Before I came to China, my former professor, who helped get me the job here, recommended that I read a book by Peter Hessler about two years the author spent living in rural Sichuan as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Hessler came to China in the late 90s to teach English at a lower-level university. He was one of the first foreigners to live in the city since the communist takeover in 1949, and the book was basically a straight-up account of his time as an English teacher. He supplemented the narrative about his experience with several vignettes about people he met while living in the small city of Fuling, but mostly the book was about what it was like to be an English teacher at a university in small-city China.
On the first page of that book (the book is called River Town), Hessler writes,
When we arrived, there was one other foreigner, a German who was spending a semester teaching at a local high school. But we met him only once, and he left not long after we settled in. After that we were the only foreigners in town. The population was about 200,000, which made it a small city by Chinese standards.
When I read the book, I didn’t know it, but it would be basically a guidebook to my entire first year in China. The town that I moved to, Sanming, has a population of about 200,000. I’m an English teacher at a lower-tier university. My students, like his, are largely from the countryside. I am one of only a few foreigners in town. I rarely see anyone who isn’t native Chinese. The environment is isolating at times, inspiring at the same time, very different from the world I knew before socially, historically, economically, linguistically.
That book was a completely indispensable guide to me in the beginning. Especially with regard to preparing me, mentally, for the discipline it would take to make progress learning Chinese. One of the best things about Hessler’s book is how he patiently describes the process of learning Chinese, from the high-level, like realizing, from month to month, that he could read and understand more than what he could before, to the very specific, like describing his method for studying Chinese characters:
And so Soddy’s question remained: How do you spend your spare time? When I finished teaching I would sit at my desk, which looked out across the Wu River to the city, and I would write:
学 学 学 学 学 学 学 学
While I wrote, I pronounced the word over and over, as carefully as I drew it:
“Xue xue xue xue xue xue xue xue.”
I would write the same character about a hundred times total, and then I would think of ways in which it was used: xuexi, xuesheng, xuexiao. And I would write it on a flash card and put it on a stack that grew steadily on my desk–between five and ten a day, usually.
After I had been in China for about three months, I re-read his book, and seeing how quickly his Chinese had progressed, I became extremely jealous and copied his method precisely.
That was for writing. I had different tools available for learning speaking and listening — better tools, most likely, since I had the Internet at my fingertips, something he didn’t have. I still struggled to keep up with the pace that he made in the book, feeling myself slowly slipping behind as one year became one and thensome (Hessler was practicing reading newspapers at the end of year one, and I’m just getting to that point now after a year and a half). But it was to a large extent his book that pushed me, gave me a goal to shoot for when there was nobody else around me who was trying as hard to learn Chinese (except Chinese school kids, but a foreigner could never compete with them). It was that way with so many things about China — I had read Hessler’s book, and saw the astonishing things he learned and the things he had to do to learn them, and to a large extent I just copied. I learned some of my own tricks along the way, improvising and also reading blogs of other China expats. But his book was the bible. It was the Alpha and the Omega for me in the first months. I am eternally grateful for it.
But, after finishing his second book, Oracle Bones, a few days ago, I think I have found a book about China that I can be more grateful for. I am about to slip from reviewing to fawning, but this is a blog: Oracle Bones has changed everything in subtle ways; after I got through the second half of the book my whole idea of China and Chinese people was changed, and I read the second half just in awe, the book two inches from my face. It seemed like every few pages I was either tearing up or laughing. It was one of the most intense reading experiences I’ve had since Henry Roth tore my heart to pieces in Call It Sleep when I read that novel four or five years ago.
That is, of course, largely because China has become so huge in my world over the past year and a half. Certainly if I had never left the shores of the U.S. and hadn’t struggled for almost 18 months to find a life that seemed sane here, I would not have been so gripped by Hessler’s account of his time in China from 1999 to 2002. But I think there is something transcendent about this particular book (it goes far beyond his third book, Country Driving, which came out last year and which I read last spring) — something that portrayed Chinese people, and how their lives have been driven, torn, shaped, annihilated, by history, that has made this book special to me. Like beautiful fiction, which I wouldn’t have thought a book that is essentially a piece of long-form journalism could ever approach.
