Evaluating Peter Hessler And The China Within

The Peace Corps world has produced many fine writers over the past 50 years. The list is long, so I can’t name all the writers, and I won’t draw straws.  Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1965-67), however, has been kind enough to send me his engaging and thoughtful essay on one of our real stars, Peter Hessler (China 1996-98), who has just published his third book on his host country.  This publication gives Tony, and all of us, a moment to look back on Hessler’s  books that, at least to me, demonstrate, once again, that the Peace Corps world of writers continues to produce a library of literature that enriches all are lives, whether we were in the Peace Corps or not.

Tony has his own China experience. He taught at Shijiazhuang Teachers College, Hebei Province, PRC, in 1990-91. A writer, he has published several books on Nonwestern cultures and history, including three books about China. Two new books of his poems will come out this summer: Go Home Bones, about the effects of war on families and society; and Dali’s Clock, Schrodinger’s Cat, and a Pair of Dice, about the chaos of life in this new age of quantum and string theory.

In this four-part (and two blogs) essay, Tony writes about Hessler and what he has to say about China from his first days as a PCV on the Yangtze River.

Hessler’s books are:

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory
by Peter Hessler (China 1996-98)
New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
438 pages
$27.99 Hardback.

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present
by Peter Hessler (China 1996-98)
New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
507 pages
$15.99 paperback
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze River
by Peter Hessler (China 1996-98)
New York: Harper Perennial, 2006 (first published 2001).
418 pages
$14.99 Paperback

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964-65)

I: Hessler’s Trilogy

In what he calls a “longitudinal study–following a subject through time” (“About the Author,” River Town . . . P.S.  4), Peter Hessler has recorded the effects of China’s extraordinary economic expansion on the nation’s people. This is especially true of the second and third book of his  trilogy, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present and Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory.

Writing about another culture requires a working knowledge of  the history, sociology, archeology, economics, and politics of the area. Then the author must evaluate this information in the context of how it fits into the overall human story. Even with these skills, the writer must possess unyielding curiosity, persistence, and patience, while maintaining the discipline of being the observer and the observed simultaneously.

Even with all of these skills and attributes, anyone hoping to go deeper than a weiguaren’s (people from outside the country) “view” of China must master Mandarin, one of the most difficult languages in the world.  By the end of his Peace Corps tour at Fuling Teachers College in 1998, Hessler was able to carry on conversations in Mandarin not only with his students but also with the local people.

Beyond these basic skills, the most difficult task, as expressed by Hessler himself, is explaining the “sense of transformation–constant, relentless, overwhelming change–[that] has been the defining characteristic of China during the past two decades” (“About the Author,” River Town . . . P.S. 5).

Peter Hessler accomplished his goal, and much more. His dynamic narrative presents personal stories of a people struggling with a “disillusionment with its own traditions” (Oracle Bones 416). He writes that by the time Deng Xiaoping began the reform period in 1979-80, “China was faced with the spiritual vacuum that had tormented the nation since the nineteenth century” (123). His skill in conveying the emotional and psychological realities of China’s search for an ideology to fill that spiritual vacuum is nothing short of brilliant.

II: Chinese Pragmatism

One basic theme that underlies all three books is China’s historical need for “Order, regularity, organization” (Oracle Bones 252), as explained to Hessler by University of California Berkeley historian David N. Keightley. One of the cultural foundations that has helped preserve this order is China’s emphasis on  group value as opposed to the individual as in the Western world. This is reflected by China’s stress on “ancestor cult” as compared to “hero cult” of the Greeks (252).

Another cultural institution enabling China to retain its culture is Chinese writing. Hessler writes that throughout history written Chinese has stayed basically the same and provided the Chinese with a sense of stability that “shaped the Chinese world” (405).

By the twentieth century, however, the Qing Dynasty had collapsed and provincial warlords fought each other for supremacy. China was suffering from an identity crisis, its sense of being united, unique, and invulnerable.

Hessler explains that by the Cultural Revolution “the Chinese had chipped away at their culture, trying to replace the ‘backward’ elements. . . .  By the time Mao died, the Chinese had lost their appetite for radical change. They had passed from crisis to ideology to nihilism–and then they came out on the other side, settling on pragmatism and the slogans of Deng Xiaoping. Be practical and realistic. Seek truth from facts” (416-17).

This pragmatism is expressed in a popular epigram: “No sense in giving up eating for fear of choking.” (River Town . .. P. S. 105) If the resistance to change will lead to certain defeat, then the Chinese will make the practical, timely decision, rather than debate the issue endlessly. Hessler describes this reaction throughout his books, especially in reference to survival during the Cultural Revolution and in adapting to the constant interference of the Communist Party in the daily lives of his students.

How to survive and prosper while maintaining a balance between ideology and pragmatism? That is the challenge the Chinese people are facing. The best of Hessler’s three books, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, chronicles this high wire act in contemporary China and its effects on individual people.

In 2002 Hessler and a friend leased a house in Sancha, a small village about a two hours’ drive north of Beijing and within sight of the Great Wall. They became close friends with the Wei Ziqi family, Wei Ziqi, his wife Cao Chunmei, and their five-year old son Wei Jia. In Book II: The Village, Hessler describes how the Wei Ziqi and his wife Cao Chunmei handle the pressure of China’s shift from a socialist to a capitalist economy. It is a mixed blessing, catapulting the family from peasants to prosperous entrepreneurs, with the accompanying strain on the marriage and health problems.

In Book III: The Factory, Hessler writes about the thousands of factories that line major highways along China’s east coast. Each of the small villages seem to specialize in a single product, such as playground equipment, buttons, pens, ping pong paddles, faucets, etc. One district of a few villages called Rui’an claimed to be “home to exactly 1,208 manufacturers of automobile engine accessories, brakes, and steering systems” (294). Hessler describes the founding and development of the Lishui Yashun Underdress Fittings Industry Co., Ltd., a factory created by “Boss” Gao Xiaomeng and “Boss” Wang Aiguo. Following them closely for three  years, Hessler offers incisive character analyses of these two men and of the Tao family who make up about half of the factory workers.

Indeed, one of Hessler’s major talents is profiling dozens of his Chinese friends. They are not props for Hessler’s research. His treatment of the Chinese people demonstrates his deep respect for them, from Polat, the Uighur who immigrates to the U.S.; and Lao Zhao, who struggles to prevent the government from demolishing his courtyard in Beijing; to Chen Zen the peasant-historian of the Great Wall in Ninglu Bu, a village on the border between Shanxi province and Inner Mongolia.  [End of Part One]

One Comment

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  • “If the resistance to change will lead to certain defeat, then the Chinese will make the practical, timely decision, rather than debate the issue endlessly.” writes Mr Zurlo of Hessler’s assessment of Chinese pragmatism.

    Would that the US Congress read Hessler’s books!

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