PAMELA SAENGER: Hi, everyone.
My name is Pamela Saenger Thank you for coming to
today's Authors at Google presentation.
I'd like to introduce Peter Hessler over here, the Beijing
correspondent for the New Yorker here to discuss his new
book Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West.
You'll notice you copies of River Town: Two
Years on the Yangtze.
Consider that a sort of teaser to whet your
appetite for his new book.
A native of Columbia, Missouri, Peter studied
English literature at Princeton and Oxford before
going to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996.
His two-year experience of teaching English in Fuling a
town on the Yangtze inspired river town, his critically
acclaimed first book.
After finishing his Peace Corps stint Hessler wrote
freelance pieces for Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times
before returning to China 1999 as a
Beijing-based freelance writer.
There he wrote for publications including the
Asian Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and the South
China Morning Post before moving onto magazine work for
the National Geographic and the New Yorker.
In 2001, New Yorker named him the first full-time resident
correspondent in the People's Republic.
His writings have also appeared in the New York
Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post,
the Newark Star-Ledger, and National Geographic.
Peter Hessler's magazine stories have been selected for
the Best American Travel Writing anthologies of 2001,
2004, and 2005, and also for the Best American Sports
Writing anthology of 2004.
He currently lives in Beijing.
Thank you for joining us.
PETER HESSLER: Thank you.
It's my pleasure to be here.
As Pamela explained, the book that you were given is River
Town which is my first book, and I'm going to talk a little
bit about actually my second book which is
called Oracle Bones.
But there is a definite link between the two, and I'm going
to talk about one particular strain that
sort of connects them.
I first went to live in China in 1996 with the Peace Corps.
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a small city called Fuling
which was on the Yangtze River of quite a
remote part of China.
It was a town that did not have other foreign residents
apart from me and one other Peace Corps volunteer.
And before we arrived there had not been any Americans
there for about half a century.
And we were sent there to teach English
at a teachers college.
In China one of the major educational endeavors is the
study of English.
It's become compulsory in Chinese schools from sixth
grade on, and to try to meet the demand for teachers there
is an intensive effort at training young people.
And that was part of what we were doing.
So the students that we taught were college students, and
they were majoring in English.
When I taught them they were seniors.
And their intended job was to finish studying English and
then eventually go back to their hometowns and home
villages and become a middle school teachers of English.
Most of these people that I taught were from the
countryside in China.
Most of them were from very poor backgrounds, and often
the generation gap between them and their parents was
I had students whose grandparents, grandmothers,
had had bound feet.
A number of my students had parents who were illiterate.
But these were young people who were now
becoming college educated.
So, in a sense, they were a transitional
generation in China.
They had been born around the time Mao Zedong died in 1976.
Most of them were 1975, 1976 birthdays.
So really, in a very literal sense, they had grown up with
China's changes, and that gave them a unique perspective on
the new China that has come about since reform
and opening in 1978.
Studying English had often been an abstract
endeavor for them.
Many of them had studied for five or six years before they
ever saw a foreigner much less had a conversation in English.
And, at some point, they had all given themselves English
names because usually people in China do this when they're
And because English was still abstract, these names were
sort of hit or miss.
I had some students who had named themselves
after famous people.
So I had a student who had named herself Barbara after
I had a student who had named himself
Armstrong after the Astronaut.
Another young woman had named herself Keller after Helen
Keller who is a heroine to many young Chinese.
Other names were more mysterious.
I had a student who called himself Silence Hill.
I had another student who called himself Yellow.
There was a very small boy named Pen, and there was a
very pretty girl named Coconut.
And there was one boy, a very tall boy, who always wore
military uniform, full camouflage dress, who had
named himself Daisy.
I was never able to get a clear sense on why he had come
up with the name Daisy.
The dean actually asked me about it at one point, but I
liked the idea of having a mysterious student with the
name Daisy in full camouflage in the back of my class, and
so I never encouraged him to change his name.
After graduation I taught there for two years, and after
graduation most of the students became teachers
And actually a lot of them are now teaching in the
countryside in Sichuan And I kept in touch with them.
I send letters to more than 100 of them twice a year.
And so I've learned about their lives
since leaving the college.
And, of course, many of them teach young students and they
give them English names often, and often they name them after
So now you have sort of second generation Coconuts, and
Daisies, and Pens.
There was one student who had named himself DJ.
Again, I had no idea where that came from.
But DJ called me once when I was in Beijing after I had
moved back to China.
And he said, Mr. Hessler, I want you to know that I gave
my students English names, and I named one student Peter and
one student Adam.
Now Adam was the other Peace Corps volunteer who taught
with me in Fuling.
And I was very touched, and I said, oh, thank you DJ.
That's very nice of you.
And he said, actually the student named Peter is
probably the dumbest student in the class.
And periodically he would keep me updated on how poorly Peter
was studying when I was in Beijing.
I want to talk today a little bit about one student in
particular who I've kept in touch with.
The new book Oracle Bones follows a number of strands
through modern China including some historical stories, but
it also follows two of my former students.
I want to talk about one of them.
His English name, when I first began to
teach him, was Willie.
And Willie is the kind of kid that I think every teacher has
no matter where he or she is working, but
particularly in China.
First of all he was from a very poor background.