To start, Hessler sprinkles the book with fascinating facts that remain imminent for the average expat: Chinese is “logographic”, meaning that each character represents one spoken syllable; a linguist named Zhou Youguang was the main architect of pinyin, the system by which Chinese is romanized (417); the ubiquitous Chinese dish in America called General Tao’s Chicken is named after General Zuo Tongtang who expanded the Chinese empire in the Qing Dynasty (377); and that, after Chinese writing was invented 3000 years ago, “the heavens rained millet and the ghosts wept all night long” (289). Also that the word “oracular” exists.
These are snippets, random notations that were significant to me as a reader, giving sense to things that formerly made no sense. But the true beauty of Oracle Bones is Hessler’s narrative achievement, how he takes a string of unrelated stories and binds them. And, by doing that, how he demonstrates the subjectivity of history. Hessler’s book is not a history book, and it’s not merely a work of reportage: it’s a book about the Chinese world and how mercurial our interpretation of that world is, how it is always changing, how its story is malleable to the point of almost falling apart at any moment, like pizza dough, except in the hands of an experienced teller.
At one point, he breaks away from his whole narrative about China to explain his feelings about journalism as a craft, field and profession:
When I had first arrived in Beijing, the translation from teacher to writer hadn’t seemed so difficult. The basic role was similar: I was the outsider who sifted information between worlds. But over the years, as I thought about what Emily had written, I realized that there would always be something unnatural about being a foreign correspondent. As a teacher, I had taken information from far away–American culture, English literature–and introduced it to a classroom of living Chinese students.
But a writer’s work moved in the opposite direction. I started with living people and then created stories that were published in a distant country. Often, the human subjects of my articles couldn’t even understand the language in which they were written. From my perspective, the publishing world was so remote that it seemed half real. Once a year, I visited editors in New York, and I rarely heard anything from readers of the magazine. Usually, I wrote only two or three articles a year, which was adequate to live simply in a country like China. The fee for a single published word in the New Yorker–more than two dollars–was enough to buy lunch in Beijing. With one long sentence, I could eat for a week. Those were the exchanges of a freelance foreign correspondent: people and places were distilled into words, and the words were sold.
Whenever I received copies of my New Yorker articles, I found myself flipping through the pages, thinking about the gap between the world where I lived and the world where I published. I traded on that gap–that was my margin, and the advertisements reflected the breadth of the divide. In one published story, anecdotes about Fuling students were interspersed with ads for Orb Silversmiths, the Tribeca Grand Hotel, and Wildflower Log Homes (“lots starting at 49k”). The article about Polat was entitled “The Middleman”, and it began with the sentence, “You can buy anything in Yabaolu.”
These paragraphs attest to someone who has done some serious thinking about his role in a country where the majority of people are still scrambling to eat, yet where an American can also conduct interviews, write stories, and make a six-figure salary in U.S. dollars. This is an idea that has been prominent in my mind for over a year. Since I arrived in China I have been diligently taking notes, studying Chinese, trying my best to make sure that I am observing everything completely. I do it not necessarily with the idea that I will write a book, as Hessler did, but simply to record. I want to know what I have been thinking and seeing and experiencing, whether or not I ever write a book about it. But there is something strange, something tarnished about that act. It’s the same problem that all journalism has. You watch, you observe, you note, you write. But what if somebody doesn’t want to be observed? What if somebody doesn’t want to be written about? Your job, your work, is to take a living person and reduce them to words. What happens if they don’t like what they see? How are you supposed to reconcile your work with that fact? This question involves all of journalism, eventually. I imagine, sometimes, a Chinese person going to America and writing a book about his or her experience. How much of what he or she saw, and then noted, and then wrote, would be true? Perhaps it is all about experience. What is relevant to the viewer, the subjectivity about it. I suppose what I appreciate about Hessler’s writing is that he doesn’t deign to be authoritative: he is always there, or at least usually there, admitting that what he sees is limited by his perspective.
