Hessler’s first experience of living in China was as a Peace Corps volunteer. He taught English for two years at a teacher training college in the small town of Fuling, in Sichuan province, which led to the writing of his first book upon his return to the U.S. in 1998. In 1999 he went back to China as a freelance writer and soon became a staff writer for The New Yorker, serving as its Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007. Rivertown won the Kiriyama Prize, and Oracle Bones was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. Evan Osnos is the current Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker.
Hessler’s books came at a time of increasing American interest in China and doubtlessly contributed to such interest. As he likes to recount in his interviews, he submitted the manuscript of Rivertown to several publishers who expressed skepticism that American readers would be interested in his story, well told as it was. Of course, the reception of the book as soon as it was published proved these cautious publishers wrong. There are a handful of popular American authors who write about contemporary China in our day besides Hessler—Leslie Chang (Hessler’s wife, former Wall Street Journal correspondent, and author of Factory Girls), Richard Bernstein (Time magazine’s first Beijing bureau chief and author of From the Center of the Earth and The Coming Conflict with China), Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (New York Times reporters, the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, and coauthors of China Wakes), James and Ann Tyson (correspondents for the Christian Science Monitor and coauthors of Chinese Awakenings), and Mark Salzman (author of Iron and Silk). All except Salzman, whose only experience in China consisted of teaching English for two years at Hunan Medical College, came from a journalistic background. The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. in 1979 gave rise to the careers of these writers of the post-Mao “reform and opening” era.
So far, of the post-Mao generation only Hessler’s books have been translated into Chinese. All three books in his “China trilogy” have been translated into traditional Chinese and published in Taiwan, and Country Driving has been translated into simplified Chinese and published in mainland China. Judging from posts on popular Chinese websites, Hessler has gathered an enthusiastic following among (presumably young) Chinese readers. In fact, a search for Peter Hessler (or his Chinese name 何伟) or one of his books on the Chinese search engine Baidu (百度) yields many more hits than a search for the same on Google. Since the first two volumes were first translated and published in Taiwan, acquaintance of Hessler among Chinese readers appears to have begun in Taiwan and then spread to the mainland. Except for Taiwanese readers’ responses to Rivertown, which appeared on the Taiwanese website www.books.com.tw (博客來) as soon as the traditional Chinese translation appeared in 2006, five years after the publication of the book in the U.S., the earliest cyberspace discussions I was able to find were of Oracle Bones, dating from 2008. From this point on, discussions appeared on various popular Chinese websites, such as www.douban.com (豆瓣), www.readfree.net (网上读书园地, and www.sina.com.cn (新浪网). Thanks to the possibilities afforded by the internet and Chinese disregard for intellectual property rights, one can easily find electronic versions of any of Hessler’s three books in English or Chinese to download for free.
Hessler’s fame spread from cyberspace to China’s elite cultural space with the publication of the simplified Chinese translation of Country Driving by the respectable Shanghai Translation Publishing House, China’s largest comprehensive publisher of translated works and bilingual dictionaries. He was one of the featured authors of the Bookworm International Literary Festival in Beijing this year, which took place in March. Tickets to hear him read from Country Driving were sold out well in advance. Then interviews with Chinese media and book signings followed. Articles in the Chinese media introduced Hessler to Chinese readers by giving a chronology of his years in China and the publication dates of his three books.
They gave synopses of each work. Rivertown recounts his experience of teaching English in the provincial town of Fuling as one of the first foreigners to live in it; he attracted curiosity wherever he went and used it to his advantage. Oracle Bones is about the intersections of the past and the present in contemporary China; in it he weaves together archaeology, muted echoes from the Cultural Revolution, as well as stories of former students, an old man whose ancestral home was demolished in China’s rush to modernize old Beijing, and a Uighur friend who eventually found asylum in the U.S. Country Driving recounts a long road trip across north China along the Great Wall as well as his extended stays in a village in north China and a factory city in south China; the main characters are the Wei family of Sancha Village, whom he got to know and with whom he weathered their son’s medical crisis, and several factory workers in the city of Lishui in Zhejiang province. The articles also spoke of Hessler’s wife, their twin daughters, and their plan to move to the Middle East in the near future, and in other ways tried to offer glimpses into the author’s personality. One mentioned his humorous comment following a shot taken by a photojournalist: “Like a monkey in a zoo, aren’t I?” Another spoke of the laughter he elicited from his audience by interjecting a sentence in the Sichuan dialect when a young woman in the audience said that she was from Sichuan. One described him as a “simple American” who made sense of “complex China” better than the Chinese do. All remarked on the signature trait of his writing, namely, his focus on ordinary people whose lives he followed over a period of years.
