How a Writer Conveys Descriptions With a Wallop
Lesson 3 for "Running" (From "River Town")
- Asia, China
- Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12
- Cross-Cultural Understanding, Foreign Language, Language Arts & Literature
Students will identify strategies the author used to vividly convey qualitative and quantitative aspects of life in China, then use those strategies in writing of their own.
About the Story
"Running" is excerpted from Chapter Three of Peter Hessler's memoir, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. Hessler describes his experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1996 to 1998 in south-central China. He discusses his adjustment to life in China as a Peace Corps Volunteer and the challenges, in particular, of trying to understand and learn Chinese. Hessler describes his relationship with his Chinese language tutors and his determination to learn despite his discomfort with local teaching methods, which rely on criticism rather than praise. Hessler also addresses his participation in the Annual Long Race to Welcome Spring and how that challenge relates to his struggle to learn the language.
Dean Fu, in the story, is identified earlier in the memoir as Dean Fu Muyou, head of the English department at the college where Hessler taught.
About the Setting
China, the fourth-largest country in the world in area (after Russia, Canada, and the United States ) has a population of close to 1.3 billion. Beijing, the capital, has a population of more than 13 million; that is 5 million more than New York City and 9 million more than Los Angeles.
China is divided into 23 administrative provinces. It has one of the world's longest rivers, the Yangtze, and it shares the world's highest mountain range?the Himalaya?of which Mount Everest is a part. The climate ranges from desert to tropical to subarctic.
With one of the world's oldest civilizations, China has a written history of more than 4,000 years. The country has had a long history of being wary of foreigners?and for much of its history it has been isolated from the outside world. To this day, the Chinese term for foreigner, waiguoren, has negative connotations in many places.
In 1993, the first Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in China to assist in a teacher-training project. Volunteers have taught at more than two dozen colleges and institutions across southwestern China. The primary goal of the English education project is to teach English to students at teacher-training colleges, who plan to become English teachers themselves upon graduation. To learn more about the work of Peace Corps Volunteers in China, go to the country-information section of the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov.
About the Chinese Language
A major portion of "Running" addresses how difficult it was for Hessler to learn Chinese?and his dogged determination to conquer the task. Students will better appreciate the author's challenge if they understand the complexity of written and spoken Chinese.
The Chinese language encompasses seven major dialects. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mandarin Chinese, spoken in Beijing and its adjacent provinces, was mandated by the government to be China's official spoken language. Seventy percent of China's population speaks Mandarin Chinese. Other dialects, such as Cantonese and Shanghainese, are completely different spoken languages. Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible. The province of Sichuan, where Hessler lived, has its own dialect, Sichuanese, which was initially problematic for Hessler, since he had been trained in Mandarin Chinese.
Even without the issue of dialects, spoken Chinese is one of the most difficult languages for Westerners to learn. It is a tonal language, in which the tonal inflection of a word changes its meaning. Spoken Mandarin Chinese has four common tones, which can be applied to the same general sound to effect four different words and meanings.
Chinese also is difficult for Westerners because the written language is based not on an alphabet but on symbols, called characters. The Chinese language has more than 50,000 characters, most of which are known only to scholars. However, even reading a newspaper or a book requires a person to know between 3,000 and 5,000 characters.
About learning Chinese, Hessler wrote: "In good conscience I could not live there for two years and not learn how to speak Chinese. To me, this was as important as fulfilling my obligations as a teacher."
- To examine the author's writing style and techniques to learn some effective strategies for description and for conveying mood
- Cadre: a member of a small leadership group
- Stick-stick soldier: A porter or laborer in China who carries heavy loads in freight yards or construction sites on short, bamboo poles (sticks) tied together with rope
- Blurt: To speak suddenly, often without stopping to think first
- Cagey: Shrewd; sneaky; crafty
- Voyeurism: [voy-ER-ihz-em] Watching other people, especially secretly
- Propaganda: Ideas or information spread specifically to promote one idea or point of view exclusively or to discredit another one
- Trite: Unoriginal, stale
- Cant: meaningless talk or communication
- Waiguoren:: [wy-GOOR-en] Chinese for foreigner, or someone from out of the country
- Ambivalent: [am-BIV-uh-lent] Having mixed feelings about someone or something
- Skittish: Easily excitable or made nervous
- "Running" by Peter Hessler (see link above)
- Map of China (see link above)
Have students take Hessler's selection home and study it in preparation for the next day's class. For homework, ask the students
- To look for specific ways in which the author describes details of life in Fuling. Suggest that among other things to look for are how Hessler conveyed an idea of how dirty the air was and how noisy the automobile traffic was.
- To identify particular ways in which the author measured progress in learning the language. [The propaganda signs slowly became comprehensible; his teachers began to change their attitude toward him; the characters on his pages took on meaning; his stack of flashcards grew ever thicker.]
- To note how the author conveys his eventual adjustment to life in Fuling. [The scenes along his running route became familiar; he stopped noticing pollution and noise; he became friends with Teacher Kong.]
- To find where the author foreshadows his victory in the race. [In the paragraph that begins, "Running was repetitive in this way," Hessler writes: "There was nobody in the city who could catch me."]
In a class discussion, ask students to offer observations about how Hessler achieved his vivid description of events and the atmosphere in Fuling. Note the students' points on the board.
Then have students write an essay of one page or less, incorporating quantitative and qualitative detail of observation in the style of Hessler. Although the class should be encouraged to write about whatever comes to mind, you might prompt students who have a hard time starting with the following topics: My Most Uncomfortable Day; Adjusting Wasn't Easy; Wow, Did I Ever Feel Different; The Day Everything Felt New. Ask them to limit their choice of topics to one they will be comfortable sharing with the class.
Allow students to trade papers and critique each other constructively before polishing their efforts. Have a few volunteers read their essays to the class, and post the essays on a bulletin board for students to read at their leisure.
Frameworks & Standards
- A writer can convey a convincing sense of place through imaginative description.
- What are some effective writing strategies to describe what a place is really like?
English Standards: 1, 2, 3, 6
Social Studies Standards: I, IV, IX
National Geography Standards: 4, 9, 10
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Appendix (pdf—160 KB, linked to above).