CLASSIC BOOKS BY WESTERN AUTHORS ABOUT CHINA
Well known books about China include “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck; “Peking” by Anthony Grey; “Sexual Life of Ancient China” by Robert van Gulik; “Single Pebble” (about life on the Yangtze) by John Hersey; “Science and Civilization” in China by Joseph Needham; “Sin City” by Ralph Shaw; and “The Kindness of Women” by J.G Ballard.
George Orwell's “1984" and “Animal Farm” offered good predictions of the Communists government in China. Charles Finney wrote a surreal novel about China called “The Circus of Dr. Lao” Sax Rohmer's villain Dr. Fu-Manchu killed his victims with poisonous mushrooms that grew at incredible speed in a “fungus cellar.” In 2014“Sun Zhongxu, the translator of works by JD Salinger and George Orwell, committed suicide on Aug 28, provoking discussions about translators’ low pay.
The term "Shangri-la" was coined by English novelist James Hilton in his novel “Lost Horizon”. It refers to a beautiful mystical place discovered by four Westerners who crash land in an airplane there. “Lost Horizon” was published the year that Hitler rose to power and topped the best seller list for two years. Frank Capra did a 1937 film version of the novel, which starred Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. It won several Oscars but seems quite silly and dated when viewed today. In “Lost Horizon”, Shangri-la is a Buddhist monastery in a Tibetan valley where people enjoy a happy trouble-free life and live to be more than 200 years old by doing yoga, breathing in the mountain air and eating tangatseberry (a native herb). See Separate Article TIBETAN LITERATURE factsanddetails.com
Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) mclc.osu.edu; Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations zhongwen.com; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site vbtutor.net ; English Translation PDF File chine-informations.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu
Books: “Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction“ by Sabina Knight (Oxford University Press, 2012) ; “The Culture and Civilization”, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press)
Fu Manchu and Sax Rohmer
Tapping into anti-Asian fears in the early 20th century, sparked in part by a rising Japan after it defeated Russia in 1905 and the Boxer Rebellion against Westerners in Beijing in 1900, the British writer Sax Rohmer created villain Dr. Fu-Manchu — “the Yellow Peril incarnate” — who killed his victims with poisonous mushrooms that grew at incredible speed in a “fungus cellar.” Sax Rohmer was a pen name for Arthur Henry "Sarsfield" Ward (1883–1959). Born in Birmingham to working-class Irish parents, he initially pursued a career as a civil servant before concentrating on writing full-time. He worked as a poet, songwriter and comedy sketch writer for music hall performers before creating the Sax Rohmer persona and pursuing a career writing fiction. He claimed membership to one of the factions of the qabbalistic Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and also claimed ties to the Rosicrucians [Source: Wikipedia +]
The first Fu Manchu novel — The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu — was serialised from October 1912 to June 1913 and was an immediate success, with its fast-paced story of Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie facing the worldwide conspiracy of the "Yellow Peril". The Fu Manchu stories, together with his more conventional detective series characters made Rohmer one of the most successful and financially rewarded authors of the 1920s and 1930s. The first three Fu Manchu books were published in the four years between 1913 and 1917; but it was not until 1931 (some 14 years after the third book in the series) that Rohmer returned to the series with Daughter of Fu Manchu. The reason for the long interval was that Rohmer wanted to be rid of the series after The Si-Fan Mysteries. The first three books had been successfully filmed by Stoll in the twenties as a pair of serials. In the 28 years from 1931 to 1959, Rohmer added a further 10 books to the Fu Manchu series, bringing the total to 13 books. +
In the mid 2010s, Titan Books announced it planned to republish the Fu Manchu novels. At that time Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, wrote: It is telling that Rohmer continually calls him Dr. Fu Manchu. The honorific flags the mad scientist side of his character, for his power allegedly lies in drawing on both the “mysterious” knowledge of the East and “scientific” methods of the West. This combination was designed to alarm audiences in the West, due in part to the timing of Fu Manchu’s first appearances in print in the early 1910s and soon after that in British and Hollywood horror films. At the time many in the West were still reeling from the fact that Japan, an Asian country, had recently defeated Russia, a European one, on the battlefield. The defeat, due largely to the extent to which the Japanese had embraced and mastered the use of Western technologies, would previously have been considered unimaginable given how racial hierarchies of the time were expected to play out.[Source: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Asian American Writers' Workshop, February 4, 2014]
“The novels featuring the villain may have popularized his name, but it was movies such as 1929’s The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu that took his fame, or rather infamy, to a truly global level. Fu Manchu became a fiend as well known as any other in the annals of world literature — right up (or perhaps down) there with Moriarty and Macbeth. His trademarks included an unquenchable desire to wreak vengeance on the West; great intelligence combined with a sadistic streak; and invincibility, for no matter how many brave British heroes thought they had vanquished him, Fu Manchu always rose again.
