Three Sketches of Peter Hessler26 min read

An American writer in China, by Wu Qi – translated by Luisetta Mudie


This piece, exploring the Chinese public’s many visions of Peter Hessler and the China he sees, is the first in a series of four translations of long creative non-fiction essays that first appeared in Chinese in OWMagazine (单读) and are translated in collaboration with Read Paper Republic. Subsequent essays from Dandu will run on Fridays over the following weeks. To support further translation such as this after the series ends, give now to our translation drive by donating to our Patreon page.


  1. The Big Meet-and-Greet

Hessler’s here. He has had three books published in China since 2011, and this is his first major meet-and-greet session with his readers here. Some say he’s the voice of the proletariat; the author of a Little Red Book for a new era. Put bluntly, more than just admiring the American author, Chinese people worship Hessler. Carrying English-language editions, traditional- and simplified-character editions – as if bringing different versions of holy scripture – they form a long line, waiting for Hessler to sign them.

Despite the fact that he is giving more than a dozen media interviews during his eight-day tour of Beijing and Shanghai, with a public event scheduled for most days of the trip, Hessler still seems surprised by the extent of his welcome. At each event, he has to carve himself a path through a crowd to get to the spotlight. He looks confused and flustered, like a rabbit lost in a forest.

At the Oneway Street bookstore, he cloisters himself away to eat in a small dimly lit room off to the side before making his appearance. But the door is left ajar, and people spot him, squeezing in through the gap with books for him to sign. Among them is a reporter for the Beijing Youth Daily who has already interviewed him earlier that day, and wants to ask him some follow-up questions, which include: “So how exactly should we define non-fiction?” followed by “What star sign are you?”

Hessler is a Gemini. “And I was born in the Year of the Rooster,” he adds.

The first question is much tougher, though. Ian Johnson, a freelance journalist sitting next to Hessler, answers for him: “Stealing other people’s stories, and then selling them.”

“So what’s it like to be a big star?” I ask him as he takes another mouthful of food. His rabbit-like eyes shift quickly away at that, to rest on his friend Johnson.

“He’s the real star. He’s an American basketball star,” Hessler quips, but the joke falls flat, and he is forced to switch tactics.

“He used to be my boss at the Wall Street Journal,” he says. “I’m telling you the truth. I had no job, and he hired me for $500 a month.”

He sounds worried that we will think he’s still joking.

“A failed American!” Johnson opines.

Earlier in the tour, Hessler’s promoters asked his readers to e-mail them their reasons for wanting to attend his talks, promising to issue tickets on the basis of the replies. They were flooded with more than a thousand e-mails. The overall gist of the messages was that Hessler, to lift a quote from Chai Jing’s blurb for his books,

writes about a China that I see every day, but never pay much attention to, and about an all-too-familiar feeling: that the worst kind of human suffering lies in having no place for your soul to call home, whether or not you realize or admit it.

Some of the e-mails praise Hessler’s writing as being similar to Chai Jing’s.

One complains: “Things are changing too fast in this country; the world he was writing about is so last century.”

Another reader, presumably female, seems to envy Hessler his marital situation. He and his wife Leslie Chang “have the best kind of marriage,” she writes.

Another is aghast: “He actually ate rat!!!” This a reference to Hessler’s first ever piece for The New Yorker, included in his latest book, Strange Stones. “He really talks about and writes everything we do,” the reader concludes.

The China described by Hessler in River Town dates back to 1997, when he had just arrived. In the book, the people of Fuling take note of his big nose and blue eyes, which in reality are light brown, as well as his water bottle, his laugh and the way he paces around.

“I wish I could live in a place like America where you have freedom,” a third-year male university student with the English name Rebecca confides in Hessler.

Though Chinese people might sometimes harass foreigners, Hessler writes elsewhere in the book, most of all they are curious about them – even infatuated.

