No. 20: “River Town” by Peter Hessler

Travel Blog  •  Frank Bures  •  05.12.06 | 7:40 PM ET

To mark our five-year anniversary,
we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 2001
Territory covered: China
In 1996, Peace Corps volunteer Peter Hessler was sent to the town of Fuling, in Sichuan Province, to teach English. During the two years he spent there, he got to know his students, their culture, their language and the imperious and strange communist state better than most outsiders. Today, China is arguably the second most important country in the world, and its influence can be felt on every level—economic, military, cultural. The rise of China only makes River Town more essential reading as a window into the culture. Many China analysts can add up the sum of China’s productivity increase, but can’t tell you why the Nanjing Massacre still rankles people so deeply, or what the average young Chinese person’s hopes for the future are. “River Town” is a textured look at a culture. It is also an important and moving account no one should miss.

Outtake from River Town:

Patriotic music blared from the campus loudspeakers as the Long Marchers arrived. They wore white T-shirts and camouflage fatigues. They were unshaven. Old canvas military packs hung from their shoulders. The leader carried a faded red banner that bore the name of the college and Magnificent Sound cigarettes, and he marched behind the Hospitality Girls, who were divided into two rows of four, walking in step, their heads steady, eyes straight ahead, arms swinging sharply. The rest of the Long Marchers followed in single file, smiling proudly and waving to the crowd. Everybody applauded, and the audience followed the procession into the auditorium, where a banner proclaimed:

Warmly Welcome the Fuling Teachers College Magnificent Sound Cigarette Ten-Thousand-Mile Long March Team as they Return from Victory!

For more about Peter Hessler, read his Field Notes at National Geographic and interviews with him at Vagabonding and The Savvy Traveler.

Frank Bures is the books editor of World Hum.

Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at

1 Comment for No. 20: “River Town” by Peter Hessler

Jason 05.14.06 | 7:54 PM ET

Hey, where’s Tom Bissell’s Chasing the Sea? I keep waiting for it, and I keep not seeing it. Hessler’s book is good but nowhere near as funny and interesting as Bissell’s (I’m former Peace Corps, so I think I’m qualified to judge). And what’s with all the books published in the early 1990s? Other than that, great series.

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