“When we first meet our villain Rohmer describes him as having a “feline” look. It is just one of many descriptive devices that make the villain seem more monstrous than human, a character who is presumed to be of this world, but should be treated by contemporary readers as something out of science fiction rather than a more realistic variety of literature...Rohmer’s feline-featured villain is ferociously strong and capable of hatching complex conspiracies...Rohmer only imbues members of groups other than the one he belongs to with traits that dehumanize them (Fu Manchu’s minions of various nationalities are routinely presented as subhuman in one way or another).
What prompts the mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu to act so perniciously? After the violent death of his wife and child he is immediately transformed “from someone positively disposed to Westerners into someone who sees nothing to admire about the West and is determined to wreak vengeance against the entire white race.
Sociologist Virginia Berridge stated that Rohmer created a false image of London's Chinese community as crime-ridden, further claiming that the Limehouse Chinese were one of the most law-abiding of London's ethnic minorities. Critic Jack Adrian wrote: "Rohmer's own racism was careless and casual, a mere symptom of his times". Colin Watson said: “So vehement and repetitive were Sax Rohmer’s references to Asiatic plotting against ‘white’ civilisation that they cannot be explained simply as the frills of melodramatic narration.”
Sympathetic Western Views of Mao and the Communists
For a long while it was quite fashionable in the West to be sympathetic and even supportive and enthusiastic about Mao Zedong the Communists in China. Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker: “Many Western intellectuals, recoiling from the excesses of McCarthyism, and hampered by lack of firsthand information, gave the benefit of the doubt to Mao in the decade that followed. Travelling to China in 1955, Simone de Beauvoir drew a sympathetic picture of a new nation overcoming the aftereffects of foreign invasions, internecine warfare, natural disasters, and economic collapse. Neither Paradise nor Hell, China was another peasant country where people were trying to break out of “the agonizingly hopeless circle of an animal existence.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]
“When China’s urbane Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai made his first public appearance in Europe, many were persuaded that China was more than a clone of Soviet totalitarianism, and that “peaceful coexistence” was a real possibility. “Come and see,” Zhou said, and a motley bunch of politicians, artists, and scientists took up his invitation in 1954...The Chinese...laid on extravagant banquets for the British. (The headline in the Daily Mail was ‘SOCIALISTS DINE ON SHARK’s FINS.”) The mammoth Chinese construction of factories, canals, schools, hospitals, and public housing awed these visitors from a straitened country that American loans and the Marshall Plan had saved from financial ruin. They were impressed, too, by the new marriage laws that considerably improved the position of Chinese women, by the ostensible abolition of prostitution, and by the public-health campaigns.”
There were some doubters. “The parade held in Beijing to mark the fifth anniversary of the People’s Republic reminded the philosopher A. J. Ayer of the Nuremberg Rallies,” Mishra wrote in The New Yorker. “Though impressed by the “dedicated and dignified” Mao, the trade unionist Sam Watson was dismayed by Chinese talk of the masses as “another brick, another paving stone.” But “other European visitors to China were relative pushovers. François Mitterrand, who visited China at the height of the devastating famine in 1961, denied the existence of starvation in the country. André Malraux hailed Mao as an “emperor of bronze.” Richard Nixon, who consulted Malraux before “opening up” China to the United States in 1972, and Henry Kissinger were no less awed by Mao’s raw power and historical mystique.” American attitudes to China in the nineteen-seventies were marked by what the Yale historian Jonathan Spence characterized as “reawakened curiosity” and “guileless fascination,” followed soon by “renewed skepticism” as travel and research in China became progressively easier.
