Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Exploring Peter Hessler's China From the Ground Up

tags: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, China, book reviews, The Atlantic, Peter Hessler



Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at UC Irvine, is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know and co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land.

Like other Americans, I draw a sharp line, linguistically and symbolically, between mice and rats. But one thing I learned during my first trip to China a quarter of a century ago was that the distinction between these two kinds of rodents, both typically called laoshu in Chinese, is fuzzier there. When posters went up in Shanghai to accompany a campaign to purge that metropolis of vermin, they showed Mickey Mouse with a spike through his heart. These images shocked me but local residents seemed to find them unremarkable.

Those Mickey-the-Rat posters came to mind for two reasons while reading New Yorker staff writer Peter Hessler's Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, a wonderful collection of previously published pieces, which are issued here in revised and in some cases updated form, along with an engaging set of introductory comments by the prize-winning author. One reason I thought of Mickey Mouse -- Mi Laoshu in Chinese -- is that the book continually showcases Hessler's gift for telling tales of cultural difference and mutual misunderstanding in a way that is both humorous and deeply empathetic. In his hands, the story of the posters would be presented in a way that left readers unsure at the end as to whether they should find it more curious that such images appeared in China or that they would never show up in an American city....



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