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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful picture of a meiguoren in China
I came across this book while looking for other books on foreign experiences in China. This one is by far the most interesting and touching book of the lot. As an English-speaking student of Mandarin, I have considered applying for a post as a teacher of English as a foreign language in China, and this book helped me decide that, despite the many differences between China...
Published on 18 Aug 2003 by C. Hansen

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat disappointing
This book describes the experiences of an American Peace Corp volunteer during a two year posting to Fuling, a city of 200,000 people that will be partially flooded by the Three Gorges dam project. He teaches English Literature at a university training students from the rural hinterland to be teachers.

He arrives in 1996, sixty years after the Long March which...
Published on 26 May 2011 by Marand


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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful picture of a meiguoren in China, 18 Aug 2003
By 
C. Hansen (London, England) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (Paperback)
I came across this book while looking for other books on foreign experiences in China. This one is by far the most interesting and touching book of the lot. As an English-speaking student of Mandarin, I have considered applying for a post as a teacher of English as a foreign language in China, and this book helped me decide that, despite the many differences between China and the rest of the world, it would be a worthwhile experience. The author gives extermely well-crafted descriptions of not only his own experiences but of his travels within China and the scenery and people he meets. He illustrates his growing knowledge of Chinese by translating a sign he can see from his window--at first he can read only a few words but by the time he can read the entire sign we have been through quite a lot with him.
Anyone who wants to travel within China or spend a year or two teaching English there must read this book.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow!, 12 April 2006
By 
Boof (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (Paperback)
What a fantastic book. This, for me, was one of those rare books that you can't put down but don't want to end. Having just finnished it this morning I am already at a loss. I have read many books on China and this ranks among the best for me.

This is the story of Peter Hessler, an American student, who takes up an English teaching post in a remote town called Fuling where the River Wu meets the Yangtze. Fuling becomes his home for the next two years and here we are treated to a feast of Chinese life in a town where they are very unused to "waiguorn" (foreigners). We go through the many highs and lows with him and we meet a collection of fantastic characters along the way. To view this town and its people through waiguoren eyes is fascinating and a real eye opener.

Having been to China only once on holiday (to satisfy my enthusiasm) I am left feeling that spending all my time in Beijing and Shanaghai is abit of a cop out and I am now left with a real urge to travel deeper into this wonderful country and expore some more. This book has certainly given me a taste for that.