To Hessler’s credit, he is a keen and thoughtful observer of people, and the tone of his writing is sympathetic and humorous. There has been a flurry of Chinese readers’ blogs from 2008 to the early part of this year, quite a few of which were thoughtful book reviews that would have delighted a teacher. A review taken from www.douban.com and reposted on www.readfree.net on April 6, 2009 spoke of the effects reading Oracle Bones had on the reviewer: “From being unable to let go to being skeptical and then critical, to reaching an understanding and then accepting, I have rarely encountered a reading experience like this, which has been intensely thought provoking.” This reader was especially challenged by seeing China from a Uighur’s perspective: “Why does a Uighur have so much anger and prejudice against China; is this anger directed at the Han people, the Communist Party, or China?”
Another blogger, who calls himself Edwin, in a post on www.douban.com dated April 30, 2011, commented on the “sincerity” that flows through the narrative of Rivertown. In response to Hessler’s observation that the Chinese seem to take in stride major changes as if these changes do not impact them, Edwin mused, “In fact, it’s not that we are indifferent; it’s that even if we care, there’s nothing we can do—this sense of powerlessness is perhaps incomprehensible to the author at the time.” The blogger was especially impressed by Hessler’s observation regarding the politicization of the entire schooling experience for Chinese students: “He’s an outside observer. Therefore, he can see many things much more clearly than we can. He can see that political consciousness permeates campus life—those things that we do as a matter of course every day.” Hessler’s observations of ordinary life in an ordinary small town really struck a chord with Edwin, who concluded, “The author just came, took part in life here, peacefully and sincerely watching all that happened, and wrote it down; that was enough.”
The “Hessler phenomenon,” however long it lasts, marks a juncture in the history of American perceptions of China. Historically, American missionaries in China were the purveyors of information about China to the American public. The best known is the early twentieth-century American novelist, Pearl Buck (author of The Good Earth), a child of missionaries to China. Kenneth Scott Latourette, the great Yale church historian and former missionary to China, produced a substantial volume, The Chinese: Their History and Culture, in 1934. Whereas American Christians continue to write about China in our day—G. Wright Doyle, co-author of China: Ancient Culture, Modern Society (2008), for example—it is quite apparent that they no longer shape American public opinion the way they did in the early twentieth century. For good or for ill, today we have no equivalent of the missionary backers of Chiang Kai-shek or a Pearl Buck.
Journalists, of course, were another important source of information, and in this tradition we have Edgar Snow, who made his way into Communist-controlled areas in China’s northwest in the late 1930s and subsequently wrote Red Star over China, now a classic first-person account of early Chinese Communism. Hessler both follows in this journalistic tradition and departs from it. He follows in this tradition by starting out as an adventurer of sorts and a freelance journalist, and he departs from it by consciously rebelling against the style of journalistic writing, regarding his work as narrative nonfiction, as opposed to newspaper reporting. More importantly, Hessler is not a partisan as Snow was. In fact, his avoidance of the “newsworthy” and the political is intentional, and the outcome is a collection of portrayals with which his Chinese readers can easily identify.
