Peter Hessler’s New China: Is this any way to live?

Peter Hessler, covering the new China for The New Yorker, made himself the rising star of the John McPhee school of reporting. It’s not just that he’d taken McPhee’s writing course at Princeton — known sometimes as The Literature of Fact. (“I prefer to call it factual writing,” McPhee has said.) It’s more that Hessler got the hang of circling a vast subject until the proportions of the story reveal themselves. (“Cycles of one year, fifty years, a thousand years: all these different cycles spinning around…” as McPhee put it, about his masterpiece on Alaska, Coming into the Country). In China, Peter Hessler made it a habit to return on schedule again and again to families and factories that intrigued him; sometimes he had five years’ observation under his belt before he began to write his story — in The New Yorker and then in books like Country Driving, his latest. Our conversation here is about the unconventional fruits of that long grazing — not least the discovery that this “new China” we find so challenging is just as new and maybe much more pressured and exhausting for the Chinese. The Wei family, for example — Hessler’s friends and neighbors in a small town north of Beijing — set the pattern over the last decade of spiking prosperity and crashing all-around health.

I was with [Wei Ziqi, the father of the Wei family,] through a number of events, including his son’s becoming very sick, to the point where his life was in danger and Wei Ziqi and I, and the other family members had to work together to try to get him medical care… The next year is when his business really started to take off. One thing that really struck me was that he had been so incredibly calm while his son was sick, very rational and easy to talk to and amazingly stoic, and I found him much more unsettled by his initial business success. … Then I realized, people in this village are used to people being sick, they’ve been through this before, that’s an experience that they know how to handle in a sense. But they’re not used to having a loan out, they’re not used to having a new business, they’re not used to trying to interact with city folk who are customers, and that was harder for him. … In America, people who had gone through this illness with a child would have been devastated at points, and he never had that reaction. But he was much more stressed by having a loan, which doesn’t stress out Americans very much (maybe it does now).

Business in China comes with a lot of vices. When I first met him, he had a very healthy lifestyle, he was working in the fields and so on. In China, if you’re a business man, you smoke. It’s part of the routine … it’s a very important type of communication between males in China. … Most men doing business smoke. So he started smoking, he also started drinking. … The more successful he became, the more he smoked and the more he drank.

Peter Hessler in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, February 9, 2011.

Peter Hessler lives and writes in Colorado now, waiting a New Yorker assignment to the Middle East. He came home at a moment when “Americans are not feeling great about themselves,” but he’s been feeing what we take for granted: striking examples of “common decency” every day in America, people volunteering serious time and talent to local life, social involvement not to be observed in China. What he remembers about China is “energy… buzz, people on the move. They are good-humored people. They get the joke.” What he notes about both places is that “It’s not a race. It’s not a zero-sum game. I don’t think it’s as directly competitive as people say. China and the US have been good for each other over the last twenty years. It’s great for the US that this has been a stable part of the world.”

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