Edgar Snow and Mao
Most people in the West had never heard of Mao Zedong until he was interviewed by American journalist Edgar Snow. Snow's book Red Star Over China made both men well known. Snow was later kicked out of China and prohibited from entering the country until 1960. In 1970 he was the first journalist to report that Mao wanted to meet Nixon. In 1972, Snow died, attended by doctors sent by Zhou Enlai.
According to the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Beijing government: “Snow, the first Western journalist to interview Communist Part leaders, arrived in China in 1928, after which he met with Communist leaders including Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province in 1936. He later wrote the well-known Red Star Over China, which became the go-to-work for introducing early Communism in China to the rest of the world.
Snow toured the communist bases around Yan'an, in northern China. The resulting book Red Star Over China (1937) portrayed Mao in a positive light and was widely credited with introducing the communists and their leadership to the rest of the world. Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, ‘snow managed to project onto the revolutionary the ideals of American progressivism.” Mao was presented as a “Lincolnesque” leader who aimed to “awaken” China’s millions to “a belief in human rights,” introducing them to “a new conception of the state, society, and the individual.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]
Recommended Books About China by Foreign Writers
Dr. Gloria Tseng of the Global China Center wrote: “There are a handful of popular American authors who write about contemporary China in our day: 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. [Source: Dr. Gloria Tseng, Global China Center, November 18, 2011]
Books by non-Chinese writers recommended by Jeffrey Wasserstrom in The Guardian: “Factory Girls“ by former Wall Street Journal correspondent Leslie T. Chang offers moving life stories and highly individualized portraits of workers the author befriended during visits to the massive industrial boomtown of Dongguan made over several years. “The Last Days of Old Beijing“, Michael Meyer's poignant, historically minded work, looks at life in a Chinese alleyway neighborhood slated for destruction. It is based on the former Peace Corp volunteer's extended stay in the district, where he rented a cramped room that lacked indoor plumbing (but had an internet connection) and taught English for free (mostly to the children of migrant laborers) at a local elementary school. [Source: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, The Guardian, December 25, 2008]
“Out of Mao's Shadow“ , a model work of investigative political journalism by the Washington Post's Philip P Pan has many virtues, including that of introducing readers to the work and life of the daring documentary filmmaker Hu Jie and a Sichuan graveyard devoted to victims of Cultural Revolution violence. And finally, “Smoke and Mirrors“ is Pallavi Aiyar's lively set of reflections on her experiences as the first Beijing-based Chinese-speaking correspondent for an Indian daily. Filled with amusing anecdotes, one of its strengths is the author's nuanced assessment of the contrasting attitudes toward manual labor, political expression, and gender in China and India.
Classics from the “golden age” of foreigners writing about China from the the mid-1930s to the 1950s included Emily Hahn's “China to Me“, Jack Belden's “China Shakes the World“ , Graham Peck's classic 1950 memoir “Two Kinds of Time“, Annalee Jacoby and Theodore White's “Thunder Out of China“ and multiple titles by Edgar Snow, Agnes Smedley, and Carl Crow.
Also recommended are Ian Johnson's “Wild Grass“ (2005) , a superb work of dissent-focused reportage; “The Changing Face of China“ (2005) , the latest in a series of thoughtful books on Chinese themes by long-time Guardian correspondent John Gittings; Rachel DeWoskin’s 2005 memoir, “Foreign Babes in Beijing", a sharp and funny account of a young American woman’s life in China during the late 1990s; John Pomfrett's often moving “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China“ (2006), James Kynge's wide-ranging “China Shakes the World: The Rise of a Hungry Nation“ (2006); Duncan Hewitt's “Getting Rich First“ (2007); Rob Gifford's “China Road“ (2007)]
Peter Hessler has written three good books about China: River Town (2001), Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present (2006) and Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory (2010) Books form the 1980s include Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China (1988), Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake, and Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk
“The Maker of Heavenly Trousers” by Danielle Vare, an Italian diplomat that lived in China in the 1920s and 30s, was described by the Washington Post “as a charming take on the complexity of Chinese society.”Asia-American writers Gaily Tsukiyama and Lisa See have had some success writing about historical China. “Shanghai Girls“ by Lisa See (2009) follows two sisters in the their journey from glamorous 1930s Shanghai to Los Angeles after the Japanese invasion of China.
