River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

by Peter Hessler


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060855024
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/25/2006
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 187,332
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.97(d)

About 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.


Beijing, China

Date of Birth:

June 14, 1968

Place of Birth:

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


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.

What People are Saying About This

Simon Winchester

To come across a Westerner patient enough and tolerant enough to try to understand the immense, exasperating, and ultimately lovable entity that is China is always a pleasure. To encounter one who is as literate and sensitive as Peter Hessler is a joy. this tender, intelligent, and insightful account of tow years spent teaching deep in the country's heart is the work of a writer of rare talent: it deserves to become a classic.—(Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman)


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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River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My son who lives as a foreigner in China directed me to read the book, and I found it wonderful. . Not only does it provide a dynamic insight into the country's present thinking (through Hessler's students' essays), but it allows us to watch his efforts to move gently and gracefully through his local society, with varying success. . Not only is the book enlightening, but it's wonderfully entertaining, as we share the bittersweet adventure of joining a culture that's so hard to decode. I read the book before a trip to Beijing, and thought about it every day.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is excellent. Hessler's very eloquent, descriptive, humorous and poetic at times. I've highlighted almost every passage because his observations are impecable, very poignant, honest, and very funny. Hessler's quite a character. I'm actually going to give my family a copy of it because we travel so much and we spend our time trying to understand and fit in with other cultures. And this one time I wanted to know how others try to understand ours. I feel very lucky to have stumbled upon Hessler's River Town. Can't praise it enough.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While this book is excellent for people unfamiliar with China, it is also highly recommended for those with a more in depth knowledge. I myself have spent time in Taiwan and China and was often struck by how accurate Hessler's observations were. The section on Chinese photo albums and the rather bizarre photo culture there was hilarious, as was the section on the English names Chinese people take. I also identified with Hessler's alternate personality, his self in Chinese, Ho Wei. Anyone who studies Chinese has this other personality...kind of dumb, illiterate, and not at all erudite or funny. This book will make you laugh out loud, but it also has a serious side, discussing issues such as the sky-high rates of suicide among women in China, the educational atmosphere in a system tightly controlled by the CCP, and the death of Deng Xiaoping.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book 3 days ago and was soon completely absorbed in reading it. It was fascinating to see China through Hessler's observations. His wrote his experience as an American teacher in Fuling with great humor and prose, backed by sharp oberservations and intellectual vigor. This is a must read for anyone with an interest in China!
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's a great book for people who want to understand the Chinese culture. I feel enlightened reading the book. I know my own culture better through a foreigner's eyes. Peter Hessler caught those moments a native Chinese will never pay attention to. I truly enjoy his sense of humor and good writing. I hope he can find more interesting things to write about during his stay in China.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A skilled writer, at times waxing poetic, with a graceful style, yet realistic in his portrayal both of his own reactions and of the Chinese. A few times Hessler could have benefitted from an editor's wisdom, shortening some of his descriptive narrative of interactions and personalities encountered. But that's a minor quibble, since I was eager to continue reading and eventually completed the book. I'd certainly recommend this bok anyone interested in contemporary China. I learned, for instance, that Chinese, even in a fairly rigid political and cultural climate, are quite as capable of self reflection and critique, independent thinking, and creative entrepreneurship as anyone else is.
cdrdot More than 1 year ago
Very well written story about a young man's experience teaching at a Chinese Teachers College in a very remote area. His characters are alive and well developed. Author highlights the positive and negative personality traits of himself, his fellow Americans and the Chinese people he encounters. I did not want the story to end.
llamamia More than 1 year ago
