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River Town [Paperback]

Peter Hessler
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (111 customer reviews)

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River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze 4.7 out of 5 stars (111)
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Book Description

Dec 13 2001
In the heart of China's Sichuan province, tucked away amid the terraced hills of the Yangtze River valley, lies the remote town of Fuling. Like many other small cities in this vast and ever-evolving country, Fuling is shifting gears and heading down a new path, one of change and vitality, tension and reform, disruption and growth.

Its position at the crossroads came into 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 ways of Fuling -- and about the complex process of understanding that takes 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, much like China itself, is seeking to understand both what it was and what it someday will be.

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In 1996, 26-year-old Peter Hessler arrived in Fuling, a town on China's Yangtze River, to begin a two-year Peace Corps stint as a teacher at the local college. Along with fellow teacher Adam Meier, the two are the first foreigners to be in this part of the Sichuan province for 50 years. Expecting a calm couple of years, Hessler at first does not realize the social, cultural, and personal implications of being thrust into a such radically different society. In River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Hessler tells of his experience with the citizens of Fuling, the political and historical climate, and the feel of the city itself.

"Few passengers disembark at Fuling ... and so Fuling appears like a break in a dream--the quiet river, the cabins full of travelers drifting off to sleep, the lights of the city rising from the blackness of the Yangtze," says Hessler. A poor city by Chinese standards, the students at the college are mainly from small villages and are considered very lucky to be continuing their education. As an English teacher, Hessler is delighted with his students' fresh reactions to classic literature. One student says of Hamlet, "I don't admire him and I dislike him. I think he is too sensitive and conservative and selfish." Hessler marvels,

You couldn't have said something like that at Oxford. You couldn't simply say: I don't like Hamlet because I think he's a lousy person. Everything had to be more clever than that ... you had to dismantle it ... not just the play itself but everything that had ever been written about it.
Over the course of two years, Hessler and Meier learn more they ever guessed about the lives, dreams, and expectations of the Fuling people.

Hessler's writing is lovely. His observations are evocative, insightful, and often poignant--and just as often, funny. It's a pleasure to read of his (mis)adventures. Hessler returned to the U.S. with a new perspective on modern China and its people. After reading River Town, you'll have one, too. --Dana Van Nest --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers 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 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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I CAME TO FULING on the slow boat downstream from Chongqing. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent, apolitical piece July 19 2004
This is a brilliant book. This young man came to China with an open mind and is fundamentally different from much of the young expatriate population here, both in terms of his intellingence and his goals in coming. (Typical personalities: "I'm a Loser Back at Home, but when I come to China I'm a Big Man on Mulberry Street." Another: "I'm Young and Bored and Trying to Convince Myself That There is a Communist Revolution Somewhere.")
Some books that have been written have also tried specifically to address the political issues of this vast country. It is more interesting to someone who is not a professional protestor/ academic to see what happens in practice when some of the Romanticized Sacred Cows of Academics are implemented in Real Life (see: Communism, Authoritarianism, Big Government). This is also not taken from the perspective of people that are constantly whining about Human Rights.
In my opinion, the author does a good job of not reinterpreting China in terms of some of these Sacred Cows, be they of whoever.
The prose is clear, elegant and not overwrought with detail. But the reading is not overly light, either. It's just the things that any person would think about if they came here to teach. Or that any person might want to know if they wanted a perspective of China independent of political slants of any type.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth ten stars! May 25 2008
I am not surprised that there are over one hundred reviews of River Town. It is a superb book. If I could I would give it ten stars. The best book I have read in years.

Much is written by others about this book. It is a piece of narrative non-fiction. As such it reads like a novel. A real page turner!

My wife is Chinese. I have spent some time in China. But at a different place (Guangxi province) and time (ten years later). I certainly share Mr. Hessing's attitude towards the hospitality and friendliness of the Chinese people. As he mentions: it is hard to imagine that very many Americans (or Canadians) would invite an odd foreigner into their home after meeting him on the street for the first time. Although I don't speak Chinese they made me feel warm and comfortable in their homes. Mr. Hessing learned to speak Chinese and had an even richer experience for it.

