A Reporter’s Revelatory Journey to 1990s China

Peter Hessler, a journalist at The New Yorker, is contributing to an anthology being published in September. The book, Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, “tries to bring the diversity of China to life through portraits of individuals who are experiencing and, in some cases, shaping its transformations”. In an interview with The Atlantic, Peter Hessler reveals why he decided to go to China in 1994, saying that his original plan was to take a train through China and “continue on to southeastern Asia”, but the country turned out to be “much more interesting than I had expected”:

I remember that in Moscow it took us about three days to find the room in the train station that sold trans-Siberian tickets to China. I really had no interest in China itself. I wanted to take that train, and I wanted to pass through Mongolia, and unfortunately China was the only terminus. I had heard mostly bad things about China from other travelers. I figured I'd spend as little time as possible there and continue on to southeastern Asia, which sounded more appealing. In those days China wasn't yet seen as a place where so much was changing. The popular image was still very much connected to the Tiananmen protests and crackdown.

There was so much energy in the city [Beijing]; it was clear that something significant was happening in this country. My friend and I spent about a week there, mostly riding around on rented bikes. And we ended up traveling in China for about six weeks; it just seemed much more interesting than I had expected.

The author returned to China two years later with the Peace Corps, and stayed in the country until 2007, as he found himself “fully subsumed into this world”. He also talks about his experience in Lishui, an underdeveloped city in the highly-industrialized Zhejiang Province. From The Atlantic piece:

About a month and a half later, I returned for another two-week trip that would be focused on Lishui. Again, I kept things as open as possible. In China I never liked having a focused idea at the start of my research, and in particular I wanted my last big project to be as organic as possible. So I talked to all kinds of people in Lishui — construction workers, shop owners, factory workers, government cadres, entrepreneurs. Usually I just wandered around on foot and talked to people. I never hired a translator or a researcher for this project; I wanted to be able to review all the possibilities myself. At the end of those two weeks, I had some ideas of things that would be interesting. And then I kept coming back.

It was my favorite research experience in China. I felt like I was applying everything I had learned in the decade that I had lived in the country. And it taught me so much. That's always true in China — no matter how long you've lived there, and how much work you've done, there are still endless things to learn. I was happy to leave the country on those terms. Over the course of a decade, I had learned so much in places like Lishui. But there were still so many mysteries, so many things I hadn't touched — China remained a world of its own, the same way it had felt when I first arrived in 1994.