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How Peter Hessler Ruined My China Life

Peter Hessler, the American writer of bestselling Oracle Bones and River Town, has singlehandedly ruined my China life. I’ve never actually seen Peter Hessler in China, but I live everyday in his footsteps.

I’ve always had an adversarial jealously of Hessler, seeing as how he’s achieved the fame and success as a China writer with Princeton connections that I’d take in a moment. I’ve scoured his writings to find faults and thereby a basis for my rivalry, but I still have yet to come up with anything.

Living in China in the shadow of Peter Hessler is a bit like what a real-life Harry Potter would feel toward J.K. Rowling if Potter were an aspiring novelist and he one day discovered someone had beaten him to the punch—and made a tidy sum in the process. I suspect that nearly every Princeton in Asia fellow has a tinge of jealousy-based grudge-tinged-with-respect for Hessler.

To understand how Hessler has stolen my thunder, it’s necessary to understand one of the most essential benefits of choosing to live in China. That is you get to wrap yourself in the plush, velvety illusion that you’re the first one to experience all of the crazy aspects of China life.

One of the greatest consolations of frequenting squatty potties and buses that drive blindly around mountain corners is that it makes a great story. As much as I know that other Americans have been here and done this, I succumb to the sweet-scented myth just like any other.

Yet my sister’s recent visit to China forced me to shed this self-glorifying myth, and I have only Hessler to blame. In the weeks leading up to my sister’s landing in Beijing, I started a mental store of all of the great China stories I could pretend to be reminded of when we saw sights in the capital.

I had it all worked out in my mind, as I biked to and from my ancient Chinese classes day after day. I’d wait until we saw a sign reminding citizens to beware of pickpockets, and I would pretend to be reminded of the time I caught a thief with his hand in my pocket at a noodle stall in Guilin.

“Did I tell you about the time…” I’d start of innocently, indicating my innocence by adding a high pitch to my voice.

My sister, in turn, would be amazed with both the depth and excitement of my experience, as well as my modesty in thinking of the stories as nothing special.

“Maybe you should write a book,” she’d say.

“Aww, for these little things?” I’d say, checking off another of the stories I’d put on my mental playlist.

In reality, my sister’s response was: “Oh, yeah. I read that in Peter Hessler.” This exact sentence came out of my sister’s mouth so many times in response to my stories that she soon dropped the expression of surprise and then the subject of the sentence. “Read that in Peter Hessler.” After another couple days, the same information was contained in a monotone “Peter Hessler.”

“Did I tell you about the time that a thief broke into my hotel room?”

“Oh yeah, I read that in Peter Hessler.”

“Have I shown you my home in one of Beijing’s poorest, most culturally vibrant hutongs?”

“Read that in Peter Hessler.”

“Did I tell you about the time I was picked up by the police?”

“Peter Hessler.”

Thanks to my arch-nemesis, my China adventure stories quickly became no more interesting than reciting the plots of famous movies.

In the end, I shouldn’t blame Hessler for being an engaging writer, for being an enterprising journalist, nor for being in the right place at the right time, when interest in China started to take off. Then again, if I can’t live in the beautiful illusion of being the number one China explorer, at least I should be able to revel in my jealousy of the person who did it first.

Comments (13)


Amen to that. I wonder if the second European to go to China after Marco Polo felt like that. "...And you should see how they eat! They use these two sticks..." "Oh yeah, that was in that Polo book, right?"

Thomas Talhelm:

And then, just, "Marco Polo."

Curiously, Peter Hessler talks about walking in the footsteps of his grandfather (if I remember correctly), who had come to China as a missionary long before. We can never win.

Anne Dietz Hessler:

I'm Peter Hessler's mother and the daughter of his grandfather, of course. My father, Frank Dietz, wanted to go to China as a missionary priest, but was not allowed to. That ended his vocation and helped spawn Peter.


I am reading Oracle Bones, checking Peter Hessler's Facebook page (I am informed that it was not set up by Peter himself). A link from his wall directed me here.

