a PAW web exclusive column
Years on the Yangtze
of Peter Hessler '92 about teaching in China and his new book, River
By Kate Swearengen '04
(Photo of Hessler: Mark Leong)
students joke that 90 percent of each graduating class will go on
to be consultants or investment bankers. The other 10 percent, they
say, are in denial.
Peter Hessler must be
in denial. After graduating from Princeton in 1992 with a degree
in English, and after two years at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Hessler
decided to travel. A visit to China got him hooked. Fascinated by
the country, and troubled by what he describes as "the politicization
of literature in the West," he joined the Peace Corps and asked
to work in China.
Assigned to Fuling,
a Sichuanese town at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Wu Rivers,
Hessler taught English literature at a teachers' college. He also
learned Chinese. Life in a part of the world rarely visited by Americans
provided the material for his book, River Town: Two Years on the
Published this year
by HarperCollins, River Town is an account of Hessler's experiences
in China from 1996-1998. While much of the book is spent describing
daily life in Fuling and the beauty of the surrounding countryside,
a central theme prevails. More than anything else, River Town is
about Hessler's efforts to blend in with his surroundings, while
at the same time retaining those elements that identify him as an
discussions with his students and Chinese tutors are a case in point.
Although well aware of the flaws in American society and government,
Hessler often found himself defending the policies of the U.S. At
the same time, he regretted the cultural barriers that existed between
himself and his students. This dichotomy, the division between the
Western and Eastern sides of Hessler's personality, are particularly
evident in the following lines from River Town:
"But I found I
good spot in the hills high above the Wu River, where I ate dinner
and read Ted Williams's autobiography. I decided that I would read
that book every spring for the rest of my life--there was something
distinctly American about his voice -- the cockiness and the earthy
slang and the rhythms of his prose. And especially I liked the way
the book began: "I wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever
The two years that Hessler
spent in Fuling were important ones for China. The death of President
Deng Xiaoping, and the wrenching modernization brought about by
China's movement toward a market economy, heralded a change in the
Chinese people's perceptions of their government. Even Fuling itself
would be transformed: The Three Gorges Dam Project, designed to
provide more electricity, better flood control, and improved transportation
for China, will eventually flood a great deal of land, displacing
two million people and changing Fuling's character forever.
was to describe Fuling and its inhabitants at this particular juncture
in time, before change set in. It is significant that the best preparation
for this task had occurred almost 10 years before, and halfway around
says when I ask him if he did any summer writing or publishing internships
during his years at Princeton. "I always went home to Missouri
in the summer. The summer after my junior year, I did an ethnography
project in Sikeston, and talked to kids about race and poverty problems."
Sikeston is a rural
town in southeast Missouri. It is surrounded by soybean and cotton
fields, has a population of about 18,000, and is home to Lambert's
Cafè, which describes itself as "the only home of throwed
rolls." According to Hessler, his efforts to describe Sikeston
by conveying "the feeling of the place" prepared him more
for his book than anything else. It's not the sort of thing that
one would typically describe as an influential experience, but then
again, Hessler's experiences have been anything but typical. This
year he traveled to Ulan Bator to cover a Mongolian rap group for
the Boston Globe. Currently, he's driving a Jeep through western
China in order to write a piece about Shang dynasty archaeology
for National Geographic. He's also working on his next book.
For the most part, Hessler
speaks positively about his years at Princeton. An English major,
he credits John McPhee's The Literature of Fact class for exposing
him to nonfiction writing. During his time at Princeton, Hessler
ran cross-country and track, and was a member of the Student Volunteers
Council. While he did not contribute regularly to campus newspapers,
he wrote his first published article, an account of going door-to-door
with a Mormon student, for the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
Though Princeton was
a formative experience for Hessler, he is very definite about the
divergent path he took to reach critical success as a writer.
"According to Princeton,
everything has to add up logically to a certain goal," Hessler
says. "One of the most worthwhile things I did in college was
going to Trenton twice a week to read to kids in a foster home."
He adds that he derived the most fulfillment from experiences that
were unexpected, like his summer project in Sikeston.
"Take my experiences
in China, for example," Hessler says. "I learned so much
more in the Peace Corps about writing and about life than in two
years at Oxford."