The “foreigner complex” is still around in various forms, nearly 12 years later. What’s different now is that Hessler’s readers no longer say “foreign devil” or “big-nose,” or shout “Ha-loh!” at him. Instead, they ask questions about his personal life, about what happened to the people in his books. It feels like they’ve just run into an old friend. Quite a few of them have even made trips to Fuling, Lishui and Sancha to meet the people he interviewed in his books. An ethnic Uyghur youth called Borat, who features in Oracle Bones, is the subject of the most questions. The readers want to know whether he succeeded in emigrating to the United States.

“He is a US citizen now, and lives in Washington, DC,” Hessler tells them.“The last time I saw him three or four years ago, he was doing OK, but he was lonely. He works for a US automobile company, has an income and health insurance, but he hasn’t married yet because all of the Uyghurs living in Washington are men.”

A lot of people want to speak English with Hessler, or at least pepper their conversation with English words, a common phenomenon whenever foreign visitors appear at public events. Some of them have a good level of English, as fluent as their Chinese. Others are clearly still beginners, and are looking for somewhere to practice speaking. The foreigners who come to see Hessler talk are similar; some of them can speak Chinese, others not at all.

One foreign man with an ear stud sits, continually jiggling his leg, before Hessler starts speaking. As soon as he begins, he turns to the Chinese woman sitting next to him, and says in English: “I can’t understand a word of this.”

“Do you want to leave?” the woman replies.

“Don’t you want to get your book signed?” he counters.

The exchange repeats itself a few times, before they cleave a path through the crowd and leave. A stroke of luck. I nab one of the seats they have vacated. A misunderstanding of a different kind. It seems they thought it would be a bilingual presentation suitable for a mixed couple.

Hessler speaks Chinese like he has a date pit in his mouth. He also has a habit of adding the adjectival particle de to the end of his sentences, unnecessarily. His publisher has hired an interpreter for him, a graduate of Peking University’s Chinese department who advances a few steps every time Hessler sounds as if he may be struggling to express himself, ready to be of service. More often than not, though, Hessler marshalls his thoughts in time, and the woman retreats.

The scene reminds me of Yun Yetui’s review of Strange Stones, which he titled “Hessler stands at the edge of the world, and the stories come wafting over to him.” A slight change of wording could describe the current scene, as Hessler stands before us and the interpreter comes wafting over.

For the past three years, Hessler has been living in Egypt, learning Arabic and studying archeology and politics. I wonder if he has spent his life writing about foreign lands because America was done to death by the last generation of non-fiction writers. Hessler sees opportunities in developing countries: in the rapid pace of China’s development, and in Egypt’s political transformation.

These are the hot topics in the world today, but Hessler has a standard answer to certain questions which goes: “My view on this isn’t important. It’s not my job to say what’s good or bad about China.”

Or, he simply responds with another question, turning the tables on his guests, and getting out his notebook as if to interview the questioner.

Someone asks him about the title of his latest book, Strange Stones, and whether it implies that China today is like a freak show. Hessler replies that he liked the way the title sounds in English – perhaps he just doesn’t want to admit to this interpretation. Someone asks him about the disappearing traditional Chinese way of life, about lost beliefs and customs replaced with an empty kind of happiness. But Hessler won’t rise to the bait.

As soon as Hessler mentions anything sensitive, particularly certain dates or locations, he is met with unsolicited, nervous laughter. But then again, the audience even laughs when he says “Hello” into the microphone before starting his talk.

Hessler seems to have foreseen this situation, in the foreword to the Chinese edition of his first book:

I understand this sensitivity of theirs. I’m not a big fan of the stories and reports about China that were being published in foreign media during the late 1990s. I felt that their understanding of China was rather shallow, and that their descriptions of Chinese people were very dry. Everything seemed grey and miserable in those stories, with none of the humor, energy and vitality that was my main impression from my time in Fuling. I hope that my writing is different from theirs, but I don’t know if Chinese people will come to that conclusion. I suspect they are more likely to think that this is another book written by a foreigner with rose-tinted spectacles who doesn’t really understand China, and just ignore it.

