I realize I’m about a decade late posting a review of Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, but it was only recently that I finally took the time to read it.

I can’t be certain why it took me so long to pick up Hessler’s seminal work, but I think it was due to the weight of it. Not the book itself mind you, though a bit weighty for a travelogue, it reads quick and handles well. Rather, because for any post-Y2K laowai, Hessler is definitively known as the laowai. Next to Mark Rowswell, few foreigners in modern China are as well known.

I suppose I was worried that reading Hessler’s experiences might colour my own. Lord knows I’m susceptible to such things, as it took me more than a couple years to stop spouting off facts learned from Jung Chang as gospel (worry not Changites, when last I visited an expat pub the doctrine was alive and well).

When I came to China in 2005, River Town was the book to read about living and teaching in this country. Like Wild Swans and Mr. China — it was all but handed out in the laowai welcome package. In the years since though, it slowly drifted further and further down my list of books to read, until it was largely forgotten. That is until I was browsing the impressively stocked bookshelves of a friend of mine recently. The title jumped out at me as noticeably absent from the glut of words I’ve read about China since moving here, and I had no handy excuses for avoiding it any longer.

What struck me as most surprising about the book was its continued relevance, 10 years since being published and nearly 15 since experienced. Daily I’m bombarded with how fast China’s rising/developing/growing/building/expanding, and yet so much of the way China was in 1997 is just as true in 2011. Just as likely, so much of it was also the same in 1911, and will still be in 2097. It’s a testament to the complexity of the country that never-ending development and timeless non-change can exist so roughly blended.

It was interesting to read Hessler’s descriptions of a pre-Three Gorges Dam Yangtze, something completely unknown to me, and then go into the following — something I’m sure most foreigners in 2011 China can relate to all too well:

One night near the end of the holiday I ordered five kebabs from Mr. Zhang, who invited me to sit on his stool, as he always did. A few of the other vendors came over to chat, as well as a number of passersby who stopped to stare at the waiguoren.

After a while the attention died down. I finished the kebabs and sat there reading the Chongqing Evening Times. I felt somebody come close, and then he leaned forward and shouted “Hahh-lloooo!” in my face. He shouted as loudly as he could, and after that he laughed. I didn’t look up–there was no reason to acknowledge people like that.

I felt him move away and I assumed that he had left; usually the people who harassed me were best handled by being ignored. But a moment later he returned, grabbing one of the sausages from Mr. Zhang’s barbecue stand. He shoved the sausage past my nwspaper and into my face. “Chi! Chi! Chi!” he shouted. “Eat! Eat! Eat!”

Hessler’s Fuling could be any second- or third-tier Chinese city. The place itself seems only peripherally different than any number of Chinese cities I’ve visited. I think this “sameness” is an integral part of modern China, where 30 years of glass and steel built on top of 30 years of communist concrete has forced much of the differentiating culture of a place out of the surrounding environment and into the local customs, food and dialects.

At the heart of it though, River Town isn’t about a small city on the set-to-rise Yangtse, but about a foreigner experiencing China with fresh eyes. There were many before Hessler, and many many more after; and I think most all of them, time regardless, could relate to the vignettes he skillfully relays. Whether the stoic absolutism of dutiful students, the welcoming smile and big dreams of the local noodle shop owner, or the optimistic patriotism of a career-minded party member; there are numerous characters in the book we’ve all met.

It’s also an interesting read knowing a bit about what Hessler has gone on to do, and write, since. With two other critically acclaimed books under his belt, and a slew of articles penned under the mastheads of some of the most prestigious periodicals around, it’s appealing to have an image of him not as a bestselling author, foreign correspondent, and old China hand; but as an FOB laowai teaching in China’s hinterlands.

From start to finish I truly enjoyed River Town, and can clearly see why it was so eagerly recommended in my early days in China, just as I will be continuing to recommend it. It is aging well, and has encouraged me to check out Hessler’s other books to see how they compare.

Next up though I continue my visiting of books I should have read long go by switching to the other writer in the Hessler home and reviewing Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls.


  1. I’m wondering if the ‘wisdom’ gleaned form Hessler’s work made you reflect on some of your experiences in China with a new perspective (arguments, misunderstandings you had)?

    Perhaps you’ll swing by in the next few years, do you think reading this kind of thing will change the way you view China?

    • I think it’s impossible to read about someone else’s experiences in China and not compare and contrast them to your own. However, I’ve been in China a lot longer than Hessler had been when he wrote River Town, so I don’t know there was much he covers that I haven’t reflected on already spurred by other sources (mostly, from the blogsphere to be honest).

      I don’t think it’s the sort of book that changes the way you look at China. I get the impression some of his later books shoot for that, but River Town is really more of a personal story. I agree with Matt, any foreigners that write about being a foreigner in China (and it seems that rare is the month that goes by that a new book like that doesn’t hit the shelves) do so in the shadow of Hessler’s first book.

      Swing by in the next few years?

  2. I’ve always thought that River Town was the China book that all laowai wanted to write, but only Peter Hessler did.

    His other two books- Oracle Bones and Country Driving- are also excellent.

    Alas, I believe Hessler has left China and is beginning a new chapter of his career in the Middle East. It will be interesting to read his observations from a new place.

    • I think it was his Wiki page where I read he was living in the US with his wife, Leslie T. Chang — author of Factory Girls. I, completely randomly, read both books back to back and only learned afterward that they are married.

      Would be curious to learn more about Hessler covering the Middle East. Would be great to get some similar travelogues from the region.

