AMY TAM, HA JIN, YIYUN LI AND PETER HESSLER AND POPULAR BOOKS ABOUT CHINA

AMY TAM

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Amy Tan and her mother
Amy Tan is a San-Francisco-based Chinese-American writer who bestsellers about life in China and life for Chinese -Americans in the United States. Her books---“The Joy Luck Club” (1989), “The Kitchen God's Wife” (1991), “The Hundred Secret Senses” (1995), “The Bonesetter's Wife” (2001), “Opposite of Fate”---often explore the relationships between Chinese-born mothers and their yuppie Chinese-American daughters and mystical aspects of Chinese culture. “The Joy Luck Club” was made into a 1993 film directed by Wayne Wang.

Tan was born in Oakland, California in 1952 to Chinese-born parents. When she was 15, her father and 16-year-old brother died within six months of each other, both of brain tumors. After this she said her mother held a knife to her throat "to kill me first and then kill herself." Her mother’s experience with tragedy was even more direct. In addition to losing her husband and son, she lost her mother (Amy’s grandmother), who committed suicide by swallowing a bottle of opium after she had been raped and forced to be the concubine for a rich man. .

Tan’s fiction and her life often seems centered around the relationship between mother and daughter. Tan’s real life mother, Daisy, grew very morbid about the tragedies that happened to her and was shy about expressing her feelings to her daughter. When Tan was six, her mother dragged here to the funeral of one of her playmates and pointing at the body said, “This what will happen to you if you don’t listen to your mother.” Daisy died in 1999 at te age of 83.

Bonesetter's Daughter Opera

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“The Bonesetter’s Daughter“, Amy Tan’s best-selling 2001, shifts from modern-day San Francisco to China and Hong Kong in the 1930s and “40s, and from this world to the next, as it tells the story of three generations of women: Precious Auntie, who lived and died in old China; her daughter, LuLing, a Chinese immigrant facing life’s twilight in San Francisco; and Ruth, LuLing’s American-born daughter, with whom she has long had a challenging relationship. The women are descendants of a Chinese bonesetter who healed patients with a secret ingredient that has bound the family together for a thousand years: dragon bones.

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In The Bonesetter’s Daughter dragon bones symbolize the genetic links and secret histories that bind the three women, even offering a cure of a sorts when the secrets involving the bones are revealed. The idea to turn this multilayered novel into an opera did not come from its author.

An opera based on “The Bonesetter’s Daughter“, with music by composer Stewart Wallace and a libretto written by Tan, was staged by the San Francisco Opera and Chorus with an eclectic mix of talent, including acrobats, dancers and traditional opera performers from China and a strong cast of singers and musicians from China. [Source:Sheila Melvin, New York Times, August 28, 2008]

Ha Jin

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Ha Jin is an American-based Chinese writer who won the PEN/Hemingway prize in 1996 for his first English language collection of stories “Ocean of Words”; received the Flannery O’Conner award in 1996 for his second collection of stories “Under the Red Flag” in 1996; won the National Book Award for his English language novel, “Waiting”; and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 with third novel “War Trash”.

John Updike wrote in the New Yorker, “His prize-winning command of English has few precedents, notably Conrad and Nabokov, but neither made the leap out if a language as remote from the Indo-European group, in grammar and vocabulary in scriptural practices and literary tradition, as Mandarin."

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Ha Jin was born in 1956 to a pair of military doctors. He volunteered for the PLA at age 14 and served 5½ years near the northeast border with Russia. He began taking a keen interest in reading in the Cultural Revolution when the only book that was available was “The Little Red Book”. At Heilongjiang University in Harbin he was assigned English as a major even though it was his last choice, After receiving a master’s degree in American literature from Shandong University he came to the United States to do graduate work at Brandeis University.

Ha Jin moved to the United States in the mid-1980s. His plan to return to China and become a poet and translator were squashed by Tiananmen Square in 1989. In 1993 Ha Jin was hired as an instructor in poetry at Emory University. He is now a professor at Boston College. Although he writes beautifully he still has trouble with spoken English. His style has been called “deadpan hyperrealsim.”

Ha Jin's Books

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“Waiting” is Ha Jin’s first English-language novel. It is about a doctor who waits 18 years to get a divorce so he can marry the woman he loves. Much of it set during the Cultural Revolution. Critics have compared the book with works by Russian masters like Gogol and Chekhov. “Waiting” was attacked in the Chinese media and Ha was accused of being anti-Chinese. The book was finally published in China in 2002.

Updike wrote, “”Waiting” is impeccably written, in a sober prose that does nothing to call attention to itself and yet capably delivers images, characters, sensation, feelings, and even, in a basically oppressive static situation, bits of comedy and glimpses of natural beauty...not a word of Ha Jin’s hard-won English seems out of place or wasted.”

Other books by Ha Jin include his second novel “The Crazed” (2002). “War Trash” is about the horrors of a Korean prison camp. “A Free Life” (2007) was his first novel set in the United States. The New York Review of Books called it “a high achievement indeed.” The Los Angeles Times Book Review described it as “achingly beautiful.” The Washington Post said the novel was “too long” and “lacked momentum.”

Yiyun Li

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Yiyun Li, like Ha Jin, is a Chinese writer who writes in English for an American audience. Born in Beijing in 1972, she came to the United States in 1996 to study immunology in Iowa and began writing to improve her language skills and later turned to writing stories as a means of expression.