At a press conference, a member of the press pack asks Hessler: “What is your view of genetic modification?”

This time, the phrase “genetic modification” has Hessler asking for the interpreter, after which he replies: “Living in Egypt, I’m more worried about guns and violence than I am about food. I’m pretty happy so long as there’s something to eat.”

“But genetic modification is such a serious global issue: are you really saying, as a US citizen, that you don’t care about it?” the journalist persists, fixing him with an unapologetic stare, chin resting on her hand, her face partly obscured by two strands of curled hair.

“Do you eat genetically modified foods?” she says, in the manner of a television interviewer intent on getting a response.

“I’m not much of a worrier,” Hessler is forced to respond.

After the press conference, he can’t help commenting in English to his friend: “Well, that was unexpected!”


  1. The Voice of the Proletariat

Hessler’s here. He is wearing baggy khaki trousers, a check shirt, hiking boots and carries a backpack on one shoulder. He has just finished a can of cola. He looks like a typical middle-American. People murmur to each other about his appearance, wondering if he has just come back from traveling somewhere. Hessler started backpacking in college, traveling across Europe and Asia, before taking up long-term residence in China, and later Egypt, to write and travel. His clothing has become his trademark; some people have commented online that this is what a good journalist should look like, always carrying a backpack.

Following him onto the platform is Liu Yu, a deputy professor at Tsinghua University. The event organizers have already refused entry to a number of participants who were only coming to see her. But there is a still a shout of admiration from one of her fans in the audience who has snuck in.

The last time Hessler was spotted in a suit, tie and dress shoes was at an event hosted by GQ magazine. He didn’t look quite as dapper as the people from the worlds of business and entertainment, but he certainly looked a lot smarter than most of the Chinese authors and journalists present. As soon as the event was over, though, he swapped the fancy duds for his usual attire, and left wearing a pair of shorts.

This reminded me of an anecdote from his time in Fuling, Sichuan, at a gathering organized to honor a participant in the Long March. Hessler, the mayor and the municipal party secretary were sitting on the dais, and were expected to stand up for a group photo.

Hessler, who had been about to head out on a trip, was in shorts and a T-shirt, and was terribly embarrassed.

“I kept my head down and tried to hide my bare legs beneath the table,” he writes.

Hessler is good at getting by. In the 14 years that he lived in China, he learned to offer cigarettes to people, how to drink in company, and to do what is expected of him.

But he has never enjoyed interviewing the elite, saying: “My Chinese isn’t good enough, and intellectuals don’t want to talk to a dumb foreigner. It’s the same in Egypt, too, so I never talk to intellectuals.”

He says that people from the countryside have more patience with him. Some Egyptian intellectuals are very highly educated, Hessler tells us, and speak three or four languages, but they’ve never been to Upper Egypt, which is mostly given over to agriculture. He shares an anecdote with us about an Egyptian street cleaner who could tell from litter he picked up on the streets not only the profession, but also the salary of the person who dropped it. When he heard that Hessler knew Chinese, he took out a medicine container with Chinese writing on it. Hessler informed him that it was Viagra.

“He was my best teacher. He was illiterate; couldn’t read a word, but he had very strong powers of visual and auditory observation,” he says of the man, who turns out to be one of the central characters in the Egyptian book he is currently writing.

One of the guests of honor at this event, on the other hand, is a real-life member of the elite: “Are the lowest-ranking people in China really so amazing, that they can give us a totally new perspective? I have my doubts about that,” Liu Yu says.

In her opinion, the lowest levels of Chinese society are pretty indistinguishable, and while intellectuals can feel compassion and understanding for them, that doesn’t extend to the kind of people who choose to serve their own interests by remaining “rationally ignorant.” At the beginning of the event she addressed Hessler as “teacher,” with a smile. Now she has changed her tune, though, and it’s “classmate” instead.

