In 2000, Peter Hessler reported for work in Beijing. For most of the decade that followed, he would be the New Yorker’s China correspondent. Many of the chapters in this wide-ranging collection of journalism come from that period. With curiosity and enthusiasm, he writes about Chinese sports, Chinese politics and Chinese history.
Taken together, this group of affable, humane and perceptive pieces can only broaden our understanding of a nation that has an ever greater influence on American life. But this isn’t one of those take-your-medicine books about geopolitics and the world economy. “Strange Stones” — the fourth China-focused book by Hessler, who’s lately been based in Cairo — also happens to be great fun to read, at once breezily written and deeply informative.
In a chapter titled “Beach Summit,” Hessler explains the forces at play when Chinese Communist Party officials gather for a seaside confab. Although Hessler himself draws the attention of the state’s security apparatus — he’s questioned for taking notes in public, then followed by a duo he dubs “Playboy and Crewcut” — he reports that many Chinese don’t appear to fret about government oppression.
“Today’s China had become much more systematized, and its totalitarianism had evolved into something else: a one-party state with a high degree of economic freedom. If the citizens seemed passive,” he writes, “it was because they had seen much worse. After all those years it was a relief to think about something other than politics.”
Meanwhile, a profile of Chinese hoop superstar Yao Ming titled “Home and Away” is a superb piece of writing about Chinese sports and culture. In addition to foreseeing that the national squad’s “grueling practice schedule — twice a day, six days a week” — might shorten Yao’s career (the 7-foot-6 center was banged up, just 30 when he retired in 2011), the piece also paints a rich portrait of the rituals that surround Chinese basketball. In one city, Hessler explains, “If a player shoots an air ball, the fans shout ‘yangwei’; in the Sichuanese dialect, it means ‘impotent.’ ”
Only slightly taller than Yao, the Great Wall of China is the subject of “Walking the Wall.” Hiking with a fellow American who happens to be one of the world’s foremost Great Wall experts, Hessler and his guide come across a pile of rocks, an apparent weapons cache left behind by 16th-century Chinese wall sentries who planned to heave them at invaders. “Four and a half centuries later,” Hessler writes, “they were still waiting for the next attack.”
And in “Wild Flavor,” Hessler eats rat, as do many other restaurant patrons in Guangdong province: “I glance at the table next to mine. Two parents, a grandmother, and a little boy are having lunch. The boy is gnawing on a rat drumstick.”
A handful of the entries in “Strange Stones” originate elsewhere — there are great pieces about uranium mining in Colorado, a Peace Corps activist in D.C. and an American reporter who covers organized crime in Tokyo — but this is largely a book about China. The pieces here can be read in order, or dipped into at random. Each has something interesting to say about China’s rich history and its fascinating present.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York.