Behind the Bamboo Curtain

Peter Hessler's Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West gives portraits of ordinary folk in rapidly changing China, like a driving teacher who treats his students to booze midway through a lesson. Originally published in The Wall Street Journal in 2013.

Modern China's story has never been an easy one for Westerners to tell. The first reporters to cover China after 1949 were based in Hong Kong, and like their brethren the Kremlinologists, they interviewed diplomats and refugees, struggling to decipher what was going on in a country they couldn't visit. For those few journalists who made it behind the Bamboo Curtain, access came at a cost: Information bore the fingerprints of Communist Party officials. Reporters cobbled together stories with scenes from Potemkin villages—and, for the most part, their depictions came out flat.

As China opened up in the 1980s, a generation of foreign correspondents took up residence in the gray compounds of Beijing. This group faced some of the constraints of their predecessors, but they were also freer to roam and talk to people. The explosive changes unleashed by China's economic reforms were spawning a host of big stories: the dawn of private enterprise, the brutality of the one-child policy, the Tiananmen Square protests and ensuing crackdown. Several notable journalists cut their teeth in 1980s China, among them Nicholas Kristof and John Pomfret. But while richer than what preceded it, much of the writing that came out of the country at that time still seemed like broad sketches. Many reporters were on three-year rotations, and it takes nearly that long to gain a passable command of Mandarin.

By the time Peter Hessler came to China, in 1996, there were new big stories to chase: Millions of farmers were abandoning their fields, and whole cities were springing up overnight. The government had launched a harsh campaign targeting the spiritual group Falun Gong. Editors began to talk of "the China story." Yet Mr. Hessler attended instead to the nation's many smaller stories. Rural China gets short shrift in Western journalism, in part because foreign correspondents are required to live in certain cities and in part because there are fewer and fewer peasants to populate articles set there. But the drain of urbanization has only made the countryside a more compelling subject.

Mr. Hessler originally moved to the sleepy town of Fuling, in Sichuan province, to teach English as a Peace Corps volunteer. In 2001 he published "River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze," which is set against the backdrop of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. But it is really about Mr. Hessler's students—first-generation college attendees from poor families who choose English names like Soddy and Lazy. "River Town" introduced what would become Mr. Hessler's signature: an unobtrusive and humorous first-person narrator breezily guiding the reader through places at once exotic and ordinary, a sort of Tracy Kidder in Asia.

Over the decade that Mr. Hessler spent in China—he left Beijing in 2007 and now reports for the New Yorker from Cairo—he filed dozens of feature articles, many of which appear in his new collection of nonfiction stories, "Strange Stones," interspersed with dispatches from Japan, Nepal and Colorado. The stars of this collection are what the Chinese call laobaixing—everyday people—like the driving instructor who takes his students out for a boozy lunch midway through their lesson. Mr. Hessler's stories are filtered through the experiences of the laobaixing. A sketch of Beidaihe, a beach resort to which Chinese Communist Party officials retreat every summer to hold secret meetings, features the working-class patients at the Sanatorium for Chinese Coal Miners. At an Olympic cycling race in Beijing, Mr. Hessler zooms in on a heated sidewalk chess match ringed by its own circle of spectators. In a country with a powerful government sports complex overseeing "competitive pastimes, broadly speaking," the author reminds us, chess is also a sport.

Mr. Hessler throws a few full-fledged eccentrics from his other travels, including an American chronicler of Japanese gang lore hunted by the yakuza and an aging Colorado miner in suspenders and Wrangler jeans who calls his wife "Mom." Such appearances suggest an acute and far-ranging talent for drawing characters. But it is in China that Mr. Hessler is truly in his element.

Mr. Hessler conveys Chinese humor—an especially challenging task—in a way that doesn't render it stilted. The story "Hutong Karma" features a group of Beijing men who gather on the tile patio outside a public bathroom that has been revamped for the Olympics, smoking and guzzling grain alcohol while watching sports matches on a television they plug into the facility's outlet. The men call their hangout "W.C. Julebu"—"W.C. Club"—and repay their debt to city Olympics organizers by hurling insults at the Chinese soccer team. The author meticulously translates proper nouns and names from Chinese: New Eight Sceneries Wild Flavor Food City, Good Old Wang. It's a move that could easily backfire—there is a fine line between communicating the meaning packed into Chinese words and mocking it—but in Mr. Hessler's deft hand, it works.

If Mr. Hessler's writing has one flaw, it is that he has trouble eliciting larger themes. Very occasionally, his fondness for minutiae is distracting. "Home and Away," a profile of the former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, strays into Houston's Chinatown, where the reader learns that there are "three defensive-driving schools, three bookstores, six banks, and fourteen beauty salons—but no lanqiu," or no sign of people playing basketball. Mr. Yao himself, meanwhile, remains largely elusive.

Mostly the author's hyper-detailed style succeeds, though. In describing a Chinese artist who labors over paintings of famous buildings she cannot name from European cities she has never visited, Mr. Hessler writes: "The mirror's reflection allowed her to focus on details; she never lost herself in the larger scene." The same might be said of Mr. Hessler.