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May 16, 2006

Talking China with Peter Hessler at Yahoo! News

This week at Traveling Light, I review Peter Hessler’s new China book Oracle Bones, and pose a few Asia travel questions to the author.

In Oracle Bones, Hessler (who I first interviewed in 2002) readily admits that China is a huge topic to tackle, and makes the apt observation that orthodox news journalism tends to focus on problems in the region — and hence miss the real story. Hessler expands on this issue in the Q&A:

A correspondent who writes about a famine in Africa can save lives. But China is a very different place: it’s stable, functioning, independent, and increasingly powerful. There’s a limit to what Americans can do there, and more importantly, the U.S. doesn’t need to do very much. China has been steadily improving the lives of the vast majority of its citizens for twenty years, under its own governance. When Americans look across the Pacific, the central question isn’t how they can change China, but how they can understand the people who live there. Again, context is the key. Americans need a better sense of how the average Chinese lives and thinks. I know that this is often frightening to Americans — the sense that they can’t do much to help the Chinese. Personally, I find this to be a relief. Given how difficult it’s proven to fix up relatively small countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans should be grateful that they aren’t responsible for the welfare of 1.3 billion Chinese.

In this sense, China is a unique place, and our media hasn’t quite figured out how to respond. There have always been standard ways of covering foreign countries, and foreign correspondents generally bounce from one place to another. It might be time to rethink this strategy. As we learn more about the outside world, we realize that different countries should be covered differently, and it makes sense to find specialists people who speak the language and are willing to spend more time on the ground.

I want to emphasize that I’m not saying that everything in China is good, and my opinion isn’t based on a desire to “help” China or show the country in a strictly positive light. I’m an apolitical person; I see myself as an observer, not an activist. I have no patience for either Chinese or American nationalism, and I believe that both countries have serious trouble understanding and interacting with the rest of the world. My experiences as a teacher showed me how damaging it is to give people a warped view of a faraway place. It disgusted me to see Americans depicted in extreme terms, and I react the same way to inaccurate portraits of Chinese.

The full book review and Hessler interview, entitled “A Literary Window on China,” can be found here.

Posted by | Comments (14) 
Category: Rolf's News and Updates, Travel News


14 Responses to “Talking China with Peter Hessler at Yahoo! News”

  1. brian Says:

    This is the first time I’ve ever been offended by an interview on this page. Of course Hessler can say he’s apolitical, but none of this means that the world press (not just the American) shouldn’t report the gross political abuses of the Chinese gov’t. Hessler seems to be confusing the people of China with her system. When I went to the former East Germany as a child in the 70′s I found them to be hospitable and welcoming, if somewhat guarded and worried about entertaining Americans. If I were a journlist, should I be writing about my friendly game of soccer with other kids, or about the incredibly durable East German cars, or that East Germany had the highest standard of living behind the Iron Curtain outside of Russia, all while ignoring the ruthlessly brutal rule of the DDR’s Communist Government and the Stasi (the East German secret police). I wouldn’t be much a journalist, now would I? Simply avoiding some uncomfortable truths about China does not make them go away, nor does it remove the harm done to her people. Having a good experience with the Peace Corp doesn’t change that. I haven’t even started on Tibet. Somehow I doubt this book will be on my wishlist at Border’s.

  2. Dani Says:

    I cannot agree with you, Brian. If you read what Hessler wrote about China, you will realize that many of the Human Rights topics (Tibet, for example: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&ct=res&cd=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.theatlantic.com%2Fissues%2F99feb%2Ftibet.htm&ei=DfFPSP6xGJfu6QOgk6mHDQ&usg=AFQjCNH6RZz7O9VaxbV8VZm7WEq-f5E3Sg&sig2=fYXFOmzywlwcaAHrXlzzNg)
    are in his books. But they are covered from a neutral, smart and human point of view.

    He just thinks that there are other things we could talk about. I wish more journalist could know as well as he does China.

    His books are really amazing.

  3. Dani Says:

    Hi Rolf,

    I´m also a journalist in China, and I´m trying to get in touch with Petter Hessler. He has written the best books i´ve ever read about this country.

    Could you maybe give me his email?

    Thank you very much for your time,

    Daniel Mendez.
    danielmendezmoran@yahoo.es

  4. Mark Barrett Says:

    Rolf, Hessler’s book on China is amazing. I just spent a month and a half in China teaching English at a university, and of the four books I read in preparation, Hessler’s was the best. I would like to share my experience with Hessler and get some guidance from him, can you give me his email address?
    Thank you. Mark Barrett
    mbarrett@vrlinkcorp.com

  5. Kristen Dietrich Says:

    I am a huge admirer of Peter Hessler as well. I wanted to let hime know how amazing I think both his books are. Do you know how I get a message to him?

  6. sarah Says:

    Do you have email for contacting Peter Hessler? Just read his most recent NYer piece and would like to invite him to present at a literary festival.
    Thank you!

  7. Ben Says:

    I also am looking to get in touch with Mr. Hessler and would love his email. Thanks

    BHSangree AT gmail DOT com

  8. Colin Darch Says:

    My wife and I have just spent three months on the island of Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, where I have been teaching maritime English to future seamen. Peter Hessler’s River Town described so many similarities to our situation that we thoroughly enjoyed it, and benefited from it.
    As a seaman I spent many years with oriental crews and made uncomfortable calls at Shanghai during Cultural Revolution.
    It is refreshing to come across a sympathetic, apolitical, appraisal of China, like Hessler’s.
    Returning to England in a few days time it is certainly not the political system, creature comforts, or TV we
    anticipate with pleasure, just simple things like a European toilet. At 66 and 71 its hard to squat, though it suits Chinese and is biologically more efficient,so why should they change?

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