Thoughts on Peter Hessler and River Town

What the hell is going on? For the second time this week I’m going to write a serious and non-sarcastic blog post without any humour whatsoever in it. What am I becoming? If I start writing about politics and going all liberal then I might as well rename this blog The Peking Duck.

As I was reviewing South China Morning Blues, it struck me yet again that there has always been something about Peter Hessler and his writing about China that has never sat right with me.

I was planning on writing an article about my thoughts on Hessler, when I found a series of long comments over at the now defunct Lost Laowai blog in response to an interview with Hessler himself. The comments are made by one Jack Cameron and summarise most of my thoughts on Hessler much more succinctly than I ever could.

The commentator Jack Cameron caught some flak on the article comments for his opinion, but I believe a lot of what he says his true. Here are some of his well-thought out opinions on Hessler. I’ve highlighted in bold my favourite parts. The last paragraph in particular is gold.

Hessler is quite possibly a nice enough guy — we actually corresponded once (by email), very briefly, back in 2006/06, when he sent some original copy to the magazine I was at the time editing. He was accommodating, sincere, and I presume understanding when the local government (at the 11th hour) demanded I pull the piece. But here are my problems with Hessler.

Let me say that, in fact, none of my issues have anything to do with his writing qua writing. He has matured as a wordsmith, and Oracle Bones is very well-crafted. It’s rather how he got into the China-writing game that bothers me — and if you care about good China-writing it should bother you too.

So far as I can tell, Hessler’s stint in the Peace Corps (which got him to Fuling) seems to have been calculated to get him on the fast-track to publishing — he’s shared with readers enough about personal life, background, and his time at the feet of John McPhee to warrant that inference. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se; its just that, when someone sets out to discover a place or a people with a specific view to writing about it or them, they tend to see things in editorial terms — how to describe this, how to explain that, etc.

I know this from my personal experience as a travel and feature writer. When my team and I descended upon, say, some village in Lishui (Zhejiang Province) with the publisher’s brief to bring back photos and stories about where to go and what to see and what to eat (etc), we hit the ground focused on that task. We taste the food knowing that every mouthful is a rough draft; we tune-in to the sounds of our assigned locale with a journalist’s ear, and scan the horizon with a photographer’s eye. That’s a casualty of writing for a living, and it is tricky to get around.
One can’t fault Hessler too much for sins endemic to the profession.

Its just that, the younger Hessler of River Town landed in China not merely the innocent abroad who turned to writing, but a MSWord mercenary, knowing rather clearly that this country and her people were grist for his future mill. (If you’ve done a lot of traveling and writing, you can smell this kind of thing.) What’s more, his observations suggest strongly that he has never really engaged China, so much as siphoned just enough color, tone, and pedestrian insight to satisfy his readers’ hankering for dirt on ‘the real China’. Little wonder his editors/publishers adore him. Like his mentor McPhee, Hessler is safe, formulaic, witty, and after a while totally predictable — the Garrison Keillor of the Far East.

Hessler’s China might be fascinating for those who don’t know the place or people, but for those who do, the content of his admittedly well-written essays and books is trite and aenemic. It is a pity that he is feted as a kind China expert. He is not. He’s a long-term tourist with a laptop and expense account from America’s intellectual-Lite clearinghouses for NPR-style voyeurism.

This might sound harsh, and needlessly ad hominem; but, you need to read Hessler carefully, and pause now and then to think about the man telling you the story. In Fuling, he comes down awfully hard (shamefully so, in fact) on the young girl he assumes is a prostitute — pity, because he would have learned a lot more about Fuling and about China if he didn’t brush her off with brahminic disgust. He also took part in a local road-race (read: by the locals, for the locals) that he surely knew he was likely to win (not a very friendly gesture from out Peace Corps ambassador), and – at his school’s banquet – got drunk and ran around shooting plastic pellets at his lao’wai fellow teacher. (Oxford graduate? Is that right?) These behaviours say loads about the man; and if it is ‘ad hominem’ to evaluate a foreign correspondent partially in terms of his actions, so be it. I do not see how someone who gets squeamish at the thought of chatting with a hooker (if hooker/’sanpei’ she was) can be a very good journalist, in a country where business and government involve copious amounts of Chivas, cigarettes, and ass.