I highly recommend this book. I found it a real page turner. Enjoy.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great insight into being a Waiguoren in China, 28 Jan 2003
By 
David Bowman (Shanghai, China) - See all my reviews
This review is from: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (Paperback)
As a foreigner with a wife from Shanghai who has spent some time in China, I found Peter Hessler's account of settling into a teacher training college in Fulling, a town on the Yangtse, full of insights into the Chinese character, society and cultural background and their interaction with westerners they meet. Particularly when there are only 2 westerners in town, from the American Peace Corps. Many incidents and events are described as their relationships with both college staff & students and townspeople develop and mature. The politics of their situation is always evident and often pointless restrictions are placed in their way but it is one of the delights of the book to read how they creatively circumvent these barriers to the great benefit of their students. The students love acting and the politically-incorrect plays that the 2 stage-manage are beautifully described.
There are many observations in this book that I have seen in other parts of their vast country. Such as the fondness for banquets and the drinking strategies that must be used to avoid complete intoxication (westerners are always targetted).
Then there is the struggle to learn the language, getting the tones wrong and inventing memory hooks for the impossible characters. Total empathy from me there. Co-incidentally he uses the same text book as that of my chinese class in Hillingdon, London. If it helped him become fluent there's hope for the rest of us.
From initially seeing Fulling as frightening, isolating and strange to feeling totally at home there after two years, there is always the unpredictable incident that comes as a shock reminder that you are still a Waiguoren. The author describes one nasty incident vividly.
The book is so good I read it twice and its now being read avidly and with great feedback by the rest of my class.
This is an excellent read for anyone wanting an understanding of the Chinese at a local level, or planning a stay in China. I look forward to a sequel on Beijing where the author now lives.
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52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful account of an American's life in China, 2 May 2003
By 
Matthew M. Yau "Voracious reader" (San Francisco, CA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (Paperback)
In his concluding remarks of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler points us to the nub of his experience in China:
"I had never had any idealistic illusions about my Peace Corps 'service' in China; I wasn't there to save anybody or leave an indelible mark on the town. If anything, I was glad that during my two years in Fuling I hadn't built anything, or organized anything, or made any great changes to the place. I had been a teacher, and in my spare time I had tried to learn as much as possible about the city and its people. That was the extent of my work, and I was comfortable with those roles and I recognized their limitations."
In fall 1996, Peter Hessler, at the age of 26, took a Peace Corps assignment that relocated him to a small town in the Sichuan province of China. Many natives let alone a young American who made his inaugural entrance into the country did not know and hear of Fuling. It's a former coal-mining town that is bounded by the Yangtze and the Wu. Chongqing and the Three Gorges are just hours away by boats. The book chronicles, in a rather casual but detailed way, Peter's teaching experience at the Fuling Education College and his life and anecdotes in town. Interwoven into Peter's diary are descriptions of local landmarks and customs. This book is by far the most passionate and yet accurate and objective account written any foreigners. Peter really does possess a keen sense of his surroundings. Throughout his crisp, interesting prose and attention to details, the Chinese 'laobaixing' (common people) become alive as if we are actually interacting with them.
I am in awe of how far Peter has gone in making meticulous observations of the Chinese culture and its people. A lot of what he mentions in this book is often overlooked by foreigners. To cite some examples:
1)Cultural shock: Wherever Peter goes in town, he often gathers a crowd looking dagger at him, saying 'hello', calling name and following him. To his surprises later on, he realizes the town has never had a foreign visitor for at least 50 years. It is a mixed bag of xenophobia and curiosity for foreigners. No soon than Peter arrived in town than he realized that foreigners are usually treated differently in daily necessities and accommodation. Certain inns were forbidden to accommodate foreigners due to the untidiness. Foreigners often had to pay a higher fare for the steamboats.
2)Teaching style: Learning Chinese was excruciatingly painful for Peter (and for many Americans I'm sure). The Mandarin comes with 4 intonations and the thousands of characters have complicated strokes and dots. Suffice it to say that the slightest mispronunciation or missing a stroke in writing will reap a harsh admonishment from Peter's native Chinese teacher. 'Budui' is the devil word meaning 'wrong'. As Peter has pointed out, the Chinese teaching style is significantly different from the western methods. If a student is wrong, she needed to be corrected (or rebuked) immediately without any quibbling or softening. It is the very strict standard that motivates Peter to determinedly show his teacher he is 'dui' (right). His bitter encounter with the Chinese way enables him to finally relate to his Chinese-American peers, who go to school and become accustomed to the American system of gentle correction. But the Chinese parents expect more-unless you get straight A's, you haven't achieved anything yet! Hey, I can relate to this Peter!
3)Hong Kong handover: Little did I know about how the mainland Chinese made such a big deal about the turn-of-the-century event in 1997 until I read Peter's account. His students have been drilled on the shamefulness of history, of how the Britain defeated the Chinese in Opium War, of how China was coerced to cease the fragrant city for 150 years. I knew about how the Chinese (especially the Party leaders) awaited the moment when the five-star red flag ascend to full staff in Hong Kong but shamefulness? The magnitude of the colony's return to motherland simply overwhelmed Peter (and myself): the handover lapel pin, the handover umbrella, and the handover rubber flip-flops!
4)Chinese collectivism: This is something that not only amazes but also puzzles me and Peter has nailed it to the root. The Chinese people are often nonchalant, indifferent, and apathetic to politics, crisis or crimes. Well, according to Peter, 'as long as a pickpocket [or whatever] did not affect you personally, or affect somebody in your family, it was not your business.' So this is the usual Chinese mind-my-own-business attitude. This attitude is so implanted inveterately into the Chinese due to decades of isolation (from media and geography) and political control. I think Peter really brings it home. The consequence is a strictly standardized education system, common beliefs among the people, common reactions toward political issues, and an unchallenging submission to authority.
River Town is indeed one of the best books I've ever read for years. Peter is not only an on-looking 'waiguoren' (foreigner) but he has found his identity among the Chinese. He befriended the owner of the restaurant and his family. He established daily and weekly routines which include newspaper reading at the teahouse and chatting with the teahouse 'xiaojie' (girls), hiking up to the mountaintop, visiting the vendors at a local park, and hanging out with his students after class. During the summer vacation, he took an excursion to the Great Wall in Shanxi and Urmuqi in Xinjiang. The prose is vivid, crisp, and gripping. I really appreciate how he approaches the people and culture with an honesty-to have gone so far as some of the moments of candor become unpleasant. This is a page-turner, the kind of book that you don't want to end so soon. 5.0 stars.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gem of a book!, 29 April 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (Paperback)
I read River Town last year, having just returned from my first trip to China, and I have just finished reading it for the second time. As I am now an English teacher living in Hunan Province, south central China, I can relate closely to many (most) of Hessler's experiences. I have sat through the banquet senario many times (although undoubtedly I got off lightly as I'm a woman!), my foreign affairs officer too leaves a lot to be desired, and like Hessler I find my students to be a source of never ending delight, curiosity, and above all, suprise for me. I liked the way Hessler included many exerpts from the work produced by his students and alternated the chapters on his life in Fuling with details about the area in general, particularly as this part of China is changing so quickly. I found his account of life to be accurate and honest - he writes about the downsides of life here too, and I felt he wrote very sensitively about issues and events such as the student who committed suicide. Please read this book - it is not just about an American in China, it is so much more. If it doesn't inspire you to come to this amazing country (to visit, if not to live!), nothing will!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a small taster of massive China..., 28 July 2009
By 
LittleMoon (loving my life in the rain) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
After over 4 years living and working in China, I've just managed to read this book. It was given to me by a friend, who's just left after a year here. That happens a lot in China, people come and go.