In all the saber rattling towards China, few North Americans seem to appreciate that the Chinese are normal people with hopes and aspirations like all of us. Communism does not change that. This book paints a picture of common Chinese folks. It is required reading for anyone interested in Chinese sociology or, for that matter, anyone interested in a good read. Perhaps Mr. Hessing is the Dashan for the common folk (just joking Mr. Hessing!).
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written, readable, personable and genuine May 9 2003
Without argument, the most casual observer of China over the past thirty years would have to acknowledge that this country has been marked by very significant change. Having a passion for history, and a keen interest in the history of China, I tend to evaluate books based on their value as history. Every time I contemplate the hours of time that will be consumed if I set about to read a given book, I ask, "How will this book enhance my understanding of the history of modern China?" Well, this book is not an exploration of the past, it is a simple observation of a single moment in time by one who lived through it. As history, this book is not strong. But as sociology, it is exceptional. Current sociology is future history, so in that sense, this book is very useful for the purposes I have mentioned. So I read it. Now I must point out that China is a very diverse society. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that China is really a collection of societies. This book is not, by any means, a general statement about life in China. It is the story of life in one small community. But that's OK, because it never pretends to be anything else.
Really, this book is a testimony to the value of paying attention. I am sure that many folks living and working in situations similar to Peter Hessler's would have their own stories to tell. But so often we are fooled by the seeming ordinariness of our own mundane existence. So we live our lives endlessly, day by day without writing the story. Listen to me: If your life isn't worth writing a book about, you're doing something wrong. Change. Move. Do something. But become someone or be in the process of becoming someone that decent folks would really enjoy reading about some day.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Rare Perspective Feb. 6 2002
This is not an easy book to discuss because it does so many things so well. On the surface, it is the story of a young Peace Corps volunteer, named Peter Hessler, who goes to China to teach English literature to college students. The town where the college is located is known as Fuling. It is in the remote province of Sichuan along the Yangtze River. Hessler and his partner, Admam Meier, are the first foreigners to be seen in the town in 50 years. This alone would make Hessler's situation a little unusual, but the fact that both he and Meier immediately begin to question and indirectly challenge the roles they have been assigned, means that Hessler's experiences develop into real adventures.
Hessler's first year in Fuling is characterized by culture shock, disillusionment and a stubborn refusal to give up on his goal of learning to read and speak Chinese. He is shocked by the brainwashing of his students, by their intelligence and insightfulness when they are dealing with subjects that they don't have preprogrammed responses to. He struggles with the isolation imposed on him by the rest of the faculty, and begins to make forays into the hills just to get away from the regemented college routine, pollution and crowding.
In his second year, his Chinese improves and he begins to make friends in Fuling. He is still frustrated by attempts to control what he teaches, still struggles to understand his students' behavior, but he has begun to find his way in this strange new land. He makes friends with two of the professors, is befriended by a family in town and by a few of the people who have stopped to talk with him. On his breaks he travels to other parts of China. He hikes back into the hills for a second year and talks to the farmers.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging introduction to Chinese history and culture
I recently travelled on a Yangtze cruise as well as touring other parts of China. This book was recommended to us by staff on the cruise. Read more
Published 14 months ago by david white
5.0 out of 5 stars Provides great in-sides in Chinese day-to-day living
Having traveled frequently to China myself, Peter Hessler is providing great detail on Chinese society in rural areas like the city of Fuling. Read more
Published on June 25 2011 by herman bijl
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, marvelous, provocative.
Peter Hessler spent two years working as a Peace Corps volunteer while teaching literature in the remote Sichuan province in southern China in the late 1990's. Read more
Published on July 7 2004 by S. Calhoun
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good read
The man is very good at observing human behavior and even better at writing about it. I was very sad when I hit the last page of this very enjoyable read. 'Nuff said!
Published on June 25 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome.
This spring I found myself totally engrossed in a New Yorker article by Peter Hessler. I didn't look up throughout the commute - eyes glued to the page as I navigated myself from... Read more
Published on June 25 2004 by Jenny Steeves
4.0 out of 5 stars A Truly Interesting Experience of the Chinese Culture
River Town was a truly interesting book that put me into Peter Hesslers shoes and introduced me to a culture I knew very little about. Read more
Published on June 10 2004 by Scot
5.0 out of 5 stars An Amazing Experience!
I was so sad to finish reading this book! It is definitely one of the best books that I have read in a long time! Read more
Published on May 17 2004 by meggin8D
5.0 out of 5 stars A book that truly grasps a country's ideas and uncertainty
It had been a long time since I picked up a non fiction book and actually found it intersting. Hessler's book is a fascinating description of a Princeton and Oxford graduate... Read more
Published on April 22 2004 by Justin Holmes
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written and engaging
A well written and engaging account of a young man's tenure as a Peace Corps English teacher in Fuling, a small riverside Chinese town. Read more
Published on April 10 2004 by J. Jacobs
4.0 out of 5 stars I loved it! And learned a lot about China
Hessler's upfront honesty about what he liked and didn't like about Chinese culture as he experienced it makes this is a much truer account of China (or any foreign land) than a... Read more
Published on Feb. 13 2004 by David J. Huber
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