The reason he didn’t choose academic writing as a career is his distaste for self-referential theories and convoluted sentences. He prefers to tell stories and even when he’s answering questions, Hessler replies in the form of a story. Seeing a huge boulder rolling towards him, he lightly tosses back a small stone instead. He has found that Chinese people aren’t good at storytelling.

“They don’t like to be the center of attention, and they don’t like to get tangled up in all of the messy details,” he says.

The host asks him to respond to Liu Yu’s comment. Maybe he doesn’t understand the question properly, because he just says: “I’m sorry. I don’t know.” This time, he doesn’t even have a pebble to throw.

“Perhaps he doesn’t want to hear what China’s intellectual elite have to say,” says Liu Yu, coming back to the same point again. It’s a joke, but in the background you can hear the parting of ways.

Actually, Hessler is a pretty typical member of the elite, having studied English and creative writing at Princeton, and later earned a master’s in English literature from Oxford. When he runs into Chinese writers, the thing he most wants to know is what they’ve been reading, and who has written something good lately.

“On the whole, I tend to read fiction,” Hessler says, adding that he finds fiction’s style and structure more nourishing. “A lot of journalists aren’t very natural writers.”

He would rather describe himself as an author, and River Town and Country Driving are currently getting reviews of at least 9/10 on the social networking site Douban, much higher than books by Truman Capote and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose work Hessler greatly admires. They’ve sold on average about 200,000 copies, which is a pretty impressive number – if perhaps not quite as impressive as Chai Jing’s sales figures.

Coming back to China this time, Hessler says he is most impressed by the growing self-confidence of Chinese people, and their growing capacity for reflection. He gives a number of flattering examples: the buoyancy of book sales, the number of young people who love to read, and more intelligent questions asked by journalists… Clearly, he’s being polite. Actually, Hessler has previously made it quite clear to the Chinese press that he has little time for some of his colleagues.

In the US, he registered a company under the name Shabi, or “stupid cunt” in Chinese, so he and his wife, who is also a freelance writer, can get medical insurance. He uses this epithet out of self-mockery, but it also serves as a satire on journalists who aren’t great writers, regardless of whether they are foreign journalists reporting in a narrow-minded way on China, or Chinese journalists reporting on the rest of the world in a similar manner.

Hessler can certainly draw on different registers of speech; at the dinner table, when the talk turns to his wife Leslie T. Chang, he prefaces it with the words: “She’s a badass!”

In Chinese, this doesn’t sound like a compliment when talking about one’s wife.

He quickly adds: “She has a mind of her own. She’s very independent.” In the English-speaking world, this is high praise indeed.

It’s hard to tell whether Hessler is more of a leader or a follower. In person, he comes across as rather unsure of what he wants, half-heartedly willing to go along with others for the sake of compromise. He’s polite, but he keeps his distance. Even though it’s clear he isn’t used to playing the lead, he doesn’t get stage-fright, either. He doesn’t share his true thoughts or feelings lightly, and he certainly doesn’t put them in his books lightly, either. He asks a lot of questions, though it’s often hard to tell what he’s getting at.

Hessler writes about China, and Chinese journalists keep writing about him, in unstoppable waves: an endless love-in. I’m on the verge of giving up, when he comes back at me with a suggestion: “Why don’t you just make it up?” he says. “You could say that you saw me and my friend Zhang Yan in the room doing drugs in this room just before I got up to speak.”

The dim little room resounds with sudden laughter. Everyone agrees that this would make a good story. Hessler rarely laughs, which I suppose is standard practice for those making the quips: the idea is to make other people laugh. On no account can you be the first to laugh at your own joke. He tells me he is planning to write a piece for The New Yorker about his return to China, which is a pleasant surprise. Now I’m rushing to get my piece out first, so I can use this story before he does.

