Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rivertown: A Marco Polo Journey for the 21st Century

In case you hadn’t heard China is a pretty big deal. It’s not only a massive place but it’s home to one-fifth of the world’s population, fifty-six distinct cultures, over two-hundred languages and is poised to become the most colossal economic force in history by mid-century. But there’s only so much you can learn about a country through statistics and in the case of China it’s not much.

To really understand something about China you need to know the people and Peter Hessler knows the Chinese people. He is perhaps the world’s foremost foreign authority on what makes the people of China tick -at the very least the most insightful writer of such things. After spending two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the backwater Sichuan town of Fuling and becoming fluent in Mandarin Hessler stayed on in China for the next decade as a correspondent and contributor for The New Yorker and National Geographic, respectively. He has since become the go-to chronicler of the turbulent remaking of modern China and just might be the first “Genius Grant” recipient ever featured on TLM.

But it’s his two years in Fuling, his initial impression of the “sleeping giant,” that he focuses on in Rivertown (Oracle Bones, Harper Collins 2006 and Country Driving, Harper 2010 are his other books about China) and it’s one of our favorite books regardless of genre. It’s part memoir, part examination of a culture unfamiliar to the West and entirely engrossing. Hessler’s elegant and revealing prose achieves a rare clarity for a subject matter often clouded with misunderstanding and bias.

In Rivertown Hessler paints a picture of an ancient past coming to terms with the radical upheaval of several recent decades of reform and how the current generation –unwittingly thrust into this tumult- is coming to terms with this uneven transition. Embedded in a university classroom in the Sichuan hinterland Hessler writes from a privileged position surrounded by the unvarnished optimism of his student’s youth and the excesses and atrocities of their parents’ generation forever lurking in their thoughts.

Hessler’s done what almost no other observer of China has been able to accomplish: paint an even-handed portrait of present-day China as seen through the eyes of ordinary people and written in an accessible, perhaps even heartwarming, style. He captures both the innocence and indoctrination of his students’ thoughts and behaviors and presents these contradictions in a lively and engaging metaphor for an entire country. But his principal triumph is that he doesn’t try to simplify the complexities of modern China or compare them with the ways of the West; he simply tries to understand them.

What gives Hessler’s work such accessibility is the fact that he’s neither an academic (although his collective knowledge of Chinese culture, language and history would seem to qualify him as such) nor an outside observer as almost every other voice on the subject is. Hessler is as close to a Chinese insider as a waiguo ren can be and his writing style and introspection border on the literary.

This is one of the most tender, poignant, insightful and clarifying examinations of Chinese culture and society ever written. As purely memoir, it stands apart for the author’s piercing self awareness and the articulation of dislocation that foreigners experience in an inward looking society. As a glimpse into the human side of the changing social and culture currents in present day China it stands alone. TLM highly recommends Rivertown.


  1. Not a great fan of Memoirs or their ilk, but this does have appeal because of the perceived mysticism of this part of the world, may check if it's on an e format.

    1. thanks for the comment Parrish. i think more than a memior Rivertown examines how average Chinese people deal with the social and cultural upheaval going on in China right now, namely: urban vs rural, rich vs poor, modern vs traditional. but the narrative is warm and accessable and Hessler deftly minimalizes the memoir aspect of the book. if you're at all interested in China this is your book.