Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Peter Hessler

Peter Hessler is my favorite author on contemporary China. His best book is his first, River Town (2001), which chronicles two years he spent teaching English in a small city in Sichuan. He arrives with a weak command of Chinese and little knowledge of the culture, and it his marvelous to follow his slowly increasing understanding.

After that me moved to Beijing and became a writer for The New Yorker, and he notes that he could eat for a day in China on what he was paid for one word. His second book, Oracle Bones (2007), is really a compendium of magazine pieces loosely strung together, and it contains some nice observations but is a little disorganized and slow.

I just finished his third book, Country Driving (2011). This is also a compendium, loosely structured around the experience of driving in China, but faster and more fun than Oracle Bones. In one section Hessler follows the Great Wall across north China, exploring ruins and dying villages. In another he describes life in a village outside Beijing where he has a weekend house, and the third section describes the establishment of a new factory zone in the booming southeast.

Hessler's theme is China's absurdities. He is a very gentle, uncritical soul, and when he points out the craziness and unintended ironies of the Chinese system he never seems mean-spirited. Part of his message is that China is as crazy for many Chinese people as it is for him. It has only been 35 years since Mao died, and people who grew up in the Cultural Revolution are now living through an intense surge of capitalist growth. The number of Chinese people with driver's licenses doubled in five years in the early 2000s, and it would be too much to expect that all those new drivers would be very good. Hessler gets great mileage out of the Chinese driver's license exam, which includes questions like:
223. If you come to a road that has been flooded, you should

a) accelerate, so the motor doesn't flood
b) stop, examine the water to make sure it's shallow, and drive across slowly.
c) find a pedestrian and make him cross ahead of you.
In Hessler's hands Chinese bureaucracy is endlessly amusing. Out of hundreds of little absurdities I think my favorite was a form farmers in a drought-stricken village had to fill out to get government relief, headed, "The Two Lacks and the One Without":
The village chief explained the phrase; the people in Sigou lacked money and food and were without the ability to support themselves.
If you have any interest in China, or in amusing writing about distant parts of the world, find a copy of River Town, and if you like that the others are worth your time, too.

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