I’ve been planning to write something about Peter Hessler (何伟) for a long time, but always don’t know what to write. Actually I wrote a Chinese post on him this January, but just a casual note.
I read his Country Driving and River Town last year, which shocked me, for reasons hard to clearly describe. Chinese critics always say Peter Hessler is good at writing “small aspects” neglected by other writers, that’s true. However, his books mean much more for me.
Maybe the most impressive thing is Peter Hessler’s attitude towards ordinary Chinese.
First, he was always like an onlooker, staying out of all things happening on those Chinese people he met, although he was deeply engaged in their daily affairs. He helped a young peasant with curing his son, he won the heart of a technician in a factory, who asked him to be a business partner. Still, he looks detached as if he is leaving at any moment. Such attitude is sort of fascinating to me, maybe because as a Chinese, I cannot be detached and easy in face of all those things.
More importantly, he was so nice to all the Chinese people he met, maybe nicer than most Chinese writers.
China’s great writer Lu Xun said he was “always not afraid to speculate about Chinese with the greatest malice”. Nearly a century later, the Chinese society is now facing much more serious trust crisis, people wouldn’t help elders falling down in the street, in fear of blackmails. But Peter Hessler seems to be totally ignoring these. On the contrary, he always treated Chinese with good faith. Most Chinese people in his books are respectable and lovely, even when they did stupid and unfaithful things.
In China, Chinese peasants are often described as being numbed and their so-called “deep-rooted bad habits” are always a big topic for intellectuals, but it seems that Peter Hessler just take them as being very normal, also respectable and lovely.
It’s very possible that Peter Hessler’s good attitude derived from his identity as a foreigner, for Chinese are often nicer to foreigners than to compatriots. Even so, Peter could still choose to despise the Chinese people, especially those unmannered, but he could not be more modest in his writings.
As I’m recalling Peter’s books on China and looking at his photos, I even doubt he has been a Chinese in one of his previous lives, for his acting like an ancient Chinese gentleman and delicate emotions for China.
I do hope that more and more restless and arrogant young Chinese will read Peter Hessler’s books, they will see a new sight of Chinese society, just like me.