A Reporter's Revelatory Journey to 1990s China

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

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.

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."

In the end, I spent six months traveling, and I went all the way from Prague to the Gulf of Thailand without flying. It was so cheap -- including the plane ticket home to the States, I spent a little more than three thousand dollars. The conditions were usually very rough. But it was a good way to see some of the world and it gave me time to think about where I wanted to be. And by the time I returned home I knew that I wanted to go to China. It seemed so fascinating -- a world of its own. And there was a clear energy to the place, a sense that things were changing.

So I re-applied to the Peace Corps, which had a new China program. They sent me there in 1996, and I ended up living in the country until 2007, and I wrote three books about it. When I look back, it's amazing how happenstance it all was, and also how direct. I never took a course on China or studied the language outside of the country. I basically never thought about the place until I showed up in Beijing in 1994. But once I was there, the contact was very intense. During my two years teaching in the Peace Corps, the biggest city I visited was Xi'an, and I didn't leave the country during that period. There was something transformative about that experience; it was more like a conversion than a visit or a two-year hiatus. By the end of my Peace Corps years, I was a writer, and I had also found myself fully subsumed into this world of China.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from working on your chapter for Chinese Characters?

This story came out of my last long research project in China. After spending about eight years in the country, I realized that the time had come to shift to other places and other topics. I was concerned about writing only about China -- I felt like I needed to explore other parts of the world, and I wanted to develop other skills as a writer. So I decided to do one final China project, a big one, and then I would leave.

I had spent some time in the factory region of Shenzhen, where I researched a long piece for the New Yorker between the years of 1999 and 2001. But since then I had worked on other topics, and now I realized that it was time to focus once more on a factory town. Journalists don't tend to spend enough time in those places; it can be hard work, because it takes time, and it's not always such a dramatic story. Also, most of us are based in Beijing, which is relatively far from the intensely developing industrial regions. So I decided that I wanted to improve my knowledge of that side of China. I flew to Wenzhou and rented a car, and I drove around southern Zhejiang province for two weeks. I visited towns and talked to people, and I thought about which places might be interesting for long-term research. At the end of that trip, I decided to focus on Lishui. It was relatively undeveloped, at least by Zhejiang standards, but they were finishing a new highway and a new factory district. I could tell that things would be happening in Lishui.

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. I would visit Lishui roughly every month; I'd fly down there and stay in a hotel where I worked out a special rate. There was an assistant manager at the hotel who would loan me his refrigerator whenever I was in town. I joined a local gym that was called "The Scent of a Woman." And I kept working at a slow pace; over time, I found certain people and places that interested me, and I revisited them and learned their stories. In the end, I pursued this project for more than two years. When it was over I did a count and realized that I had spent nearly one hundred days on the ground in Lishui.

This was initially for a National Geographic story called "Instant Cities." And I suppose this was not a smart investment of time for one piece. But I ended up also writing this story, "Chinese Barbizon," and I wrote about Lishui in the last part of my third book. 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.

Where are you right now and what are you working on?

I now live in Cairo, Egypt. I'm studying Arabic and beginning to write about this place. In a sense, I've started over -- a new world to explore.

This article originally appeared at Asia Society, an Atlantic partner site.