The end of River Town is also about the end of Hessler’s time in China, and he jots down details of his goodbye to the place in no particular order. A last meal, a conversation, the weather, the rainy city, his students coming to see him board the boat. “Most of them were crying as they stared out at the river,” he writes. Gradually, the descriptions become more tender and romantic, but at no point does he ever mention his own feelings. To get to the bottom of this question, I join the ranks of Chinese journalists who have interrogated Hessler, and ask him whether or not he cried.

After hemming and hawing for a long time, as if this were some important secret, he finally says: “I probably did. But my colleagues didn’t. They were stronger than me.”

It’s the same in Country Driving, where he leaves out the parting with Wei Ziqi and his family. Supposedly he was more affected then, and wept openly, even though he always believed he would come back. Now he’s back in Beijing, reminiscing about his feelings on leaving Fuling.

“I was really sad, because I’d been very happy there,” he says. “I don’t know when I’ll get to go back.”


  1. Individualism

Hessler’s here. Zhang Bowen has been waiting a long time to see him, having missed out on the past two events. He has arrived at the venue at noon for an event that takes place in the evening. Others arrived even earlier, having taken the day off so that they could arrive first thing in the morning. Many have taken a two-hour subway trip from suburbs like Shunyi and Tongzhou to be there, or from even further away – Tianjin, Shanghai or Hangzhou. They gather around Hessler, some seated, some standing.

Zhang Bowen has saved a seat for Teacher Pei, his university lecturer in translation. The pair of them sit in the corner. This is the last public event on Hessler’s triumphant return-to-China tour. He’s in good form, speaking for 40 minutes when he was only booked to speak for 20. I note that he has used the same script at least four times now.

When we get to the time for questions, Teacher Pei asks if she can keep his notes. She tells him she often recommends his work in the classroom, and now a number of her students have decided to write their theses about him. One of them was so inspired by his books that he decided to apply to graduate journalism school.

Actually, Zhang Bowen has always been interested in journalism; he was just prevented from selecting it as an option by his parents when he took the college entrance exam. Besides finding the entry requirements for journalism too low, they worried that it would be hard for him to find a job, so he wound up applying to study accounting at the University of International Business and Economics. He missed the required score by three percent, and wasn’t offered a place. His grades were pretty good; enough to get him into most universities, except for a handful of top institutions like Peking University, Tsinghua, Fudan and the People’s University. But the pass-mark was quite a bit higher at his new university, meaning that his new choice had suddenly become a risk rather than a backup. And so, on the last dip on the roller-coaster that is the university entrance exam, Zhang Bowen was offered a place in the English department at the Beifang Chemical Engineering University.

“Of course I want to do well after studying for so many years,” he says. But he felt left out as a student of literature at a polytechnic, and says he became withdrawn and isolated.

“Hessler didn’t seem very outgoing, either – he was a little wooden,” says Zhang Bowen upon finally meeting his idol. He feels that Hessler reveals more humor in his books.

Zhang has always loved basketball, and originally wanted to be a sports journalist. But after he read Hessler’s work, he realized that there is so much one can write about; like when Hessler writes about Yao Ming, he is not just writing about sports.

“Successful athletes need to move far from home, by definition. They are taken from their homes as soon as they show any talent, and something always seems to get lost in that process.”

This seems a pretty fitting description of Zhang Bowen himself, who has moved from Heilongjiang to Beijing to pursue his studies.

“He writes better than he talks,” Zhang Bowen says of Hessler. “This is a commercial event, so he won’t have prepared for it very much. There isn’t much in Hessler’s talk that stirred me. I think I’ll stick to his books.”

Zhang Bowen spent three or four months reading all three books in Hessler’s China trilogy in English. He read them faster than his teacher, spending nearly 100 yuan on each book. For his extended reading class, which assigns a classic novel by an author like Dickens every week, he’s become adept at saving money by finding electronic copies online or using photocopies. But Zhang Bowen feels that Hessler’s books are worth buying and keeping. He thinks studying Hessler’s terse prose style can improve his English, and motivate him for a future career in journalism. He is a little leery of calling it “my journalism dream,” however.

