River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

Peter Hessler, Author
Peter Hessler, Author HarperCollins $26 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-019544-1
Reviewed on: 02/01/2001
Release date: 02/01/2001
Ebook - 432 pages - 978-0-06-202898-3
Paperback - 416 pages - 978-0-06-095374-4
Paperback - 399 pages - 978-0-06-085502-4
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In China, the year 1997 was marked by two momentous events: the death of Deng Xiaoping, the country's leader for two decades, and the return of Hong Kong after a century and a half of British rule. A young American who spent two years teaching English literature in a small town on the Yangtze, Hessler observed these events through two sets of eyes: his own and those of his alter ego, Ho Wei. Hessler sees China's politics and ceremony with the detachment of a foreigner, noting how grand political events affect the lives of ordinary people. The passing of Deng, for example, provokes a handful of thoughtful and unexpected essays from Hessler's students. The departure of the British from Hong Kong sparks a conversational ""Opium War"" between him and his nationalist Chinese tutor. Meanwhile, Ho Wei, as Hessler is known to most of the townspeople, adopts a friendly and unsophisticated persona that allows him to learn the language and culture of his surroundings even as Hessler's Western self remains estranged. The author conceives this memoir of his time in China as the collaborative effort of his double identity. ""Ho Wei,"" he writes, ""left his notebooks on the desk of Peter Hessler, who typed everything into his computer. The notebooks were the only thing they truly shared."" Yet it's clear that, for Hessler, Ho Wei is more than a literary device: to live in China, he felt compelled to subjugate his real identity to a character role. Hessler has already been assured the approval of a select audience thanks to the New Yorker's recent publication of an excerpt. (Feb.)
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