The Detective Dee stories made famous in the west by writer Robert van Gulik are a series of mystery novels loosely based on a historical Tang Dynasty investigative magistrate. On the eve of the Empress Wu Zetian’s formal coronation, one story goes, officials responsible for the construction of a massive Bodhisattva statue in her honor start mysteriously bursting into flame. Dee is summoned from prison/exile (he had previously opposed what he considered to be Wu Zetian’s usurpation of the Tang imperial throne) to the capital Chang’an to solve the mysteries. Aided by the Empress’s bodyguard and albino investigator Dee proceeds methodically to demolish the haze of superstitious beliefs provoked by the murders, and zeroes in on a scientific and political explanation.
Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong Books
Books on Cultural Revolution include “Wild Swans” by Jung Chang, an international bestseller; “Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of the Cultural Revolution” and “One Hundred People's Ten Years” by Feng Jicai; “The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Cultural Revolution” by Chen Jo-his; “Life and Death in Shanghai” by Nien Chang; “Enemies of the People” by Anne F. Thurston.
“Colors of the Mountain” by Da Chen (Random House, 2000) is a coming-of-age set in the Cultural Revolution. It was described by Newsweek as "surprisingly free of cynicism or bitterness...all the more poignant by the wonder and vulnerability in the voice of the child narrator." “The Lily Theater: A Novel of Modern China” by Lulu Wang is an entertaining and interesting depiction of the Cultural Revolution originally written in Dutch by a Chinese woman with a strong, eccentric voice.
A rare glimpse into Mao's personal life was furnished in “The Private Life of Chairman Mao”, a 1994 book written by Dr. Li Zhisui, Mao's personal physician for nearly 22 years. Dr. Li often slept in a small room next to Mao's ballroom-size bedroom, traveled with him and had many late night conversations with him. Born into a family of physicians, including two who served the Chinese emperor, Li was trained at an American-financed medical school in China and worked as a ship's surgeon in Australia for one year. He began working for Mao when he was 35 years old. He sometimes taught the chairman English. [Source: "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" by Dr. Li Zhisui, excerpts reprinted U.S. News and World Report, October 10, 1994]
Li filled 40 notebooks with observation of Mao in the 1950s and 60s, but he burned these out of fear of reprisals during the Cultural Revolution. After Mao died in 1976 the doctor began writing what he remembered and this time he filled 20 notebooks. In 1988, he fled to Chicago where his two sons lived, and in 1989 he promised his wife on her deathbed that he would record his story for his children and later generations. After the book was published, Zhisui's publisher, Random House, was attacked by Chinese authorities for producing a book “awash in lies and malice."
Other books about Mao Zedong: “Mao Fever and the Story of a Mao Book“ by Ross Terrill ; “Mao: A Biography“ by Ross Terrill. “Mao: the Unknown Story” (Knopf. 2005) by Jung Chang, author of “Wild Swans”, and her husband John Halliday, a British historian, portrays Mao as villain on the level of Hitler and Stalin. The book was read by U.S. President George Bush and embraced by the American right as a condemnation of Communism. It characterizes Mao as cruel, materialistic, self-centered and a leader who used terror with the aim of ruling the world. There is also a Mao biography by Jonathon Spence.
Foreign Babes in Beijing
One of the most popular shows in China in the mid 1990s was “Foreign Babes in Beijing”, a 20-part miniseries featuring seven foreigners---three Americans, two Russians, one Japanese and one German. In one episode an American with cancer is cured with Chinese medicine after Western medicine fails. In another episode a Chinese man wins the love of a beautiful girl after he pummels an American who criticizes Chinese manners.
In another episode a German girl falls in love in the "Chinese way" and refuses to even kiss her Chinese boyfriend until they were married. One of the most despicable characters in “Foreign Babes in Beijing” is Robert, an American students who eventually got his comeuppance when he is punched in the face by a the handsome Chinese student, Li Tianliang.
