Having lived in China for four years, I can personally vouch for Peter Hessler’s memoirs in River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. It’s a spot on read that would be a great introduction for anyone looking to move to the country, particularly the “countryside”, or for anyone just curious about everyday life in the Middle Kingdom. Though much of the China Hessler describes is fast changing as globalization takes its toll, the cultural attitudes exhibited by the people he and his fellow teacher, Adam Meir, came in contact with, pervade.
Hessler joined the Peace Corp in 1996 and went to live in the “small” city of Fuling on the Yangtze River in central China. He, together with Meier (who features prominently in the book), went to work as English teachers at a local university. The institution attended mostly with students from local villages, the city itself has nothing of the more civilized infrastructure of Shanghai or Beijing. For the next two years, Hessler spent his time not only teaching, but traveling in the surrounding areas, observing life and talking with the locals, his language skills developing by the day.
Hessler’s writing style is not scholarly or grandiose, but does a good job of evoking the images, faces, and everyday scenes and situations he encounters. The students, the local restaurant owners, the university, and the school’s officials come to life under his pen in realistic fashion. Personal as well, Hessler describes his own feelings regarding the political and social undercurrents always so close to the surface—he a foreigner in a region where communism still has a strong hold. By comparing and contrasting the little details of Chinese life with his Western perspective, the culture becomes more apparent. In general, Hessler does a relatively good job of remaining objective about it, but there are times some may feel his opinion dominates. Being more memoire than journalistic, this can be forgiven as long as the observations are taken with a grain of salt.
In the end, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze is a wonderful perspective on Chinese life in the countryside at the turn of the 21 st century. Highlighting the innocence and simplistic beauty of the people, as well as the harsher political climate overhanging their daily lives, the book would be a great read for anyone interested in living in China for a time, as well as anyone interested in the daily life of Chinese people. At times Hessler’s personal perspective may intrude upon the narrative a bit deeply (e.g. regrets and biases), but given the overall quality of the remainder of the observations, the book can easily be recommended. As someone who lived in China for several years and traveled extensively in the country, I can vouch that Hessler’s experiences, as described, are real.