River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
"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." (text taken from Amazon)
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River Town: So good that I read it in one week despite the fact that 3rd Quarter grades were also due
River Town tells the story of Peter Hessler's two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling in the Sichuan province of China. As Peter points out in the author's note, he tells stories of his experiences as a teacher in each chapter and then provides history/geographical information in little blurbs after each chapter. Much of the book highlights Peter learning social norms and his reflections on the culture of Fuling and his students. The book is not a cut and dry history nor is it merely a straightforward autobiography. In many ways for me, it read like a novel despite being non-fiction.
So many of Peter's stories were funny, insightful, or simply bizarre. I enjoyed the chapter where he discussed how he was taken to a banquet merely to convince him to write an article about American literature. At this banquet, Peter describes the social norms for drinking and the different rules you might invoke (a friend taking your drink for you) in order to avoid getting drunk too quickly.Another story I enjoyed was Peter's participation in a race. Earlier in the book, he and Adam had attempted to play basketball, but were called for so many fouls that they eventually gave up. I was laughing as he described the race because I could envision the huge numbers of people falling behind after the initial sprint (maybe due to being out of shape or the weak lungs after smoking so many Magnificent Sound cigarettes). Also, there were countless people yelling "waiguoren" (outsider, foreigner) at him during the race, some with admiration and some with disdain. This wasn't shocking or profound; rather, it just had me thinking that for almost all of my life I have lived in an area where I am part of the majority (other than a few vacations/learning tours). When Peter's students were performing Hamlet, I was blown away. I co-teach a World History course with an English teacher and they're working on Hamlet right now. I was impressed by the insight of Peter's students as well as their confidence on the stage. My students were not thesbians like the college students of Fuling.
I talk about the building of the Three Gorges Dam as another example of China's coming out party which really starts with Deng's Reform and Opening Up. I think this book does an excellent job of highlighting what some average (for the Chinese, Sichuan is kind of a backwater place) citizens think of major issues in China. From an American perspective, we jump to the negative consequences of the Three Gorges Dam without stopping to acknowledge the affected people's opinions. The same goes for how the Chinese view Mao, Zhou Enlai, and Deng. This book offers several opportunities to zoom in on Chinese culture and history from a bird's eye view, instead of the typical satellite view in a survey course. I also was fascinated by Peter's students and their thoughts on Robin Hood. I might use this example to talk about ethnocentrism and how people might interpret your heroes/villains differently.
Reading this was no chore; instead, it has me eagerly awaiting my summer trip to China!
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler
World History AP
Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler
Published in 2001, River Town is the first book by Peter Hessler, currently a reporter for The New Yorker. This book would be an excellent addition to the AP World History course curriculum. It is part travelogue, part memoir and part ethnography describing the experiences of Hessler when he was a Peace Corps volunteer, assigned to teach English literature at a teacher’s college in Fuling, China between 1996 and 1998.
The book chronicles Hessler’s stint at a particularly interesting and transformative time in China’s history. He describes with empathy and humor the experience of one smallish Chinese city, Fuling, two decades after the opening of China and just at the moment when China is taking off economically.
Hessler learns Chinese during his stay and this allows him to be not only an observer, but also a keen listener, offering readers insights into Chinese contemporary culture as well as comparisons to American culture. This would not have been possible with a non-Chinese speaker. For instance, during a trip to Yulin in Shaanxi, Hessler is invited by a group of young people home for a reunion to spend the day, eating lunch, visiting a Buddhist temple and splashing in the Red Cliff Gorge. When asked if this would happen in America, Hessler writes, “I tried to imagine having a reunion with my friends in America and picking up a random foreigner and spending the day with him, simply out of curiosity and kindness. “No.” I said. “It’s not quite the same as this in my country.”