The older, wiser Hessler of Oracle Bones again gets fidgety in the presence of sexual vice, this time in a bar/ktv joint (I forget which) in Beijing — there’s that good Catholic upbringing again, being judgmental and a-prioristic. He complains when Chinese law enforcement personnel demand to see his passport (etc) when Hessler pitches a tent on/near the Great Wall, as if it is old-school Red thuggery for the Chinese constabulary to require a foreigner to obey the law. Most puzzling perhaps is when Hessler very bizarrely devotes a few paragraphs to tell the reader about his attempts to persuade his former student to feed a live baby duck to an alligator/crocodile in a Shenzhen zoo. (Shrinks from contact with prostitutes; awkward and self-conscious at a KTV; wants desperately to see a large reptile eat a duckling. Hmm. You connect the dots).

Throughout the book plays fast and lose with (eg) prices/wages (now in $USD, now in RMB, depending on whether he wants something to seem expensive or insanely cheap), and in general packages a vision of China that is not too offensive to his Chinese hosts/friends/et al. but which hits enough of the right points to ensure that Chinawatchers will love it — love it like crocs love fresh young poultry.

Hessler is to China-writing what Sue Williams is to China-filmmaking: Better than a hamfisted hack, for sure, but no more than another bright middle class yahoo hopelessly compromised by his prejudices, weak-kneed, and soft around the middle — no doubt the latter condition coming from being suckled so long on the teat of The New Yorker. It’s not his fault that he was born with a silver spoon up his arse, and I don’t begrudge him his good fortune. 

Well, actually, I do. He enjoys his commercial success because his academic pedigree and connections – and not his talent as an observer – opened doors for him.

Read his books, because they are not terrible. But read them on library loan. Let someone else subsidize undeserving mediocrity.

There are a couple more gems further down in the comments:

Mr Hessler deserves full credit for his hard work – we don’t see my books on Amazon, do we? – but let’s not overstate his talent. Any one of the long-term expats I know would be capable of writing an informed and engaging book or two about China and her people, and the only two things that distinguish Mr Hessler from half the Americans I know in China is (a) his guts, confidence, and discipline to keep putting pen to paper, and (b) his very supportive network of liberal media assets. I have never denied that I envy both his success and his drive, or that I read his books; but the fact remains, that Mr Hessler is successful in spite of his talent, not because of it. The (fashionable) acquisition of a Chinese wife won’t hurt — although it seems to have done nothing for Mr J Pomfret.


What I find objectionable about Hessler’s work (that bit with which I am familiar) is that it seems (a) very naive and not particularly insightful, and (b) strategically crafted to strike the right chord with the publisher’s targeted readership — a demographic swollen with Volvo-driving, Chardonnay-sipping, soccer-mom lefty pinheads.

There isn’t much to add to the above commentary as Mr Jack Cameron does it so well, hence why I transported these comments from the dead Lost Laowai to my own vibrant blog cavalcade.

I’m fully expecting to receive some comments from people disagreeing with myself and Jack Cameron, but the fact remains. Certain types of people and views get published in the mainstream media; others do not. You’ll never see my future book published by Penguin. That’s why I’m thankful that the rise of self-publishing and smaller publishing houses are providing a platform to other voices that aren’t so manufactured in their process, structure and opinion. It’s time for Peter Hessler to make way for new and more honest writers.

PS: Isham Cook writes some similar thoughts on Hessler over on his article The Ventriloquist’s Dilemma. Worth checking out.

PPS: Don’t worry, the next blog post will feature a return to snarky humour, irreverence and – most of all – irrelevence.


If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Peter Hessler and River Town

  1. Probably a little hard on the guy. I’d don’t know if the various silly behaviours you list make the guy an assshole-you would have to be there. As I’m sure you know, precisely the same actions that make one guy a free spirit and the life and soul of the party, would get another guy arrested. Some people get a pass.
    Another point: the travel-writer as asshole is an old trope. Some guys obviously play up to it e.g. Paul Theroux


  2. Thanks for your comment. It might not have been clear but the comments I pasted were taken from another commentator from another blog. The parts I wanted to highlight were where he talks about what/who gets published and what/who doesn’t. The rest of the comments are the original commentators own opinion. Personally, I couldn’t care less whether Hessler shot teachers with plastic pellets or took part in a road race. I’ve done a lot worse.


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