Hessler, Peter 1969–
Hessler, Peter 1969–
ADDRESSES: Home—Beijing, China.
CAREER: University of Missouri, Columbia, instructor. Fuling Teachers College, Fuling, China, teacher of English, 1996–98; freelance writer.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (nonfiction), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
Oracle Bones: A Journey between China's Past and Present (nonfiction), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to periodicals, including the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and New York Times.
SIDELIGHTS: American author Peter Hessler grew up with a strong interest in literature and writing, studying at Princeton University and Oxford University before joining the Peace Corps in the late 1990s. His assignment was to teach English in China, a move that would prove instrumental in his development as a writer, reporter, and observer.
In 2001 he published his first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, which relates his experiences teaching English in China. During his tenure there, China was undergoing a transformation. As noted by a contributor to Publishers Weekly, this era was "marked by two momentous events: the death of Deng Xiaoping … and the return of Hong Kong." As a member of the Peace Corps, Hessler worked at a teachers college in Fuling, a small town on the Yangtze River where virtually no Westerners or tourists traveled. Hessler told Peace Corps Writers that most of his students were from poor or working-class households and that after they left the college they went back to their local villages or towns to "teach English in rural middle schools."
During his time in Fuling, Hessler exposed his students to Beowulf and the works of William Shakespeare and other English poets. As Michael Rank reported in China Review, Hessler eventually grew to like the town and its residents very much, befriending students and colleagues at his school as well as people he would meet in local restaurants, businesses, and neighborhoods. Rank had much praise for River Town, enjoying the book's ability to draw readers into the life and experiences the author shares. There are few books "as informative and incisive as this one," Rank wrote.
After finishing his time with the Peace Corps, Hessler worked for a variety of publications as a freelance writer, including the New York Times and Atlantic Monthly. In 1999 he returned to China, stationed in Beijing, and continued working as a freelance writer, focusing on China-related topics.
In 2006, Hessler published his second book, Oracle Bones: A Journey between China's Past and Present. The author again tackles a nonfiction subject, specifi-cally the relationship between China and the West. To shed light on this complicated relationship, Hessler intersperses chapters discussing Chinese history with chapters telling the stories of a number of average Chinese citizens, many of them the author's former students. Together these stories and chapters show the country's slow emergence as an economical and political powerhouse, and how the United States has responded over the years.
Oracle Bones was well received by critics and readers, much like its predecessor, River Town. Some reviewers enjoyed the author's use of tales from the lives of regular people to give readers a glimpse of what China is really like and how it has changed as a country. Hessler's book allows readers to "see that transformation through the eyes of young Chinese women and men caught up in it," wrote David Bosco in a review for the San Francisco Chronicle. Others found the author's approach to the subject most compelling as his interweaving of Chinese history and personal vignettes paints a vivid and fresh picture of modern China. Oracle Bones is "one of the most profoundly original books about China," observed one Economist reviewer.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 1, 2001, Marlene Chamberlain, review of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, p. 906.
Business Week, April 9, 2001, review of River Town, p. 16.
China Review, summer, 2001, Michael Rank, review of River Town.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), February 17, 2001, Nigel Richardson, "Making Brown Eyes Blue."
Economist, May 18, 2006, review of Oracle Bones: A Journey between China's Past and Present.
International Herald Tribune, April 28, 2006, Jonathan Spence, review of Oracle Bones.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2006, review of Oracle Bones, p. 220.
Library Journal, January 1, 2001, Melinda Stivers Leach, review of River Town, p. 138; April 15, 2006, Charles W. Hayford, review of Oracle Bones, p. 93.
Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2001, Anthony Day, review of River Town, p. E1.
New York Times, April 9, 2001, Richard Bernstein, "A Memoir of Teaching (and Learning) in China," p. B8.
New York Times Book Review, February 11, 2001, Adam Goodheart, "The Last Days of Fuling," p. 8.
Policy Review, June, 2001, Lloyd Macauley Richardson, "China, Taken Personally," p. 83.
Publishers Weekly, December 11, 2000, review of River Town, p. 70; February 27, 2006, review of Oracle Bones, p. 45.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 18, 2001, Repps Hudson, "Ordinary Chinese Come to Life in Portrait of Rural Sichuan Province," p. F9.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 11, 2001, David Armstrong, "Yankee on the Yangtze: 'River Town' Follows China's Flow," p. 15; May 14, 2006, David Bosco, review of Oracle Bones, p. 6.
Spectator, June 24, 2006, Brian Power, review of Oracle Bones.
Sunday Times (London, England), March 11, 2001, Martin Booth, "An American's Yangtze Doodle," p. 38.
Time, March 12, 2001, Terry McCarthy, "From the Water's Edge: River Town Charts the Ebb and Flow of Everyday Life in a Small City on the Banks of the Yangtze," p. 90.
Times (London, England), May 5, 2001, Peter Hughes, review of River Town, p. 20.
USA Today, April 27, 2006, David Lynch, review of Oracle Bones, p. 6.
Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2001, John Freeman, review of River Town, p. W11.
Washington Post Book World, April 15, 2001, John Byron, "In the Middle of the Middle Kingdom," p. T4.
Asian Review of Books, http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/ (September 6, 2006), Peter Gordon, review of Oracle Bones.
National Geographic Online, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/ (June, 2006), online audio clips with Peter Hessler.
Peace Corps Writers, http://www.peacecorpswriters.org/ (December 2, 2001), John Coyne, "Talking with … Peter Hessler."
Princeton Alumni Weekly Online, http://www.princeton.edu/∼paw/ (November 7, 2001), Kate Swearengen, review of River Town.
Rolf Potts' Vagabonding, http://www.rolfpotts.com/ (September 6, 2006), interview with Peter Hessler.
Savvy Traveler, http://savvytraveler.publicradio.org/ (September 21, 2001), biographical information on Peter Hessler.
TheStreet.com, http://www.thestreet.com/ (May 20, 2006), Katie Benner, review of Oracle Bones.