'Strange Stones': Exploring Peter Hessler's China From the Ground Up

The American author, now based in Cairo, leaves behind an extraordinary collection of books limning the lives of ordinary Chinese people.


The American author Peter Hessler has written movingly on the subject of China's rural population (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Like other Americans, I draw a sharp line, linguistically and symbolically, between mice and rats. But one thing I learned during my first trip to China a quarter of a century ago was that the distinction between these two kinds of rodents, both typically called laoshu in Chinese, is fuzzier there. When posters went up in Shanghai to accompany a campaign to purge that metropolis of vermin, they showed Mickey Mouse with a spike through his heart. These images shocked me but local residents seemed to find them unremarkable.

Those Mickey-the-Rat posters came to mind for two reasons while reading New Yorker staff writer Peter Hessler's Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, a wonderful collection of previously published pieces, which are issued here in revised and in some cases updated form, along with an engaging set of introductory comments by the prize-winning author. One reason I thought of Mickey Mouse -- Mi Laoshu in Chinese -- is that the book continually showcases Hessler's gift for telling tales of cultural difference and mutual misunderstanding in a way that is both humorous and deeply empathetic. In his hands, the story of the posters would be presented in a way that left readers unsure at the end as to whether they should find it more curious that such images appeared in China or that they would never show up in an American city.

One of the book's loveliest chapters, "Hutong Karma," an evocation of the changing rhythms of life in the Beijing alleyway district Hessler once called home, includes passages on a local McDonald's that shows just how adept the one-time Peace Corp volunteer can be at limning the meaning of American icons that take on unexpected meanings in China. At first, he writes, he was baffled by the uses to which his neighbors put a new outlet of the franchise. Over time, though, it struck him as completely natural that a place associated in America with quickly consumed meals became in Beijing one where you could expect to find people socializing and doing homework, often without buying anything. He soon took it in stride that there, you could "always, always, always find someone sleeping," and the way he describes his own shift in attitude subtly encourages those he is writing for to ponder the possibility that it is the Golden Arches near their Western homes, rather than his former Chinese one, that are put to exotic uses. This chapter prepares us for later ones, written about the United States after his return there from China, which subject the land of his birth to the kind of analysis we expect from an ethnographer reporting back from foreign setting.

The other reason the Shanghai posters came to mind is that laoshu appear at the beginning and end of Hessler's book. Following a brief introduction, the book's first chapter, "Wild Flavor," starts with one of the work's many strikingly memorable opening lines: "'Do you want a big rat or a small rat?' the waitress asked." After its final chapter comes an acknowledgements section that starts off with the statement that the origins of "Strange Stones" can be traced back to an email Hessler sent to John McPhee describing his experiences in a city known for its varied rat dishes, which his former teacher and mentor decided to forward to New Yorker editor David Remnick. Visitors to Disneyland are told to keep in mind that, for the theme park's creator, "It all started with a mouse." For Hessler, too, apparently, we also need to keep in mind the ways that a laoshu can make all the difference in a special career.

Reading Strange Stones will be a very different experience for three different kinds of readers. For devoted fans of the author like me, who try to read every piece that bears Hessler's byline, it offers a welcome chance to renew our acquaintance with people and settings we have already enjoyed encountering on the page. It is nice to spend time in their company again, and sometimes see them in a new light, due to how the world has changed since they first came out. His engaging profile of Yao Ming and other basketball players moving between China and the West reads differently now, for example, in the wake of Jeremy Lin's rise to celebrity status on both sides of the Pacific -- "Linsanity" made its mark in Asia as well as the United States -- last year.

Strange Stones has even more to offer a second sort of reader: those whose previous familiarity with Hessler has come only through reading River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving, his trilogy of extraordinary China books. For them, the MacArthur genius award holder's latest publication should be a revelatory experience. It will show them that an author they admired for his depictions of Sichuan schoolrooms, Beijing car rental offices, Great Wall treks and the like, can write just as compellingly and evocatively about small town life in Colorado, the Tokyo crime scene, and Peace Corps projects in Nepal.

The readers of Strange Stones I really envy, though, are those who pick up this book having never read a word by Hessler. They are in for a very special treat. For they will discover for the first time what it is like to follow the literary adventures of a deeply humane teller of true tales, who is a keen observer, a graceful stylist, and someone able to gain the trust of everyone from young Chinese, who dream of carving out lives for themselves completely unlike those their parents lived or could even envision, to much older residents of a shuttered American town, who look back with nostalgia rather than anger at the days before increased awareness of the danger of radiation closed down the local plutonium mines.

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.