In addition, I would like to suggest that friendship is an important factor in the resonance that Hessler is able to have with his Chinese fans. In his interview with Modern Weekly, the reporter asked if he was still in touch with the Wei family described in Country Driving. He replied, “We talk often on the phone. Wei Jia [the son] sometimes calls me at six in the morning U.S. time. He’s in the seventh grade now, already grown up, very bright. He makes fairly good grades in his studies. He must have changed much; his voice is already changed.” Such long-term friendships fill Hessler’s narratives and are the material of his books in the first place. While his books capture snapshots of a rapidly changing Chinese society, as well as the alienation, loneliness, and bewilderment these changes engender, they are the product of his intentional cultivation of friendships that last through several years. As such, both the research and the final product fill a deep longing in contemporary Chinese society, which, even as it offers unprecedented possibilities to many, is indifferent and lacking in trust between individuals.
Hessler is symbolic of a new phase in Sino-American relations. His initial popularity among mainland Chinese readers owed much to internet discussion forums. He is a cultural product of post-Mao political change. In the process of venturing into a writing career and honing his skills, he has forged a relationship with Chinese readers, which extends far beyond the personal friendships that were the making of his stories. Perhaps for the first time in modern Chinese history, a popular American writer is able to write thoughtfully and at times critically about China without provoking the instinctive nationalistic responses so typical of Chinese students and intellectuals, and to do so without paternalism or exoticism or revolutionary propaganda. By so doing, he has succeeded where many early twentieth-century American writers—missionaries and journalists—failed. This phase in his writing career could well be the harbinger of “normal” relations between the two peoples on an equal footing.
- Richard Bernstein, “Books of the Times: A Memoir of Teaching (and Learning) in China,” The New York Times, April 9, 2001. Jonathan Spence, “Letters from China,” The New York Times, April 30, 2006. Dwight Garner, “Feeling at Sea on the Roads of New China,” The New York Times, February 24, 2010. Alida Becker, “Red Highways,” The New York Times, February 28, 2010.
- Hessler mentioned this in at least two interviews with Chinese reporters; one was carried in the April 3, 2011 issue of nodally, or 南方都市报, and another in Modern Weekly, or 周末画报, the issue of which I cannot trace. These two interviews were in turn posted as blogs on April 26 and June 19 of 2011, respectively, on the popular Chinese website www.douban.com, or 豆瓣. The site specializes in reviews of movies, books, and music, and has gained a large following of intellectuals since its launch in 2005.
- Rivertown was translated as 消失中的江城：一位西方作家在長江古城探索中國 by 吴美真 and published by 九周出版 in Dec. 2006. Oracle Bones was translated as 甲骨文：一次占卜現代中國的旅程 by 盧秋瑩 and published by 九周出版 in May 2007 (and then republished by 八旗文化 in June 2011). In Taiwan, Country Driving was translated as 路尋中國 by 賴芳 and published by 八旗文化 in Feb. 2011; in China, the work was translated as 路寻中国：从乡村到工厂的自驾之旅 by 李雪顺 and published by 上海译文出版社 in Jan. 2011 (a month before the Taiwanese translation).
- Interestingly, the Google search still yields a March 9, 2009 blog by a Princeton graduate (Hessler is also a Princeton alum) named Thomas Talhelm, humorously titled “How Peter Hessler Ruined My China Life.” Apparently Hessler read the blog and wrote a generous-spirited reply to Talhelm. The original blog was subsequently carried in the March 17, 2010 issue of China Daily (Entertainment section, “Hot Pot Column”), and Hessler’s reply was carried in the same column of the paper on March 18, 2010.
- According to its website, http://bookwormfestival.com, the festival is now in its fifth year. It is hosted by the three cities of Beijing, Suzhou, and Chengdu. The event brings together an international community authors, filmmakers, and journalists and draws a distinguished audience of teachers, ambassadors, artists, entrepreneurs, designers, NGO workers, and journalists. It enjoys both domestic and foreign sponsorship for its events.
- The following is a brief summary of three articles, all of which contained interviews with Hessler: one was carried in the Apr. 3, 2011 issue of nodally (南方都市报); one in the Apr. 19, 2011 issue of 南方人物周刊, a “people weekly” of nodally; and one in Modern Weekly (周末画报), the date of which I am unable to trace (it was posted in a blog on www.douban.com.