't respond, but two were interested. I went to a shop in downtown Columbia and bought my first suit. I flew to New York and chose an agent, William Clark. He sold the book in a week. I went back to Beijing, to edit and work on freelancing. And since then things really haven't slowed down -- and I sometimes wonder what happened to all those days in Fuling, where I had so much time on my hands.

--Peter Hessler

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