by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia, 1963-65)
Peter Hessler graduated from Princeton University in 1992 with an A. B. in English. The summer before graduation, he wrote an extensive ethnography about the small town of Sikeston, Missouri, which was published by the Journal for Applied Anthropology. After graduation, he received a Rhodes Scholarship to study English language and literature at Mansfield College, University of Oxford. Peter then served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China from 1996 to 1998, teaching English at Fuling Teachers College, in a small city near the Yangtze River.
After Peace Corps, Peter continued his work in China as a freelance writer for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The South China Morning Post, and National Geographic. He joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2000 and served as a foreign correspondent until 2007. Peter left China in 2007 and settled in Ridgway, Colorado, where he continued to publish articles in The New Yorker on topics including the Peace Corps in Nepal and small towns in Colorado.
Based on his experience as a Volunteer in teaching English, Peter has now written four books on China: 1) River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, detailing his two years as a Volunteer teaching English in China; 2) Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, which features a series of parallel episodes of his former students, a Uighur dissent who fled to the U. S., and the archaeologist Chen Mengjia who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution; 3) Country Driving: A Journey from Farm to Factory which is a record of Peter’s stories when driving a rented car from rural northern China to the factory towns of southern China and the significant economic and industrial growth taking place there; and 4) a collection of essay titled Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, which covers China’s ordinary people and life.
In October 2011, Peter and his family moved to Cairo, Egypt, where he covered the Middle East for The New Yorker. In that same year, Peter was named a MacArthur Fellow. In an interview at the time, he expressed his intention to spend much of the next year learning Arabic, as he thought that he’d be spending the next five or six years in the Middle East. Subsequently, he learned Egyptian Arabic, and in 2019 published The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, a book dealing with his experiences in Egypt during the Arab Spring.
In August 2019, Peter returned to China, where his professional career started, and taught non-fiction writing at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute. There he wrote several pieces for The New Yorker about how China handled the Covid-19 pandemic. At the end of the first semester, because his contract wasn’t renewed, Peter left China in 2021.
In 2020, the Peace Corps broke ties with China and withdrew all of its Volunteers.
In his time there, he was emblematic of Peace Corps’ 2nd goal: “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of other people.” After China, Peter, through his publications, then went on to live its 3rd goal “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”
His professional career as an author has often been rooted in his experiences in a country that is foreign to so many Americans. In their totality, they are representative of why Peace Corps needed to remain in China, as they provided Americans with a new window into an emergent society’s passage onto the world stage. Of Oracle Bones, a reviewer wrote: “A century ago, outsiders saw China as a place where nothing ever changes. Today, the country has become one of the most dynamic regions on earth.”
Peter captured China in this light and informed a larger audience of a country that is “undergoing a momentous change before our eyes,” thus earning him a well-deserved Profile in Citizenship.