Rachel DeWoskin, a 22-year-old graduate of Columbia University at , had the leading role “Foreign Babes in Beijing” in the show. She played Jexi, a wealthy student who seduces a married man with a child and takes him to the United States with her. In one episode she is shown dancing wildly at a disco and later asking her lover "you can't love anyone besides your wife" when he hesitates to make love with her. [Source: Tara Suilen Duffy, Los Angeles Times, April 1996]
DeWoskin was arguably the most popular foreigner in Beijing in the 1990s even though she played a rather unsavory character. Millions of Chinese watched her on the show. Fans mobbed her on the streets; she received marriage proposals from Chinese men; and marketed her own brand of lipstick Later, DeWoskin wrote a book about experiences called appropriately enough “Foreign Babes in Beijing”. It got good reviews for its insights into Chinese culture and the amusing, self-deprecating descriptions of her experiences. A Hollywood company has already bought the movie rights . Book: “Foreign Babes in Beijing” by Rachel DeWoskin, (Granta Books, 2005)
Peter Hessler's Books
Peter Hessler wrote the books "River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze" (2001), "Oracle Bones: A Journey through Time in China" (2006), and "Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory" (2010). He wrote many articles for The New Yorker and was regarded as one of the best American writers on contemporary China. All three books of his books were reviewed in The New York Times upon their publication. River Town was reviewed under its “Books of the Times,” and "Oracle Bones" and "Country Driving" were listed among its “100 Notable Books of the Year” for 2006 and 2010, respectively. [Source: Dr. Gloria Tseng, Global China Center, November 18, 2011, From "Chinese History & Culture Peter Hessler and His Chinese Fans: A New Generation of Sino-American Relations as Seen through Chinese Cyberspace Discussions of Hessler’s China Trilogy" By Dr. Gloria Tseng]
Rachel Dewoskin, Foreign Babes author
Dr. Gloria Tseng of the Global China Center wrote: “The three books fall under the category of memoirs or travel narratives, all of them based on the author’s experiences while living in China from 1996 to 2007.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.
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.
Hessler and his wife Leslie T. Chang, author of "Factory Girls" and former Wall Street Journal reporter, have twin daughters. They lived for a while in Egypt, where Hessler wrote several more books and more New Yorker articles.
Promotion of Peter Hessler and His Books in China
Dr. Gloria Tseng of the Global China Center wrote: “All three books of Hessler’s “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 or one of his books on the Chinese search engine Baidu 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 books.com.tw 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 douban.com, readfree.net, and sina.com.cn”. 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. [Source: Dr. Gloria Tseng, Global China Center, November 18, 2011, From “Chinese History & Culture Peter Hessler and His Chinese Fans: A New Generation of Sino-American Relations as Seen through Chinese Cyberspace Discussions of Hessler’s China Trilogy” By Dr. Gloria Tseng]
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. 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.
Peter Hessler on River Town
Peter Hessler lived along the Yangtze River at a time the massive Three Gorges Dame was being built. He wrote in National Geographic, ““I lived in Fuling from 1996 to 1998, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer at the local college. Back then the population was around 200,000, which was small by Chinese standards. Most people strongly supported the dam, although they didn’t talk about it much. It was scheduled for completion in 2009, which seemed an eternity in a place where so much was already happening. In China the reform era had begun in 1978, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that free market ideas started to have a major impact on smaller cities like Fuling. Locals coped with overwhelming change: the end of government-assigned jobs, the sudden privatization of housing. [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, March, 2013]
“After finishing my Peace Corps assignment, I returned to my parents’ home in Missouri and tried to record that moment in Fuling. After completing a 400-page manuscript — I called it River Town — I sent it out to agents and publishers, nearly all of whom rejected it. In the 1990s China hadn’t yet entered the consciousness of most Americans. One editor said frankly, “We don’t think anybody wants to read a book about China.” But I eventually found a publisher, and that was when I began to worry about how locals would respond to the book.
“The Chinese had always been extremely sensitive about how their country was portrayed by foreigners. Even in remote Fuling, I heard people speak angrily about books and films that they believed had emphasized Chinese poverty. When I began editing my manuscript, I sent a draft to a student named Emily, and most of her responses were positive. But sometimes she sounded a note of disappointment: “I think no one would like Fuling city after reading your story. But I can’t complain, as everything you write about is the fact. I wish the city would be more attractive with time.”
