River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

by Peter Hessler
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

by Peter Hessler


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060855024
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/25/2006
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 276,363
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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