It is quite fascinating and interesting.

Two days into the book, I am half-way through. Realized it includes many of his New Yorker and National Geographic pieces. His writing is very engaging. So it your story, Tom.

BTW, I noticed your Chinese name is the same as mine, just want to say hi to a namesake, :-)

Elizabeth VanderVen:

I'm reading Oracle Bones now and enjoying every minute of it. I lived in China from 1998-1999 (and travel there frequently now) and it's startling how much of what Hessler writes resonated with my own experiences, in particular living in the post-embassy bombing environment. That said, neither Hessler nor you nor I are the *first* to have these experiences; thousands of Americans have preceded all of us and it's likely that everyone has amazing stories to tell. But Hessler actually has bothered to take pen to paper and done so beautifully with good writing, engaging narrative, and a creative approach. So I say, if you want to write about your China experiences, just do it.


Perhaps most foreigners in China have this kind of experience, including Hessler himself. There are parts of his book that make him sound like a bit of jerk; like when he tries to convince you that his experience in Sichuan was different from the other foreign teachers who'd been there before him. But I think one has to admire his honesty here too. There are a lot of people who've gone to China (and I imagine other parts of the world too) wanting to be "the first foreigner", only to get disappointed and angry that their not.


i would agree people should be encouraged to write about their experiences. not only their travels but their are amazing experiences that happen every day that should be put on paper.


ahh but your stories are interesting. i mean hessler is a very good writer which keeps the book very engaging but you cant beat a face to face conversation. body language and voice articulation will always beat out print. so believe me, im sure your stories are enjoyed by all who hear them.


I didn't read Peter Hessler's books yet. Today i read a news report titled Red Highway--An American guy China country driving.(news.backchina.com) His name arouses my interest.So, i google his name but the name of your article is so different that i click it and read it. Now i make a comment.

i am Chinese living in America. i want to know about how people in other countries think about my motherland. If you plan to write a book about China, please write at different angle of views from Peter Hessler. Even Chinese themselves think China is developing so fast that we can only view its old look in old photos. Only if you want to write, you can always find something different to write.

Gazing at China as a Hong Kong writer, I mildly envy any writer who can and wants to write about China right now, mostly because the English language publishing world is so narrowly focused on the "fad of the moment," and writers must eat. But there's a lot more to read (and write) of China than Hessler, and there's a lot more to read (and write) of the world than China. Jealousy, however, is perennial and speaks more profoundly to the human condition than the passing sights and sounds of this China moment (since there have been so many China moments and likely will be for centuries to come).


I read Hessler's Oracle Bones before I went to China to teach English at a University and am reading River Town now that I am here. I feel a little safe in that my family and friends back home, to whom I am writing a weekly newsletter as though I were the first ever to visit China, for to them I am, most likely will not read Hessler. They are not the academic types, for the most part. But I'm also realizing that, though there are many similarities in our experiences, his and mine, there are also differences: different place, different time, and different lens, me. For example, I do love dogs and would have a hard time eating one, and guarded my dog, when he was alive, fiercely, from children, mostly for the dog's sake. But in other ways, I feel more closely aligned to the Chinese people than Peter seems to be.

Qian Wang:

I have just read Hessler's Country Driving and half way through his Oracle Bones. I am enjoying it immensely. I left China for Australia in my early twenties and have lived in Australia for almost half of my age. Reading Hessler's books made me realise how little I know about my own country. I can't wait to read his River Town, which was based on his experiences in Sichuan Province where I am from originally. Before I left China, I also studied English in one of the teachers' colleges in the northern part of the province, just like the one in Fuling where he taught Willy and Nancy. Unfortunately we did not have any foreign teacher in our college.

I have only started to read one of Peter Hessler's books - Country Driving, and I can understand your frustration. But write your stories anyway. Don't be put off. I have yet to write mine, but I am sure I have had some unique experiences - in any case my audience will be different. Having lived in China I do laugh at some of the things he's written - it has happened to me, or I understand. D

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