“The balancing act seemed impossible. I wanted to show my affection for Fuling, but I also needed to be honest about the pollution, the dam, and the problems I sometimes had as a foreigner. In the end I accepted the possibility that I wouldn’t be welcomed there again. But I hadn’t imagined how fast the place would change.
Peter Hessler on Returning to River Town
Peter Hessler wrote in National Geographic, “ “The writer’s vanity likes to imagine permanence, but Fuling reminds me that words are quicksilver. Their meaning changes with every age, every perspective — it’s like the White Crane Ridge, whose inscriptions have a different significance now that they appear in an underwater museum. Today anybody who reads River Town knows that China has become economically powerful and that the Three Gorges Dam is completed, and this changes the story. And I’ll never know what the Fuling residents of 1998 would have thought of the book, because those people have also been transformed. There’s a new confidence to urban Chinese; the outside world seems much less remote and threatening. And life has moved so fast that even the 1990s feels as nostalgic as a black-and-white photo. Recently Emily sent me an email: “With a distance of time, everything in the book turns out to be charming, even the dirty, tired flowers.” [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, March, 2013]
“One evening I have dinner with Huang Xiaoqiang, his wife, Feng Xiaoqin, and their family, who used to own my favorite noodle restaurant. After dinner he insists on chauffeuring me back to my hotel. He tells me that his brother-in-law, who doesn’t speak English, used a dictionary to read River Town. He went word by word; it took two years. “In your book you wrote that my biggest dream was to have a car,” Huang says. “And this is the third one I’ve owned!”
“During my visit, about 15 students return to Fuling for an impromptu reunion. They give updates on the classmates who, like so many Chinese of their generation, have migrated far from home. Several live in coastal boomtowns, and one does trade in India. Another is a Communist Party official in a Tibetan city, where he’s in charge of xuanchuan. (“Publicity” to some, “propaganda” to others.) One woman hosted a popular radio show for years. Another man got fired from his teaching job, drifted out to the Tibetan Plateau, started a cab company, and became a millionaire. One student is in prison for corruption. William Jefferson Foster, a kid from a poor village who gave himself an impressive English name, has earned an excellent living by teaching English to the children of wealthy factory owners in the east. Emily now works in a Fuling elementary school, and she tells me about her cousin, a high school dropout who used to live in my building on campus. In those days he worked as a gardener. He subsequently went into construction, then contracting, then real estate; and now he has assets worth more than $16 million.
“The new mind-sets impress me even more than the material changes. At the college, teachers tell me that today’s students, most of whom come from the new middle class, are more sophisticated. One evening I give a lecture, and during the question-and-answer session a freshman stands up and asks, “Do you think that China will ever be able to surpass the United States in democracy and freedom?” When I was a teacher, no student would have dared to ask such a thing in public. My answer is diplomatic but honest: “That depends on you and your generation.”
“I also find that educated Chinese seem much more interested in analyzing their own society. Emily tells me that her cousin may be rich, but she’s noticed that money hasn’t made him happier. William observes that his younger relatives now migrate to destinations close to home rather than the coast, a sign that China’s boom is moving inland. William and his wife recently decided to violate the “planned birth” policy by having a second child. He made this decision after attending a funeral of a man with only one child. “I had to help his son lift the casket,” William says. “It made me think about what happens when we’re gone and my daughter is alone in the world. It’s better to have a sibling.”
“His classmate Mo Money — another poor kid who gave himself a bold English name — has succeeded as a teacher at an elite school in Chongqing. But he’s ambivalent about the relentless pressure of urban China. “Life is so competitive,” he says. “I think this is a special stage for China. The Chinese may have criticized other countries when they went through this — there was so much criticism of capitalist America in the old days. But now we are going through the same thing.”
