Peter Hessler’s ‘Strange Stones’ Reviewed

At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Pallavi Aiyar reviews Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West by Peter Hessler, former China correspondent for The New Yorker. She discusses the tight focus of Hessler’s writing on particular scenes and individuals:

Many of the pieces in the book are the literary equivalent of a still life. The action is subdued to the point of insignificance. But the stillness is revealing in its detail and texture. You meet characters at a crucial juncture in their lives: a young woman from Sichuan embarking on a career fraught with uncertainty in the manufacturing center of Shenzhen, in “Boomtown Girl”; a family in the process of evacuating their home as their village floods with water released by the Three Gorges dam, in “Underwater”; a group of rural volunteers for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games charged with blocking public access to the Great Wall of China, in “The Home Team.” But you do not learn what becomes of them. The outcomes are not the point.

By zooming in close to specific moments at particular times in his characters’ histories Hessler reveals more about the broader context in which they live than conventional news reporting on a subject like the Beijing Olympic Games or the environmental destruction wrought by big dams.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom noted in a glowing review at The Atlantic that this approach may nevertheless prove unsatisfying to a few readers:

There is one kind of reader likely to be frustrated rather than entranced by Strange Stones: the sort who thinks every book dealing even in part with China should offer clear answers to Big Questions about the country, such as how long the Chinese Communist Party will last and whether it will someday rule the world. Hessler is simply not that kind of writer.

This does not mean, though, that his book offers no insights into Chinese politics. I happened to be reading “Beach Summit,” the book’s chapter on the 2002 Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao transition, just as newspapers were running headlines about Xi Jinping becoming China’s new President, and doing so brought home how, while much has changed in the last decade, not everything has by any means. It “was easiest,” Hessler wrote, “to define Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao by who they were not. They were not Mao Zedong and they were not Mikhail Gorbachev.” The same could be written of Xi Jinping. “China was no longer ruled by one man’s whim,” he continued, “and it was not yet ruled by law.” The wait goes on. [Source]

Hessler himself discussed the book in a recent webcast at ChinaFile. In the Journal of Asian Studies, meanwhile, Harvard’s Paul Cohen attempts a (heavily paywalled) “comprehensive assessment of [Hessler's] contribution to the deepening of American understanding of the complexities of Chinese life today.”