Kirkus reviews OTHER RIVERS by Peter Hessler: “…a valuable light on the reality of life in today’s China”

An American writer working in China as a teacher navigates a careful path through a complicated, changing culture.

Beyond the headlines of strategic rivalry and military confrontation with China are countless stories of real people trying to live in a complex country. In his previous books, especially River Town and Country Driving, Hessler, a veteran staff writer for the New Yorker, recounted his experiences of China, focusing on his work as a university-level instructor. In his latest book, he continues the theme, tracking the huge changes that have taken place in the past three decades. The first part of the book is set in the 1990s, when he taught mostly students from poor families. They often struggled with the university experience but worked to make the most of their opportunities. Hessler left after several years. In the second part of the book, he chronicles his return to China in 2019 to teach journalism and nonfiction at Sichuan University. He found that competition between students was intense and that the educational environment had changed significantly. There were surveillance cameras everywhere and an army of bureaucrats issuing opaque orders. There were rabidly nationalist students called “Little Pinks,” who seemed determined to root out any sign of dissent, as well as the ever-present danger of jubao, an anonymous complaint against a teacher that could end their career. Hessler was fired after a few years, effectively expelling him from China, and he was never able to establish why. However, he built solid relationships with a number of students, and he tells their stories with empathy and affection. The text is not an anti-China diatribe; though Hessler is clearly distressed at the country’s direction, he offers an informative, respectful story.

Writing from personal experience, Hessler shines a valuable light on the reality of life in today’s China.

Peter notes that this first pre-publication review is the result of a not-very-close reading, with some significant errors (the first part of the book is not about the 1990s, Country Driving is not about teaching, and Peter was not fired from his job–his contract was not renewed) and is a political reading, which is common given the US-China tensions. 

Other Rivers: A Chinese Education by Peter Hessler will be published in the English language by Penguin Press in North America in July 2024 and by Atlantic Books in the UK and ANZ, with translation editions forthcoming as well.

Peter Hessler is a staff writer at the New Yorker, where he served as Beijing correspondent from 2000-2007 and Cairo correspondent from 2011-2016. He is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He is the author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, which won the Kiriyama Book Prize, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, which was New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award, Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, and The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution. He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting, and he was named a MacArthur fellow in 2011.