A Reporter's Revelatory Journey to 1990s China

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The New Yorker's Peter Hessler describes what it was like to arrive in Beijing in 1994 and cover the changing country.

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Peter Hessler looks out from his apartment in Fuling, China, in the fall of 1996. (Asia Society)

In September, the University of California Press will publish Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, an anthology that tries to bring the diversity of China to life through portraits of individuals who are experiencing and, in some cases, shaping its transformations.

During the lead-up to publication, Angilee Shah, who co-edited the volume with me, has been doing short interviews with the contributors to this book, who range from acclaimed journalists (e.g., Ian Johnson, Evan Osnos, Leslie T. Chang, and Christina Larson), to a blogger and short story writer (Xujun Eberlein), to several academics writing in a jargon-free and footnote-free style.

We have been posting these interviews on the book's Tumblr page -- a site that also keeps visitors up-to-date on interesting news relating to China and will give details on Chinese Characters book launch events, such as the one that will be held at the Asia Society in New York on September 17, and related panels, such as a September 18 one that will take place at Harvard.

Below are the answers that Peter Hessler, one of the most important and insightful contemporary English language writers on China, gave to Angilee's questions.

Tell me about the first time you went to China.

I first went to China in 1994, after finishing two years of graduate school at Oxford. I had studied English language and literature, which I enjoyed, but I realized that I wanted to do something different with my career. I knew that I wanted to write but I wasn't sure how or where. And I had long considered joining the Peace Corps -- I first applied during college, and I was on track to go to Africa as a teacher when I got a fellowship to Oxford. So I cancelled that first Peace Corps application and went to England.

"Beijing was a revelation ... it was clear that something significant was happening in this country."

After Oxford, I started to think about teaching again. I wanted to go someplace where I could teach, learn a language, and hopefully develop as a writer. But I hadn't seen much of the world, so I decided to return home from Oxford in the opposite direction. I bought a one-way plane ticket to Prague and from there I traveled east, more or less. I was with a friend and we didn't have any schedule; we never did any planning in advance. We spent a couple of weeks in Eastern Europe and then we went by train into Belarus and Russia. 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.

When I look back at that train journey, it's amazing how many traders were bringing things into China. There were all sorts of guys who showed up on the train with huge bags of stuff, a really strange assortment. There was one trader who was carrying dozens of talking digital alarm clocks -- I don't know why these were headed to China, since the clocks spoke in Russian. Another trader had a big bag of speedometers bound for Mongolia. Why would you need speedometers in Mongolia? These were the mysteries of the trans-Siberian train. There were so many people with clothes -- nowadays it seems impossible that people were importing clothes from Moscow to Beijing. Coals to Newcastle.

The scene on the train was really crazy; we saw one guy give a few hundred dollars to the attendant, and then they took out a hacksaw and sawed a hole in the ceiling panel, so the passenger could hide his bags inside. There was a lot of maneuvering of goods as we approached the customs station at the Mongolian border. In the end, the only guy who got fined was the one with the speedometers. I had no idea why this happened; none of these traders had much English. Apart from a few backpackers, the only passengers who spoke the language well were a pair of North Korean diplomats heading back to Pyongyang. But it was impossible to have a conversation with those guys. They talked constantly about politics and how great North Korea was, and then one of them groped a couple of female travelers, so we all steered clear. It took five days to reach the Russian border, where they still used the CCCP stamp on our passports, as if the news of the regime's collapse hadn't made it out to the hinterlands.

After this long and strange trip, Beijing was a revelation. There was so much energy in the city; 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. We also spent a couple of weeks in Hong Kong, because we had to wait for a visa to Vietnam, which took a lot of time in those days. We had a lot of dead time so we found work playing foreigners in a Hong Kong soap opera and movie. I have no idea what the titles were; I played a businessman in the soap and a shop owner in the movie. We even auditioned for a Disney Vietnam war movie called Operation Dumbo Drop. My friend actually did well in the auditions and made it to the last round, when the casting director flew in. They were going to film in Thailand and they needed white people to play soldiers. I didn't come very close to making it in the Disney movie. We had gone around to various Hong Kong casting agencies and lied about our acting experience. On the applications forms I wrote "I played Hamlet at Oxford," which wasn't true, although I had read the play a couple of times. My friend always wrote, "In my country I am considered very attractive."

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