cover image Other Rivers: A Chinese Education

Other Rivers: A Chinese Education

Peter Hessler. Penguin Press, $32 (480p) ISBN 978-0-593-65533-7

In this probing memoir, New Yorker correspondent Hessler (Strange Stones) recaps his experience teaching English composition at China’s Sichuan University from 2019 to 2021 and compares it to his sojourn at a teachers’ college in Fuling in the 1990s. Hessler finds that his Fuling students—farmers’ children who pulled themselves out of rural poverty—now, in middle age, sometimes feel a pang of spiritual hollowness amid their material success. His young Sichuan University students, on the other hand, are worldly urbanites who have a jaundiced view of economic success as a dehumanizing rat race, epitomized by the maniacal cramming required for exams. They also chafe against China’s all-encompassing surveillance state: Hessler and his students are monitored by omnipresent security cameras, have their movements controlled by face-scanning checkpoints, and risk censorship for political expression. (Hessler’s teaching appointment was not renewed, likely due to an interview he did with a controversial Chinese writer.) Hessler paints an expansive panorama of China, from poignant descriptions of the depopulation of the Fuling countryside brought about by China’s rapid industrialization to the grim worldview promulgated at his daughters’ school (“If one guiding principle of Chinese primary education was ‘Don’t be a sucker,’ another seemed to be: ‘Fear everything outside the classroom’ ”). The result is an enthralling take on China’s remarkable progress and its downside. (July)