Li has been hailed as one of the finest writers of short fiction. Her stories and essays have been widely published. Her debut collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” (2005) won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, “Guardian’First Book Award and California Book Award for first fiction. It was also shortlisted for Kiriyama Prize and Orange Prize for New Writers. She was selected by “Granta” as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35. Her first novel, “The Vagrants”, was published in 2009, to great acclaim. She teaches at the University of California and was a 2010 recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship.

Yiyun’s success not only brought her notoriety and money but also helped her secure a green card, which she desperately wanted after her application for one based on “extraordinary ability” was rejected. She s now an assistant professor at the University of California in Davis. She told Newsweek, “I just can’t live in China. Not because I don’t love my country. I just can’t write in China. I can’t explain it. Its like, no matter how much you love your mother, you have to live anyway.”

Vagrants and Other Works by Yiyun Li

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Yiyun Li's 2005 debut story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers earned her comparisons with Chekhov and Alice Munro. In 2010 she released a story collection called “Golden Boy, Emerald Girl“.

“The Vagrants“ (Random House, 2009) is thought-provoking novel about two women in modern China. Set in China in the 1970s and early 1980, it follows a bunch of misfits as they try to get ahead and eek out an existence in the weird and grim transition from Maoism to capitalism. To get ahead the characters turn to crime and betrayal. For entertainment they attend public executions. The kind of sentiments and drives hat propel heroes forward in Hollywood films only lands them in trouble in this books. On how to how to succeed in such a world a father tells his 7-year-old son: “If your heart is hard enough to eat your mother and your wife, nothing can beat you in life.”

The main character, 19-year-old Bashii, spends his time searching riverbanks for infants and falls in love with a 12-year-old after educating himself about female anatomy from a corpse he found. Other characters included a child who betrays his father and a television announcer willing to sacrifice his family for his ideals.

Guardian Review of The Vagrants

20111122-amazon Yiyun Li 44.jpg The Vagrants is set in China in China in the late 1970s when the Democracy Wall Movement rocked Beijing. It “draws heavily on the art of the short story as it follows a disparate group of citizens of the industrial town of Muddy River over three months in 1979. It is three years since the death of Mao, and in the capital there are glimmers of hope for those who dream of greater freedom - a democratic wall has been erected, where people can express their views of the Party without fear of reprisals. But in Muddy River, provincial officials are nervous that rumors from the capital will lead to unrest.” [Source: Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian, February 15, 2009]

Based on real events, Li's story begins on the day of a public execution. A young woman, Gu Shan, a convicted counter-revolutionary, is to be shot for criticising the party in her prison journals. Among the crowd gathered to witness the denunciation ceremony are a number of characters whose fates are bound with invisible threads. They include Nini, a deformed girl, and Kai, a model citizen who has made an advantageous marriage to a high-ranking official, but yearns to break the bounds of her stiflingly correct life.

After the ceremony, Nini witnesses the prisoner rushed from the stadium and bundled into an ambulance, but it is Kai who learns that her former classmate's execution was expedited so that Shan's kidneys could be transplanted to a party official. Inspired by reports of the democratic wall, Kai organizes a peaceful protest, demanding an investigation into the execution.

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These are the bones of the novel, but its course is as meandering as the Muddy River itself; through small details, Li creates an unsparing picture of life under a totalitarian regime. Poverty, hunger and fear are the forces that shape these lives; school choirs sing songs such as “Without the Communist Party We Do Not Have a Life”, but people live in a state of mistrust and a mother's best advice to her son is: “Always follow what's been taught and you won't make a mistake.”

It is not giving too much away to reveal that Kai has misread the mood of the country. The novel's ending is truly chilling and carries echoes of other, similar stories, as neighbors rush to spill names to the secret police in the hope of saving themselves.

Because The Vagrants is a series of linked vignettes rather than a linear narrative, some patience is required of the reader. Although Li has a story-writer's talent for endowing characters with a full life in a few paragraphs, some remain tantalisingly sketchy. But The Vagrants is an important novel, a requiem for forgotten victims and a careful, honest portrait of what China has been, even as it emerges from the shadow of those years.

Popular Books by Western Writers in China

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One of the most popular American novels in China was “The Bridges of Madison County”, a story by Robert James Waller about a married Iowa woman who has an affair with a National Geographic photographer. It sold over 500,000 copies and spurred the creation of self-help groups for divorced and unhappily married women. One Chinese woman told Newsweek a "Bridges" affair is "the biggest fantasy with middle-aged, middle-class Chinese women."

The first printing of Harry Potter books by the People’s Literature Publishing House in China was larger than the one for “The Little Red Book”. A Chinese nursery school teacher told the Washington Post, "Nine years old or a 100 years old, we're all interested in Harry Potter.” “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, the fifth book in the Harry Potter series, went on sale 10 days before it was scheduled to, in part to beat counterfeit versions to the punch.

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]

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“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)]

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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.

Foreign Babes in Beijing . See Television

Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong Books

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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]

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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.

Peter Hessler's Books

Dr. Gloria Tseng of the Global China Center wrote: “Peter Hessler, the author of "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), has gained a reputation as an American writer about contemporary China in the last decade. All three 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]

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Rachel Dewoskin, Foreign Babes author
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 have twin daughters. They plan to move to the Middle East in the near future.

Promotion of Peter Hessler and His Books in China

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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’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.

Image Sources: University of Washington, Ohio State University, Amazon.com, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , Wikipedia, Achievement.org, Landberger posters

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 December 2012


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