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  • Martina

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler - What is left of '90s China?

Updated: Feb 15

Cover of Peter Hessler's River Town


  • Full Title: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

  • Author: Peter Hessler

  • Number of Pages: 416

  • Year: 2001

  • Genre: Memoir, Travel

  • Topics: China, Asia, Travel Journal

  • Useful Links: Goodreads, Blackwell's

THE BOOK In River Town the author narrates his two-year experience in Fuling, China, where he joined the Peace Corps as an English and Literature teacher in 1996. In this book, through Peter's eyes, the reader sees China and the Chinese society, examines its mainstays and contradictions, understands what it looked like for a still rural and often uneducated population to be catapulted on the edge of progress and quickly become one of the fastest moving countries in the world.

THE AUTHOR Peter Hessler (b. 1969) is an American writer and journalist, who has lived in China for several years and served as a Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker in the years 2000-2007. He has written four books and numerous articles about China and has been often awarded for his continuous work of observing and reporting about China and Chinese society.


During his two-year-long stay in Fuling in the '90s, Peter Hessler gets to see a lot of what China is and what it means to be Chinese. His point of view is a lucky one: he doesn't write from Beijing or Shanghai but spends his allotted time in Sichuan, a West region that has, until recently, been cut off from the main arteries of progress, its geographical features at times its fortune or doom.

Being in Sichuan for Peter means that he can still be served the most genuine welcome pack for foreigners: dropped jaws, eyes wide open, the sound of waiguoren (i.e. foreigner in Chinese) being whispered or shouted, depending on one's audacity, every single time you pass by on the street.

Also, being in Sichuan allows Hessler to witness the gigantic, omnipresent machine that is public service in China: cities being replaced, rebuilt, rethought before you can even realize they have been there, traffic reorganized, people being moved, lives changed out, country turned to concrete, rivers flow diverted.

And the educational system, Hessler tells us a great deal about that too, a novelty for a nation that has just emerged from a thousand-year history of being a rural society and a decade-long experience of famine and cultural repression. The Chinese educational system, which Hessler found himself hands deep into as a foreign English and Literature teacher, comes out from River Town's pages as a strict and - no wonders - State-oriented, functional apparatus. It rarely leaves someone behind and rarely leaves anyone a choice, but overall makes a fair impression on the author, who eventually sees the positive aspects it has for the Chinese people.

But what of all this is still true today? How much of Peter Hessler's China has turned to history and fantasy already? How long before River Town can be moved from the Travel books section and considered a classic, a read like Around the World in Eighty Days?

Fuling District on the Yangtze, China
A not-so-kind portrait of Fuling and its bridge on the Yangtze, where the author spent his two years in China. This photo was taken years after his departure | Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

They say China changes fast, so fast that catching up is hard even if you are Chinese.

A Chinese friend of mine once told me that, after being away from her country for three years, she did not recognize it when she came back. A lot had changed - how you pay, how you communicate, the way the system protects you. Her last visit was in 2018.

In River Town, we find a snap of '90s China, which sounds remote, and a portrait of '90s Chinese people, which equally sounds remote, especially if we think that they did not have phones to navigate through their lives.

Peter Hessler went to China as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. For all non-Americans out there, the Peace Corps is a program of the United States meant to educate the populations in underdeveloped or developing countries by sending all kinds of qualified workers, including doctors and medical staff, engineers, lawyers, biologists and teachers to facilitate the transition to modern, more civilized institutions. Thinking that China was once included in such a program alone sounds amazing to hear in 2023, but it indeed was true from 1993 to 2020 (with important modifications over the years, of course).

And yet, I am prone to say that there is more of '90s China left than of '90s Europe or '90s America, of '90s India or of '90s Australia - maybe there is more of the '90s in China than of any other country in the world.

The Chinese spirit has changed little over the years. No matter how many lanes a motorway now has if compared to thirty years ago, how richer are the students - if their parents are no more uneducated peasants but middle-class workers, homeowners, driving sedans. If the city where Hessler used to teach in looks unrecognizable now, if no old, wrecked boats are cruising the Yangtze anymore, if Sichuan is a tech-savvy, modern region now, if waiguoren are still a thing worth gossiping about but not a culture shock anymore.

The Chinese spirit, the Chinese way of living, the need for a Chinese version of the world, a solid and exclusive point of view - this all remains. Almost untouched. And one might go as for as to say that this may be the key to China's resilience.

As of 2023, I would still keep River Town in the Travel & Memoirs section, but who knows for how long?



*This writing is based on the ebook version of Peter Hessler, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze New York 2002.


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