The book, as I mentioned earlier, is also about the malleability of history. This is one reason why I hate history books. They are Swiss cheese in my eyes. A history book’s flaws are always at the fore of my mind when I read one. It’s so obvious that history is limited by the perspective of the time in which it is written, but that is so rarely made clear in the writing. Hessler makes an effort to do that. The most powerful story that Hessler follows in his book is one that he admits he knew from the start he would fail to ever learn the facts about: the story of Chen Mengjia, a Chinese scholar who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (the period under Mao Zedong’s reign in which China turned in on itself and destroyed many of its cultural relics) and later committed suicide. Hessler splices the story of Chen Mengjia (his given name means “dreaming of home” — Meng4jia1) through the whole book, introducing it briefly and then moving on to other things, touching on it again 50 pages later. We slowly discover that Mengjia was a great scholar who studied the famous oracle bones, the 3000 year-old fossils on which the first Chinese characters appear, who criticized Mao and the party in the 50s for simplifying Chinese characters, and we hear different stories about his death: he committed suicide out of pride after being labeled a rightist, he was killed by Red Guards, he had a racy love life, he was faithful to his wife, until finally, toward the end of the book, Hessler writes about his encounter with Chen Mengjia’s younger brother, Mengxiong (dream of bear). The interview is tense, and becomes moreso when Hessler shows Mengxiong a photocopy of one of the last letters his brother ever wrote — a letter Mengxiong has never seen:
In China, people often speak circuitously when confronted with an uncomfortable memory. The narrative emerges loosely, like string falling slack onto the floor; the listener has to imagine how everything connects. Sometimes the most important details are omitted entirely. But when the Chinese do decide to speak openly, their directness can be overpowering. Often, there is no visible emotion: just the simple straight words. And something about seeing his brother’s letter causes Mengxiong to pick up the story and pull it taught. For the next hour he speaks without fatigue.
He tells about how his older brother had been persecuted, and why, and how he eventually tried to kill himself by taking sleeping pills, but failed. So Mengxiong went to his home, and there encountered Red Guards (the activists who, with Mao Zedong’s support, worked to destroy artifacts, ideas and people who were perceived as “traditional” during the Cultural Revolution) who detained Mengxiong and Mengjia’s wife, shaved off half their hair as a form of punishment, and proceeded to beat them:
“…they took off their leather belts and started beating us. First they used this part–”
The old man touches the leather tip of his belt. Then he slides his hand to the buckle. “After a while, they used this part, the metal. That’s when I started bleeding. They were beating me on the head, and I was wearing a white shirt — it was summertime. It turned entirely red with blood. They weren’t beating Lucy on the head like that. After a while, I was getting seriously hurt, and I asked them to let me get some bandages at the local clinic. I explained that otherwise I was going to bleed too much, and I promised to return immediately. Finally, they agreed. But while I was at the clinic, I made a phone call to my work unit, and they immediately sent some people over. They explained that I was a good person, and the Red Guards let me go. On my way home I saw my wife–not the same wife you’ve met, but my wife at the time. I told her to hurry home. That was a terribly dangerous time. That evening you could hear them all night long, knocking on doors and beating people.”
Mengxiong explains that he couldn’t visit his brother again, and shortly after that his brother killed himself. The sad thing about it, the most immediately sad thing after you read about the brutality, is simply that the people being beaten were often scholars, people who had invested themselves in knowledge and the past, and in many cases in understanding the outside world–Mengjia and his wife had both lived in America for a time. And that is precisely what they were beaten and humiliated for–they had ideas that seemed dangerous. China was working to destroy its past, in a period of self-immolation, and also was working to destroy anything that hinted of the outside world. In that case, anyone who has pursued knowledge is suspect. When the past and the outside world are the enemies, what else is there? There isn’t anything left. That’s what these interviews make clear. That’s what’s so tragic about the whole thing.
And what’s so beautiful about this book. Hessler sees things, meets people, that you can hardly hold in your mind without feeling that it will burst, and yet he writes so stunningly clearly. China is his onion. And as he showed in River Town, he has such a capacity for understanding it, such a gift for learning about things so quickly and absorbing them so deeply, and yet holding on to himself, the reader can only stand and watch in awe. Hessler took a great leap of faith when he wrote this book that his reader would understand the perspective that he was looking through. That’s what lends the book such clarity, such greatness.
Early on in the book, Hessler visits the North Korean border and finds himself in a field in the middle of nowhere, looking at a border marker with no one around. This is the true feeling of the book: wherever Hessler goes, he has the clarity of someone who has been hiking for days without seeing a soul:
I dropped my pack and took a few steps into North Korea, where I balanced my camera on a rock and set the timer. In the photograph, the sky is a deep blue and white clouds hand low on the horizon. I am kneeling and my shadow falls across the stone marker. There is a dirty white bandage on my left hand. The mountains could be the mountains of any country.
When I read this book, I get the feeling that Hessler could be writing about any place, and it would still be this good.