River Town provides an enlightening account of what it is like to live & work in rural China. I wish the individual who lived in Chongqing & wrote a previous review had been more specific in their criticism, as it appears to me that Hessler tried his best to meet & honestly assess the lives & feelings of the people in this remote area. I also found it interesting to hear what cautionary training the Peace Corp provided for someone to work in a Communist country & how the volunteers were able to cope with multiple issues & problems. Hessler writes with clarity & a touch of humor which makes the history lesson included more fun. I look forward to reading his two sequels, Oracle Bones & Country Driving.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Peter Hesslers book, RIVER TOWN, gives the reader an outstanding look at contemporary China. As he does so, he teaches the reader a few Chinese words here and there. This kind of person, Hessler, is exactly who John F. Kennedy had in mind when he created the Peace Corps.
mattviews on LibraryThing 28 days ago
In his concluding remarks of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler points us to the nub of his experience in China:"I had never had any idealistic illusions about my Peace Corps 'service' in China; I wasn't there to save anybody or leave an indelible mark on the town. If anything, I was glad that during my two years in Fuling I hadn't built anything, or organized anything, or made any great changes to the place. I had been a teacher, and in my spare time I had tried to learn as much as possible about the city and its people. That was the extent of my work, and I was comfortable with those roles and I recognized their limitations."In fall 1996, Peter Hessler, at the age of 26, took a Peace Corps assignment that relocated him to a small town in the Sichuan province of China. Many natives let alone a young American who made his inaugural entrance into the country did not know and hear of Fuling. It's a former coal-mining town that is bounded by the Yangtze and the Wu. Chongqing and the Three Gorges are just hours away by boats. The book chronicles, in a rather casual but detailed way, Peter's teaching experience at the Fuling Education College and his life and anecdotes in town. Interwoven into Peter's diary are descriptions of local landmarks and customs. This book is by far the most passionate and yet accurate and objective account written any foreigners. Peter really does possess a keen sense of his surroundings. Throughout his crisp, interesting prose and attention to details, the Chinese 'laobaixing' (common people) become alive as if we are actually interacting with them.I am in awe of how far Peter has gone in making meticulous observations of the Chinese culture and its people. A lot of what he mentions in this book is often overlooked by foreigners. To cite some examples:1)Cultural shock: Wherever Peter goes in town, he often gathers a crowd looking dagger at him, saying 'hello', calling name and following him. To his surprises later on, he realizes the town has never had a foreign visitor for at least 50 years. It is a mixed bag of xenophobia and curiosity for foreigners. No soon than Peter arrived in town than he realized that foreigners are usually treated differently in daily necessities and accommodation. Certain inns were forbidden to accommodate foreigners due to the untidiness. Foreigners often had to pay a higher fare for the steamboats.2)Teaching style: Learning Chinese was excruciatingly painful for Peter (and for many Americans I'm sure). The Mandarin comes with 4 intonations and the thousands of characters have complicated strokes and dots. Suffice it to say that the slightest mispronunciation or missing a stroke in writing will reap a harsh admonishment from Peter's native Chinese teacher. 'Budui' is the devil word meaning 'wrong'. As Peter has pointed out, the Chinese teaching style is significantly different from the western methods. If a student is wrong, she needed to be corrected (or rebuked) immediately without any quibbling or softening. It is the very strict standard that motivates Peter to determinedly show his teacher he is 'dui' (right). His bitter encounter with the Chinese way enables him to finally relate to his Chinese-American peers, who go to school and become accustomed to the American system of gentle correction. But the Chinese parents expect more-unless you get straight A's, you haven't achieved anything yet! Hey, I can relate to this Peter!3)Hong Kong handover: Little did I know about how the mainland Chinese made such a big deal about the turn-of-the-century event in 1997 until I read Peter's account. His students have been drilled on the shamefulness of history, of how the Britain defeated the Chinese in Opium War, of how China was coerced to cease the fragrant city for 150 years. I knew about how the Chinese (especially the Party leaders) awaited the moment when the five-star red flag ascend to full staff in Hong Kong but shamefulness? The magnitude of the colony's ret
techszewski on LibraryThing 28 days ago
Beautiful book. Kind of experience I wish I had had for myself after collge. This was another book that after reading it pulled me to new parts of China. Never went on a Yangtze cruise or saw the dam in my trip out west. Too many people said it was over-rated. I did, however, SEE the thick murky waters of the Yangtze when I was hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. This is a must read for anyone living in China. Very well written. Would love to see if he's gone back since and to read an article on how the area has changed now that the dam project is complete. And, I'd love to hear what he has to say about the dam being blamed for triggering the earth quake that decimated northern Sichuan province.
JessicaMarie on LibraryThing 28 days ago
River Town is a wonderful book for anyone who wants to learn more about China, or are planning on living abroad for an extended period of time. I thought that the book was very interesting and was fascinated with the way the Chinese of Fuling treated Peter Hessler during his stay. It would be very helpful to know a little about China's past, as Peter Hessler mentions many different movements and leaders without going into detail, which can lead to many readers feeling lost. The reader also has to remember that this book is the opinion of just one person who lived in a remote part of China and should not consider his experiences to be the norm for a forgeiner living in China.
