River Town: Two years on the Yangtze
by Peter Hessler
River Town takes place in Fuling, a relatively small city in the Sichuan region of China. Author Peter Hessler taught American and English literature at a local college for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. His immersion into the everyday life of Fuling allowed an intimate glimpse into a closed society which hadn’t had an American resident in over half a century. This provided Hessler both a rare opportunity and a good deal of culture shock as a “waiguoren, ”or foreigner. The reader has the benefit of enjoying Hessler’s richly-detailed observations without any of the drawbacks, such as the noise and pollution of the crowded city.
Hessler’s appreciation for the natural wonders of the region establish a last look at a soon-to-be-bygone world. Fuling’s impending transformation is presently underway. Started before Hessler’s arrival in China, the Three Gorges Dam project just completed construction last year. Spanning the Yangtze River, this massive hydroelectric river dam, the world’s largest, is slated to flood portions of Fuling, displacing more than a million residents.
His careful and insightful analysis of how the perceptions, communication styles and experiences of his students, colleagues, and other Fuling residents differed from his own results in one fascinating story after another. Just being a vicarious observer of Hessler’s two-year sojourn in China gives the reader a uniquely bi-cultural experience. The beauty of this book is that Hessler is able to convey not only the cultural differences but the areas of commonality—the universal nature of the values, thoughts and hopes of the people in this remote region of China.
The assigned papers written by Hessler’s students are especially touching in their open, sincere approaches to literature and their balancing of idealism with the practical need to fit into the current politically-controlled yet rapidly-changing economic and social systems. Excerpts from his students’ papers show what fresh perceptions they brought to familiar figures in English literature—appreciating Grendel, the monster in Beowulf, for possessing Marxist qualities or finding Hamlet too sensitive and selfish —and what openness and sincerity they demonstrated in sharing their hopes and dreams in papers about their own lives.
For On the Same Page, the Library has purchased the 2006 paperback edition of River Town , published by Harper Perennial. It is also available as an unabridged talking book in audiocassette format and in a Chinese language edition.
About the Author
Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Missouri, Peter Hessler is one of four children. Teaching runs in the family—his father is a retired University of Missouri professor of sociology and his mother teaches history at Columbia College. Hessler is a graduate of both Princeton and Oxford universities—an English and Creative Writing major at the former and an English language and literature scholar at the latter.
Originally planning to be a novelist, he became a confirmed nonfiction writer after graduate school, publishing his first travel essay in the New York Times in 1995, continuing to published travel stories in other newspapers, and also teaching freshman composition at the University of Missouri.
In 1996 Hessler did a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling, China -- the basis for what was to become his first book, River Town. After two years, Hessler moved on to Tibet, publishing a long article, “Tibet Through Chinese Eyes,” for the Atlantic Monthly in 1999. He then moved back to Missouri, writing travel stories for the New York Times and other newspapers while also writing River Town.
Later in 1999 Hessler decided to return to China and work as a freelance writer. By 2001, the Mandarin-speaking Hessler became the first full-time resident correspondent in China for the New Yorker. That same year, River Town was published and won the Kiriyama Prize (for outstanding nonfiction about the Pacific Rim and South Asia). It was also a Barnes & Noble Discover Award finalist.
Hessler’s work has appeared in the following anthologies: the 2001, 2004 and 2005 editions of the Best American Travel Writing and the 2004 Best American Sports Writing. His National Geographic story, “Chasing the Wall,” about China’s bronze-age cultures, was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2003. Archaeological research Hessler began in 2000 culminated in the 2006 publication of Hessler’s second book, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present. It was a National Book Award finalist for nonfiction. Hessler now lives in Beijing.
Of Related Interest
Chetham, Deirdre. Before the deluge : the vanishing world of the Yangtze's Three Gorges. New York, N.Y. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002
Coyne, John. Talking with Peter Hessler. In Barnes and Noble.com. An online interview with the author, including biographical information and noting his favorite books, films, and music.
Potts, Rolf. Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding. Talking China with Peter Hessler at Yahoo! News, May 16, 2006.