  3. River Town has long stood as one of my favorite China books, and I find Hessler to be quite amazing in his ability to describe a chaotic world with such clarity. I won’t say he is unbiased, but he is as close to such a thing as I have found.

    Ryan, what were your thoughts on “Factory Girls”?

    • Factory Girls review is forthcoming. Just need to etch out some time to sit down and reflect on it a bit. Generally though, I think it was a fantastic book.

  4. I’m in the middle of this book right now. Fabrizio, I don’t think any writer can be completely unbiased when writing a personal account, can they? Ryan, I agree with you and Matt, Hessler’s a great writer and a benchmark for other laowai writers to aspire to.

    I’m about to start a job teaching college English, and Chapter Two’s full of great ideas. Its also nice to see all those frustrations of being a waiguoren depicted so incisively. Despite the hassles, the tone of the book remains cool-headed and full of wonder. ‘Unbiased’, I guess.

  5. Nice post, Ryan. My copy is still on the shelves and waiting to be read! You mention the continued relevance of the book and it reminded me of “My Country and My People” by Lin Yutang (林语堂). The writer not only understood his fellow countryfolk (the good and the bad), but was able to articulate it. Checking to see when it was published, I was astonished to read 1935. Yes, the book is over 70 years old. Yet I can’t recall a book that helped me understand the Chinese as much as this one.

    • Cheers for the recommendation Bash — I’ve not heard of “My Country and My People”. Just checked Amazon, and as cheap as it sounds — $30 for a < 400pg paperback? It better age like a fine wine. 🙂 Will keep my eyes open for it though.

      Interestingly, the Chinese version on Amazon.cn is about 18RMB ($3).

  6. Hessler put a lot of forethought into ensuring that River Town would survive the test of time–just goes to show how important in-depth research is in non-fiction. He’s a wonderful writer and a really nice guy.

  7. I read Oracle Bones first as I arrogantly felt that since I’d already lived in China for two years when I’d picked it up, there wouldn’t be much value in reading some FOB perspectives that I’d already gotten past. But the OB was so enjoyable I ended up going back and being pleasantly surprised by RT. Country Driving is equally enjoyable despite my initial reservations.

    I picked up the Chinese 繁體 translation of Oracle Bones which I plan to start when my daily life quiets down.

  8. I enjoyed River Town and think it’s still hugely relevant to life in (small town) China. Oracle Bones is a step up though in every way; a sort of coming-of-age from Peace Corps volunteer to fully-fledged journalist. Not only that, the quality of writing, depth of subject matter, and form have all matured. Looking forward to reading Country Driving at some point.

  9. Hessler didn’t live in China THAT long. And when he did, he spent quite a lot of it cadging fags and beers off longer term folk, much of it in Shanghai’s Long Bar. Its a good book – about a journey along a river – but the guy isn’t the China Expat you’d have us believe. There’s plenty others out there, still here, whose stories have yet to be told. Including, as Michael Robson says, some with whom you’ve had public disagreements with. You may want to broaden your horizons, and better travellers/writers are out there. Graham Earnshaw for example? I can think of another ten just counting my fingers and thumbs.

    • “Stories yet to be told,” is very much the key. I think the difference between Hessler and the plethora of old China hands kicking around the country’s bars mumbling about how they could write a better book than Hessler is that they didn’t, and likely never will. Hessler has a massive pedigree for writing narrative non-fiction and River Town illustrates it. I think a lot of writers (or intend-to-be writers) come to China, spend some time here and then want to write about it — trusting memory and pint-influenced exaggerations. Hessler came to China to write about China, and I think the quality of that is reflected in his work.

      But liking River Town isn’t at all saying that it is the be-all/end-all foreigner’s experiences in China book. I’ve not read Earnshaw, but don’t doubt he’s an interesting read.

      as Michael Robson says, some with whom you’ve had public disagreements with

      There’s really just one person I’ve had a public disagreement with that’s written a book (that I know of). I didn’t catch that Michael was referencing that in his comment. However, I’m a sucker for Amazon reviews in helping me decide what to read, and the book I think you’re referring to was blasted by one reviewer and praised by one. The negative reviewer has posted 70+ reviews on Amazon, and the positive reviewer just that one (hmmm…). I’m absolutely sure you’re right and there are plenty of great expat tales from China, I just don’t think that’s one of them (regardless of the author’s length of time spent in the country).

      If there are others you’d recommend though, please share.

      • I was just saying, I found that when reading Country Driving, there was a tremendous amount of insight (obviously) into the mind of Chinese (eg. from the countryside, I can say that). As many people you see in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing migrated only recently, it may help to understand where these people come from, lest misunderstandings arise. It was a throwaway comment really 😛

        • Ah, so no connection to actual disagreements I’ve had, as Tony thought.

          I think River Town might not offer as much insight in that regard, being Hessler’s first book about China and reflecting more of his “newness” to the country. Looking forward to Country Driving and Oracle Bones.

  10. I enjoyed reading River Town and agree Hessler is a great writer. At the same time, for me personally as someone who has lived a decade in China, I found the book somehow a little painful or frustrating. His descriptions are so accurate and real, I felt like I was reliving different versions of my own days in the country. On one level, that’s great — reminiscing can always be nice. But just like watching a DVD the second time isn’t as good as the first, so reading River Town was for me a little unsatisfying.

    It’s probably the best book to read if you want to know what China is like and you haven’t lived in China. If you’ve lived here for years already, though, you might feel the way I did reading it. Still worth the read, however.

  11. Pingback: Overdue Review: Factory Girls

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