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.