Published in 2001, but written about experiences in the late 1990s, what strikes me most about this book is how familiar it is. 10 years later and it's still possible to seek out that "China" that exists beyond the bigger cities. Of course, Hessler's Fuling, a tiny town on the Yangtze River, has an extra edge to it because of the then impending (and now realised) flooding thanks to the Three Gorges Dam. But the fact is that times and places, particularly in China, never seem to stay the same for very long. One reason I love this book is that it has captured a tiny piece of China, much like a photograph has the power to freeze us in time, so that it can be returned to and experienced as it once was.

Hessler, like most of us in China, is initially naive. I don't think he makes any attempt to hide this, though occasionally I am surprised by his actions, particularly the filming incident after 2 years. But he captures the shifting essence of being a "laowai" or "waiguoren" in China: its rewards and its downfalls. The reality of his teaching experience is valuable even now for those heading to the smaller towns and cities - a taste of what you're in for!

China is a massive country, rent with contradictions, and River Town is a frank and honest take on this, by a foreigner who spent two years in a tiny part of it. It is well-written, sympathetic and should be of interest to anyone who has been, or is thinking of going, to China.

Readers who enjoyed this might well be interested in the movie Still Life [2006] [DVD]. An excellent movie by Zhang Ke Jia, about the lives of those affected by the Three Gorges Dam. It was filmed along the Yangtze River as the villages/villagers were preparing to be flooded - and offers a visual piece that seems the perfect follow-on to Peter Hessler's words.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat disappointing, 26 May 2011
By 
Marand (Warwickshire) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (Paperback)
This book describes the experiences of an American Peace Corp volunteer during a two year posting to Fuling, a city of 200,000 people that will be partially flooded by the Three Gorges dam project. He teaches English Literature at a university training students from the rural hinterland to be teachers.

He arrives in 1996, sixty years after the Long March which has been marked by some students at his college by a 1000 mile march of their own. The marching party had run out of money before the walk's end and Hessler comments: "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." I feared that the book was going to degenerate into 'America is better than China'. Thankfully, for the most part, this didn't happen. Not unnaturally, Hessler does see China through an American prism but he is also able to see the other side of the coin. He refers at one point to the Chinese constitution which states "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association and of demonstration" even when that is clearly not the case. He sees a parallel: "That was almost as good as the slave-owning American revolutionaries writing about equality."

I was very surprised about his naïveté. Early on in the book he writes that he thought "that soon we would slip into the routines of the city without much problem." This idea is frankly risible given he was in a place so different in culture, politics and so forth, and speaking little or no Chinese on arrival. As a well-educated man he should surely also have expected that, being a Westerner, in a fairly remote area of China, he would probably be a focus of attention. Throughout the book he refers to being 'harassed' and 'mocked', and even mentions racism & xenophobia. He seems to extrapolate a small number of incidences into xenophobia. Maybe what he experienced was racism but I couldn't see that from the evidence he presented, and he did seem to be unduly sensitive in this area.

It was notable and surprising that the Peace Corps teachers were given remarkable leeway: "Nobody checked our syllabi or hassled us about course content, and we structured our classes exactly as we wished." It also surprised me how well-read both the students and other teachers were in English & American literature. I found the extracts from students' essays to be interesting as a way of showing how they thought and what concerned them. I recall particularly an exercise set based on the American Declaration of Independence - the question was who/what the students would declare independence from. For the female students the answer was almost universally that they wanted independence from their parents.

Fuling was going to be affected by the Three Gorges Dam project but most people were not bothered by this. In conversation with with one resident, the author praises the beauty of the soon-to-be submerged area only to be told that the locals were looking forward to the prospect of regular electricity. Others affected by the project looked forward to better apartments & proper sewage treatment. The same sort of indifference is also evident with regard to the desire for democracy. He reports an exchange with a worker which is I think particularly telling: "Old Hundred Names (i.e. the common people) worries about eating, about having enough clothes. ....... Do you think people like that worry about democracy? ... They need to improve their standard of living and then they can start thinking about other things." One of his tutors is described as "calm for the same reason that many Chinese are strangely placid in the midst of changes that seem overwhelming to outsiders. Quite simply, he has seen far worse." This tutor talks of years of hunger, when he ate weeds & flowers.

Overall I found this book hard going, the first half very slow and dull. I also felt I didn't learn very much about China - a few interesting observations but not much else.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful, interesting and wonderful book, 15 Aug 2005
By 
J. Bloss "jethrox1" (Buckingham,UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (Paperback)
I have really enjoyed reading this book. It follows Peter Hessler's 2 years in China as a teacher and it is very evocative in bringing modern China into focus. He skilfully describes his experience as a teacher and his relations with his students and colleagues but also covers the surrounding area too. Overall you get a great overview of what modern China must be like - the writing is sympathetic and gives great insights into a wide range of areas of Chinese life. I highly recommend this book.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very, very good, 18 Aug 2002
This review is from: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (Paperback)
It really is the best book I have read since "Far From the Madding Crowd" or "Anna Karenina" last summer; they are neither related nor similar. This book is a cross between documentary, insight, tale, and non-fiction. It is like a diary in its intimacy yet thankfully lacks both the inherant cumbersome layout and a skimming over of events.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A compulsive glimpse into the opaque world of the Chinese, 23 Aug 2001
Do not let the fact that this book is an easy read fool you into believing it is trite.
To the average Westerner, China is opaque which gives it a kind of mysticism. The language barrier and script exagerates this. The author of this book spent two years submerged in non-tourist China. Armed with the ability to speak Mandarin the author allows the Westerner to glimpse and understand some of the mindset of the Chinese. This is not the mindset described in Wild Swans - authored by someone escaped Mainland China and can now loathe it as an outsider - or the China described in Simon Winchester's diverting River at the Centre of the World - which is more preoccupied by colonial tales. Instead it is a book in which the author ends up questioning his own cultural assumptions and political indoctrinations through the thoughts and experiences - occasionally absurd - of the people to whom he is teaching. Compulsive and unique.
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River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler (Paperback - 7 Mar 2002)
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