Times of Change
Tanja Wessels, Alice Kok
Peter Hessler describes the human side of China’s economic revolution
American author, Peter Hessler has had a close relationship with China since 1994 when, after a train trip across Inner Mongolia, he arrived in Beijing, an experience that opened the door to “a new world”.
At that time, he also visited Macau, when the biggest enterprise in the territory was still Casino Lisboa. Hessler eventually returned to China to spend two years in Fuling, a small town affected by the Three Gorges Dam project, which served as the theme for his first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. The book won the Kiriyama Prize and was selected for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.
He stayed in the country for 11 years, during which time he was a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine and a contributor to National Geographic. He also completed his China trilogy that includes "Oracle Bones" (a National Book Award finalist) and "Country Driving – A Chinese Road Trip" – both New York Times bestsellers.
His current project focuses on Cairo, Egypt, where he has also lived and provided news coverage of the revolution that started in 2011. The book is due to be published next year. Meanwhile, he has plans to return to China next autumn - probably Chengdu or Chongqing.
What was it about Beijing that appealed to you?
As soon as I arrived in Beijing something about it really captured my attention. There was a really strong energy there, you could tell that things were changing. It just seemed like an interesting and exciting place to me, and all of a sudden, it kind of opened up a new world to me. I decided I wanted to try to go back and live there. It was a very different China at that time, I mean, it’s very different from today - that was 23 years ago. China was still pretty poor; it was pretty difficult to travel there.
During your time as a journalist in China, your stories focused on the lives of ordinary Chinese people. How did you end up pursuing that path?
I think some of it is because my introduction to living in China was through the Peace Corp, teaching English in a small town called Fuling that nobody had heard of. The first people that I met lived in a small city and they were becoming middle class. Most of them were from the farms and starting to move to the cities.
I became comfortable with that kind of person and I could tell that they were important for China’s future, because you could see the ways that their lives were changing. I have always made an effort to write about the people that were not famous or were not usually successful.
The other reason is because I felt like in America the readers see the extremes too much. They see the people that are usually hugely successful or the people that are very, very, poor and I felt it would be useful to show them something more in the middle and to give them a more representative sample of what China’s like. I learned that if I spent time with people I could see their stories unfold, and that became my strategy: spending a lot of time with the people I write about.
Your books have received accolades internationally, and they have also been translated into Chinese and have had great success with the Chinese public. What do you think captivated these readers?
When I wrote the books, I did not expect people in the country to like them. In my opinion, traditionally, the Chinese do not like what Westerners write about them, which is not that unusual anywhere you go. I was very surprised when the books were translated and people liked them, it was not something I expected. I think 20 years ago they would not have liked them, and if they read them they might have been offended by the contents of my first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze.
But things have changed in the country and I think people are more confident. I think in the past, the population felt a little insecure about their position in the world and anything a foreigner said was seen as criticism. But that has changed and now they are more open and more curious about what an outsider has to say. I think it’s a very good thing and it’s a sign of growing confidence for most people. They are trying to discover their own society.
You completed your trilogy of books on China with "Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip". Were you inviting readers on a trip from rural China to urban China to show them the human side of China’s economic revolution?
In my last book I write about a car trip across China, and it had three sections. One section was about the drive, the second section was about a small village that was sort of dying because everybody was leaving for the cities, and the third section was about one of these new cities that was being built in the countryside - a brand new city with a big factory district. The book describes this transition from rural to urban because this seems to be a very important part of what is happening in China. When I first went to China in the 1990s, the country was almost 80 percent rural. Eight out of 10 people lived in the countryside, so it was a farming country. Now more than 50 percent live in cities. It is an incredible change in such a short period of time, so I have always been interested in how this process happens and also how the rural population becomes an urban population. It was a theme I wanted to write about.
You are participating in this year’s Macau Literary Festival, which brings together writers from around the world. What are you expecting from the Festival?
I’m bringing a non-fiction base which, for me personally, I think is somehow the strongest part of the American tradition. In fact, it’s one of the things that is quite unique in America. There has been a very strong tradition of non-fiction literature so I think this is something I can bring. Of course I also have deep knowledge of China, which I think is of interest to the people of Macau, of course, as they’ve been on the edge forever.
Macau is a place that has always had people who have gone through it from many different cultures. There are many mixes and people who have unusual backgrounds and shared experiences, so I feel at home in that kind of climate. I like places like that.