While describing a trip to Xinjiang, home of Uighurs in the west of China, Hessler provides insights into Chinese views on race and colonialism. This section of the book was particularly valuable for World History AP teachers because these are central themes of the course. Hessler notes on this visit that the Chinese were “bad colonist’s”. They had strong ideas about race, rarely respected religion and had trouble considering a non-Chinese point of view. According to Hessler, this stemmed from the powerful sense of pride the Chinese people had in their own culture. While this had allowed them to survive the Cultural Revolution and current opening to the outside world, it also meant that the Chinese were narrowly minded and had failed to learn the local language or to make friends with the local Uighurs in Xinjiang. Hessler explains these attitudes noting that for the Chinese, only one generation removed from serious poverty, the region was benefitting from the government built roads, railways and schools. An idealization by Westerners of the freedom and local culture of the Uighurs was ridiculous in the face of what the Chinese saw in the region, which was misery and ignorance.
In the classroom teachers could pair this book with an examination of what China has experienced since the late 1990’s, which includes the flooding of the region by the Three Gorges Dam and explosive urbanization. A valuable resource for student analysis is Hessler’s own National Geographic March 2013 article “Return to River Town” with accompanying photos taken 15 years after River Town was published. Hessler’s 2013 account dramatically shows the explosive growth of Fuling but also the continuities of people’s lives that continue to revolve around the Yangtze, a river that “runs forever”.
Book review for classroom use for River Town
Book Review for River Town
Dr. Patricia A. Sheahan, Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at Duquesne University.
I recommend this book for high school and college students who want to “see” China as it was and is; past and present pointing to the future. The book is a great study about an evolving country, change and vitality, tension and reform, disruption and growth of a people, places they live, and country loosening its past to accommodate its future. This book would make a great Book Club selection for students of higher education who are studying world cultures. A classroom teacher could develop a series of Book Club or Literature Circle questions for beginning dialogue, offer Web Quests as part of the World Cultures curriculum, develop a list of portfolio options as demonstration of understanding the reading of this book.
The book, Rivertown, is a classic recording of the life of an American teacher and writer living in China. The book is a beautiful and somewhat poetic account of the author’s two years on the Yangtze. Peter Hessler lives in Beijing, China and regularly contributes his writing to The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and National Geographic.
Readers of this memoir, travelogue, and anthropological writing discuss the book as “a story in prose, purposeful telling of local life, an account of a backwater area facing socialist modernity, the descriptive report of politics and history of China hooking with the heart and soul of China, observations about the Chinese and the ways Communism and increasing openness affects the people and the country.” The book is powerful and enchanting and offers a view of China that is both exhilarating and sad.
This book offers full view about real life in contemporary China and how the significantly vast environment appears before a young American embracing the culture and the country. The story captures what China once was and what China is becoming by involving oneself in the account of Hessler’s life China’s Sichuan province in the small city of Fuling. Historically, Fuling enjoyed continuity far removed from bustling centers of Beijing andl Shanghai, but Fuling begins to head down a new path of significant change. The author states so clearly that “As the people of Fuling hold on to the China they know, they are also opening up and struggling to adapt to a world in which their fate is uncertain.”
High school and college students will appreciate this intimate and personal story of Peter Hessler’s life in Fuling and will find the book to be a colorful, beautifully written account of the surrounding landscape and its history. Imaginative, poignant, funny, and utterly compelling, River Town will inform and inspire readers in this unforgettable portrait of a city that, much like China itself, is seeking to understand both what it was and what it someday will be.
River Town very true to own personal experience
This book is a long read, but I had a personal interest in it. My daughter, adopted in 2003, is from Fuling, the town that the author spent two years teaching in. His description of the sounds and smells of that town were so accurate that it brought me back to the time I spent there. There is so much in the book about East versus West contrasts and also cultural misunderstandings that it is worthwhile to read in order to make one more aware of perceptions and beliefs of others. Peter's constant mentioning of the car horns honking and people staring made me laugh, because it was so true. I wonder how much this town has changed since the construction of the dam- I know that much of Fuling is now under water and its residents relocated. I'm glad that Peter recorded his experiences so that there is a record of how it used to be. If you really want to know what life as an American would be like in town in China, this is the book you want to read.
This is an excellent, contemporary resource for those wanting to learn more about life along the Yangtze. Especially helpful are the West meets East impresions that the author shares from his own experiences as a Peace Corps member. It is helpful for readers to have some general knowledge about China prior to reading. This book could be used with students in grades 10-12. However, I would not recommend using it as a class novel due to its length, nearly 400 pages. It would make an excellent addition to a reading list for students.