While he was preparing for the entrance exam, he came across a thesis focusing on China’s national image. Hessler’s work, in particular the reference to the “barbaric” rat-eating story in Strange Stones, was cited as an example of foreigners’ bias when it comes to China. Naturally, Zhang doesn’t agree with this assessment. He thinks Hessler is full of affection for the Chinese. As well as learning by heart specialist topics like the history of journalism, journalism theory and broadcasting studies, Zhang Bowen also read Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls in English, hoping to improve his grasp of the language.

At his graduate school interview, he made a point of referring to The New Yorker. He is a regular reader, having subscribed to the electronic edition for a whole year via the online marketplace Taobao for less than 100 yuan. His interviewers were surprised by this, because it isn’t a very mainstream publication. But Hessler is well aware that many of his Chinese readers got to know him through Taobao, and he always asks them which editions of his books they own (English? Traditional characters?) and where they bought them. He even met with the owner of one of the Taobao stores that sells his books.

The next time I see Zhang Bowen is on the campus of the Communication University of China, where he has now enrolled as a graduate student specializing in international journalism. The university is celebrating its 60th anniversary; a lot of the roads and paths on campus have been dug up and resurfaced, and Zhang has arrived early to join in the celebrations. The main anniversary gala was just the day before; he watched a live feed of the event from the main lecture hall. The party ran from 8:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., and just like CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala, there were lots of lively presenters and celebrities returning to grace the stage at their alma mater.

“These sorts of events are all about creating a spectacle,” Zhang says. He isn’t very interested in television as a medium. The way Hessler uses words to record the stories of ordinary people resonates much more with him. Just as I’m about to ask more, a man and two women sit down at the table beside us. The women ask the man to take a picture of them. A little while later, I notice the man has started playing poker on his phone.

Hessler writes that individualism in China is becoming more and more common, and young people often talk about their ideas and plans. Zhang Bowen is no exception; he wants to better himself. When he graduated, he was just one mark away from a first class degree. He is now hoping to win an internship at a foreign media organization. When he saw that the Wall Street Journal was advertising for an intern, he didn’t apply though, because he was too busy preparing for his driving test.

At the book signing, Hessler told Zhang Bowen: “Study hard; get a good job.”

Even though Zhang is afraid there won’t be any openings for the kind of work that Hessler does, he is patient, willing to wait to be able to write what he wants to write. “But getting a household registration will be a problem if I stay in Beijing,” he says. Most of his undergraduate classmates have gone to work for state-owned enterprises and foreign trading companies as interpreters and translators, or as English-language trainers.

Tomorrow is the first day of class, and the first lesson is politics. His schedule also lists international relations, research into the world’s top news organizations, international news editing and a comparative study of different media organizations. They are all substantial, globe-spanning topics, and some of the classes are taught in English. The school also arranges for them to work as news translators and editors for China Central Television’s international channel, covering foreign affairs, where they will be paid 100 yuan a day.

Zhang Bowen has also entered an English-language essay competition with the theme of “the Chinese dream” – he is always on the lookout for ways to practice his English – so he wrote 1,800 words on why he wants to be a journalist. In the end, he didn’t win anything. The winners wrote about cleaning up environmental pollution and helping the most vulnerable people in society.

I ask him to send me his essay, telling him I will share an extract in my finished piece:

Witnessing the things that happen around me, in China, and even in the wider world, I am reminded that life is far more than just a series of basketball games, and that there are many things that are far more important than sports. For this reason, I have changed my dream yet again. I now wish to become a journalist with a much broader scope. I don’t just want to write about sports: I want to write about China, and the rest of the world. I feel that this is my mission, to document the breakneck change that is happening in China and overseas, before our very eyes. It’s as if the human race is trying to negotiate a labyrinth that is changing shape at every moment. They are dazzled, confused, and at a total loss.


This piece first appeared in Chinese in OWMagazine and is translated in collaboration with Read Paper Republic. Featured image by btosold and used under terms of Creative Commons license.