Evaluating Peter Hessler And The China Within, Part Two

Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1965-67) who taught at Shijiazhuang Teachers College, Hebei Province, PRC, in 1990-91 and has written several book on  Nonwestern cultures and history, including three books about China, continues his essay on the writings of Peter Hessler (China 1996-98)

III: Migration

Throughout River Town and Oracle Bones Peter Hessler chronicles the lives of several of his former students. He highlights three in particular, William Jefferson Foster, Nancy Drew, and Emily (students often give themselves English names), as part of his “longitudinal study” of young adults in China dealing with the booming economy. Their experiences after graduation reinforce one of Hessler’s major themes in all three books: migration.

As the economy expands and modernizes, young Chinese leave their home villages for the cities, especially the boomtowns in the eastern coastal regions. Hessler writes, “The whole country is moving in that direction” (7). The numbers are staggering: approximately 90 million between 1978 and 2001. This movement reflects the rapid leap from experimental capitalism in a few Special Economic Zones in the early 1980s to the wide-open stampede into entrepreneurship since the mid-1990s.

From the villages in western China that line the Great Wall to Sancha, the one consistent complaint from elders is that their children leave for the factory towns after they finish middle school. About the empty buildings and structures in small villages, Hessler writes, “that’s the nature of a country in transition: something is always being abandoned while something else is always being built. The people are in constant motion–they’re on the train, in buses, on boats. They stand beside rural roads, petting the invisible dog [hitchhiking], looking for a ride south” (68).

Throughout these three volumes Hessler deals with China’s history. He provides succinct but comprehensive sketches of history that relate to his immediate topics. In Country Driving: Book I: The Wall, he describes his drive west from Beijing, following a route along the legendary Great Wall several hundred miles to Gansu province. At each stop he sketches portions of  China’s centuries-old conflict with nomads from the north. These are interesting vignettes that add depth to his writing without bogging the reader down with endless historical dates and battles and names.

However, Hessler also admits that truth in history usually depends on who is interpreting the events. A good example is the history of the Great Wall itself. Like America’s traditional Thanksgiving stories, China has its own mythology about the Great Wall being one continuous wall built two thousand years ago (River Town P.S. 191-92).

When discussing the history of the various walls built during different dynasties, Hessler begins with stories of the villagers and then links the history to present conditions. In other parts of his trilogy, Hessler presents personal accounts of people’s experiences in the Cultural Revolution, and they are always a part of conversations with contemporaries or background to introduce people he is interviewing. This is history to enlighten the present.

IV: From Peter Hessler to Ho Wei

There is much more to discuss, such as Hessler’s relaxed, unpretentious style and knack for capturing the sounds and sights of life in Fuling and towns along the Wu and Yangtze rivers. Another appealing quality in his writing is a playful sense of humor. In Country Driving he provides delicious tales about driving in northern China and frequently links test questions on the nation’s driver’s license test to his adventures. About teaching at Fuling Teachers College, he explains that politics “at a Chinese college” is “unavoidable.” So “in the end I taught English Literature with Chinese Characteristics” (River Town P.S. 36). 

However, there is another interesting story unfolding throughout Hessler’s trilogy. It is the story of an aspiring writer named Peter Hessler who transforms himself into Ho Wei, an American learning the intimate, everyday details of life among the Chinese. To truly become a part of the culture and learn the language, Hessler created for himself a Chinese identity and named him Ho Wei (238). In his apartment at the college, he set up two desks: “One was for studying Chinese, and the other was for writing; one desk was Ho Wei’s and the other belonged Peter Hessler. . . . I had my Chinese life and my American life, and even if they occupied similar territory, they were completely different. . . . Ho Wei and Peter Hessler never met each other. The notebook was the only thing they truly shared” (239).

In the end, the blending of his American and Chinese personalities evolves into the mature, professional journalist Peter Hessler.

His writing journey began at Fuling Teachers College, and expanded to freelancing for magazines like the National Geographic, as Hessler became more comfortable being Ho Wei. Then he worked his way up the journalism ladder from “clipper” in the Wall Street Journal‘s Beijing office, to stringer for the Boston Globe, to the “American New York Person” for the New Yorker. And he fulfilled his dream of writing full time freelance journalism while living in Beijing. Fortunately for Americans, he offers us unrivaled insights into the lives of peasant and working class Chinese since the 1980’s Reform and Opening policy. 

Together, these three books make up a unified series that goes a long way in explaining today’s China, a nation that already is a major power broker in world economics and politics. The books  should be mandatory reading for anyone planning to work or teach in China. [End]

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