cestovatela on LibraryThing 28 days ago
Among the first group of Peace Corps volunteers allowed in China after the Cultural Revolution, English teacher Peter Hessler is stationed in the remote city of Fujian. Hessler writes about being a foreigner in a recently opened country in an engaging way, but he devotes most of the book to the haunting stories of his students and Chinese friends. The book is marred by a few overly poetic, italicized passages that don't fit in with the rest of the work, but on the whole, this is a beautiful book.
lizhawk on LibraryThing 28 days ago
Peter Hessler reveals the inner life of Fuling, upriver from the Yangtze, o the River Wu. A small (for China) town of 200,000 situated in a fertile river valley, its economy is sustained by grains, tung oil and lacquer wares. Peter and his friend, Adam, taught English in the Teachers' College to gifted students from peasant families. His efforts to learn Chinese and become acculturated lead to insights and observations about this area, and to some degree, about China's recent history.
co_coyote on LibraryThing 28 days ago
Peter Hessler was a Peace Corp volunteer when he spent two years teaching English in Fuling, a Yangtze river town in Sichuan province. This is his well-written and interesting account of the time he spent in the city and traveling around China. I found it an insightful, sympathetic, and illuminating look at the Chinese people and their complex culture. The book is often funny and always interesting. It is a wonderful introduction to China if, like me, you know very little about this important country.
veevoxvoom on LibraryThing 28 days ago
I¿m normally a bit wary about books where Americans (or any First World citizen) explore developing countries, especially when it¿s a country my family happens to be from and where I spent part of my childhood. But I shouldn¿t have worried this time. Peter Hessler writes tenderly but with clear-sighted accuracy. Even though I¿ve never been to Sichuan, I see a lot of truth in his observations, and some that he opened my eyes to (the awkward Chinese laugh, yes!). His humour, patience, and willingness to put his ego aside made him a great writer for the subject. I also liked that he taught English lit, particularly his classes on Shakespeare. Shakespeare in China brought back a lot of memories for me! River Town is probably the best travelogue of China that I¿ve read yet. Definitely recommended.
Seajack on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Engaging story of a Peace Corps volunteer's two years as a teacher in a remote Chinese city. Looking forward to reading his recent book on China.
pbirch01 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
River Town by Peter Hessler is a good story and being able to relate to it as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer makes it even better. Hessler tells his story of two years of Peace Corps service living in a small city on the Yangtze River. Hessler tells his story well and is able to weave in the thoughts and emotions of the storyline without distracting the reader. Its often difficult to relate living in a different country to people who may not ever have been to that country but Hessler does it with skill by slowly adding thoughts and insights as the story progressed. He also does an excellent job of describing certain aspects of living abroad such as perception of one's home country as well as learning the local language and customs. Although the average reader may never visit Fuling, China, they can be taken there with this book.
breic2 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This is a fantastic book, much better than Hessler's more recent "Oracle Bones." It has many telling anecdotes of Hessler's two years living in Fuling (near Chongqing, on the Yangtze River, partly flooded now from the Three Gorges Dam) as an English teacher. Very insightful.
HollowellTheForgottenRoom More than 1 year ago
Peter Hessler’s book about his two years teaching in the Peace Corps in China brims with humor and generosity. His enthusiasm for Shakespeare and poetry are clearly contagious. Thank you for taking us on this international journey. Kudos to a rebel, a runner, and an extremely talented writer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Contemporary Chinese Anthropology at its finest. Highly recommended.
DoranneLongPTMS More than 1 year ago
This exceptionally written book is a must read! Peter captures, in a very sensitive way, the life of a Peace Corp English teacher in China. He shares the difficulties, and the wonders, of his experience, and places his own time living within the context of China's ancient history, and now rapid changes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I can usually make it through just about any book but I had to abandon this one. It was interesting up to a point to learn about the Chinese culture and that geographic region and some of the Chinese history. But I kept waiting for a story that never came. I gave up at page 127. Nice writing but just couldn't grab my interest for the long haul.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is fun to read. I had very little understanding of anything about China or the Peace Corps and this book takes you inside the life of a small College but also brings the perspective of a foreigner in a rural river town. It is well written and hard to put down.I am so glad that I read it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago