Index > Books
Wednesday, May 02, 2018
Peter Hessler

River Town tells the story - sometimes funny, sometimes sad, often inspiring - of this contact between American teachers and Chinese students and residents in a small city. The learning process went both ways: while Hessler was teaching English and American literature, he was also studying Mandarin Chinese and trying to understand his new home. He happened to arrive in Fuling just as the nation's economic boom was gathering steam, and he saw how locals responded to momentous national events: the death of Deng Xiaoping in early 1997, and the return of Hong Kong to China later that year. But in Fuling the history that mattered most occurred at the personal level: a farm boy feverishly learning English with the hope of leaving the countryside forever; an entrepreneur with a small family restaurant, dreaming of buying a car; a young woman deciding to head off alone and seek her fortune in distant Shenzhen. These are the heroes of River Town, and their stories are told against the backdrop of the two rivers and a beautiful, ancient landscape.

The Yangtze is peopled - it has been channeled, prodded, diverted, dammed; buoys mark its shallows and boats of all sizes crest its polluted waters. It goes to Shanghai. The Wu - clear, green, lightly travelled - comes from the mountains. One river is all about origin; the other, destination: this is what defines the difference in their personalities. The Yangtze in its size and majesty seems to be going somewhere important, while the Wu in its narrow swiftness seems to have come from someplace wild and mysterious; and the faint forms of its distant hills suggest that the river will keep its secrets. You can fish all day long and the Wu will give you nothing.

- from "The Wu River," page 126