“From Fuling I hitch a ride down the Yangtze with a student named Jimmy, who has a new SUV. I remember when this journey took two days by riverboat; now it’s a three-hour drive on a beautiful new highway. We pass the resettled cities of Yunyang and Fengjie, and then we arrive in new Wushan. The old town sites lie far beneath the Yangtze, and these fresh-built places appear prosperous. But in the past few years the region has suffered from landslides, and some believe that the constantly evaporating reservoir water has changed weather patterns. Students periodically send jarring updates: “Flood has come into our school, and it also came to the second floor of our teaching building. There were two big floods before this one. Now more and more people are doubting the Three Gorges project. Since it established, Chongqing and Sichuan have been natural disaster area.”
““I want to tell you that my old family will be moved to somewhere because of the Three Gorges project. But I don’t know where our villagers’ homes will be... people here know it is because of landslide, but the government says it is for our good future.”
Peter Hessler’s Chinese Fans
Dr. Gloria Tseng of the Global China Center wrote: “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?” [Source: Dr. Gloria Tseng, Global China Center, November 18, 2011]
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.”
Tseng wrote: 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.
Peter Hessler’s Place in Chronicling Chinese History
Dr. Gloria Tseng of the Global China Center wrote: “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. [Source: Dr. Gloria Tseng, Global China Center, November 18, 2011
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.
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.
Hessler Surprised to See His Byline in the China Daily
In 2015, Jess Yu wrote in the New York Times’s , Sinosphere:“Readers of Peter Hesslermay have been surprised to see his byline this week in China Daily, a state-run newspaper. “I think I have a better understanding of how essentially stable the Chinese system is,” read the article under Mr. Hessler’s name, which appeared on Monday on China Daily’s website. The article, which had the headline “U.S. Observer: Comparing Egypt With China,” featured observations about the two countries’ political systems. Mr. Hessler, who lived in China for years, moved to Egypt in 2011 and reports from there for The New Yorker. [Source: Jess Yu, Sinosphere, New York Times, January 21, 2015]
“Noting the chaos that Egypt has experienced since the Arab Spring, the article said that China would be better equipped to handle major social change. “Because the state is strong, and power is quite deeply entrenched,” the article said, “whenever significant changes do come, I think they are more likely to succeed, because the Chinese have a significant political foundation, and they have the experience of living in a functional state.” The article received substantial attention online, raising eyebrows among Hessler readers surprised that he would write a piece for a state newspaper praising the Chinese system’s stability.
Mr. Hessler clarified the matter: He hadn’t. Mr. Hessler wrote on Facebook that he had been approached not to write an opinion piece, but to discuss a variety of subjects with a Chinese colleague, Li Xueshun, for a special year-end edition of China Daily. “I want to emphasize that this article does not in any way represent a comprehensive picture of my views on China and Egypt, and I never would have agreed to such a story,” Mr. Hessler wrote. “And I want readers to understand that the terms under which I was approached — that this was a year-end interview with my friend and colleague Li Xueshun, on a range of topics — are completely different from being approached for an article specifically about Egypt and China.”
“Mr. Hessler also clarified that he told the reporter he believed China’s campaign against corruption would fail because it would not bring systemic change. The article, he said, “omitted crucial parts, including the most important point: that I believe it’s harder to make a political change in China, where the system is deeper rooted than in Egypt, and thus the flaws are also more deeply rooted. I said that this is the reason why the current anticorruption campaign will be a failure, because China is not addressing its systemic flaws.”
“Mr. Hessler asked that China Daily remove the article from its website and issue a retraction. But as of a few days later, while the English-language version of the article had been deleted, the newspaper still had not issued a retraction. A Chinese version was still available on various news portals, including Sina. The office of China Daily’s website did not immediately reply to a request for comment, and an editor in the newspaper’s print department said the article had been published only online.
“Journalists and commentators have complained in the past that their remarks or writings had been substantially changed in Chinese state-run news media for what appeared to be political reasons. In 2013, for instance, Rowan Callick, an editor at The Australian, was quoted as saying that people in Tibet were living “a wonderful life.” Mr. Callick later said that the quote did not represent his views but was “pitch-perfect from Beijing’s perspective.”“In his Facebook statement, Mr. Hessler said that the incident was not representative of his experience with Chinese journalists. He offered to participate in a question-and-answer session with China Daily, provided that the newspaper disavow the earlier article and allow him to approve the final edits.
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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2021