Neither of Willie's parents could read or write.
Actually his father had never even attended
school for one day.
He'd grown up on a very small farm, and neither of his
brothers went beyond elementary school.
And somehow this kid had made it out, he
had tested into college.
And he had a gift for English.
He was obsessed with the language.
He studied it constantly.
He would listen to Voice of America, listen to the BBC.
He would read anything he could get his hands on, and
He was fascinated.
One time I gave a lesson on foreign words that have come
into English, typhoon, and tea, and cooley and some of
these other words.
And he would always very carefully incorporate those
into his vocabulary.
He was also interested in using the local dialect, and
Sichuanese has a very fertile dialect.
For example, in the 20s, if you want to insult somebody
you call them a toothbrush.
You'd say [UNINTELLIGIBLE].
And so he would often use that term in English as well.
When I was teaching he was never the kind of kid who
would be raising his hand or always going out of his way to
Usually he was back in the back of the
room studying something.
And then when I would walk behind he'd covered it up.
And sometimes it was a dictionary, sometimes it was
I remember one time after class he came up to me and
said very carefully, he said, Mr. Hessler, how is your
And this had been the type a term that Willie was always
studying in the back of the room and practicing his
He had really a peasant sense of humor.
Nothing was out of bounds for Willie.
Willie also had a girlfriend whose name was Nancy.
And during his senior year, Willie, I remember, I started
receiving his assignments.
And suddenly I received assignments with the name
William Foster written across the top.
And Willie had decided that Willie was not good enough for
him, that he needed two names.
And then a little bit later it became
William Jefferson Foster.
And his reasoning was that I have a Chinese name that was
given to me, a surname and a given name, and he saw no
reason why he should not have the same in English.
And he had named himself William Jefferson after Bill
Clinton because Bill Clinton was from a poor part of
America but became a success.
Willie's girlfriend had the English name Nancy, and she
also went fishing for a last name.
And she happened asked Adam the fellow teacher, and she
ended up becoming Nancy Drew.
But knowing Willie, most of my students were sort of destined
to return to their hometowns and teach.
That was the plan.
And the government had intended that.
The government had subsidize their education under the
understanding that they would return home to teach.
But there were always ways out of this as with so many things
in China, if you could, sometimes you would pay a fine
or you would make the right connections.
But somehow if you didn't want to do this you could find a
way out, but it took some initiative.
But I can always pick out the students who
weren't going to stay.
And Willie was certainly one of the ones who I expected to
And this was a ritual every spring, Sichuan Province.
I sort of wish I had a map, but it's right in
the center of China.
It's a very heavily populated, mostly rural province, and
it's right in the heart of the country.
And, of course, most of the economic boom is along the
And there is a ritual every spring where employers from
these coastal areas would come to Fuling, to Sichuan, to look
for new talent basically because they could hire young
people from a town like this for a fraction of the cost in
And one group that often came was private schools.
Private schools would come looking for
talented young teachers.
And in Willie's senior year a private school came from
Wenzhou which is a city on the eastern coast. I'll talk more
about Wenzhou in a minute.
A man named Mr. Wong came, and he was an older man, very
He always wore a Mao suit, the sort of army green khaki suit
that the Chinese call a Sun Yat Sen suit
that we call Mao suit.
He said he was a member of the Communist party, and he was
particularly interested in hiring other
Communist party members.
But mostly he was looking for talented people, and he
promised that the job, if they came to teach at his private
school, that they would be paid about $100 a month, which
was more than twice as much as they would make in the
villages, and they would have free housing.
So there was sort of a buzz that went through the
classroom after this presentation by this private
But it took a lot of guts to leave. And as a lot of
students talked about it, but very few of
them took the chance.
Now you may have heard about migration in China.
It's sort of probably one of the most important social
There are 140 million migrants in China, people from the
countryside who have moved to the city, and usually from
I think our image of this is often of very poor people
driven to the cities, but in a way it's very similar to
We also have the same tradition.
if you give me your huddled masses, give me
your tired, your poor.
But, in fact, immigrants who come to an American, who came
to America, often are the most capable people in their
They might be poor when they arrive in comparison, but they
are people who were able to find ways out and were able to
take risks, and it's the same thing in China.
Migrants tend to be people who are willing to do
this, take this step.
And in my classes I often saw that.
The good students figured out how to go.
And in Willie's case, he applied for this job along
But because neither of them was a Communist party member
they weren't sort of favored.
And they were not getting any good feedback
from the college officials.
The college had to release their documents for them to
leave. And finally Willie, one day near graduation, went to
visit the Communist party secretary of the English
And he sat down with him in his home, visited him in his
home and said Mr. [? P ?], I would really like to go to
Wenzhou to teach English.
I hope there's something you can do to help me.
And then he put an envelope on Mr. P's tea table and left.
And the envelope contained about $60, which was an
enormous amount of money for somebody like Willie.
His father made about $500 a year.
And he did the same thing with another Communist party
official on campus.
And sure enough his documents were released and he was able
to leave and go to the east coast and sort of seek his
fortune in this boomtown.
Now I would like to read from the first letter that he wrote
me after he left.
This was after I had returned to Beijing and was becoming a
"Dear Pete, how is it going with you at present?
I hope that you are not feeling lonely while in the
city of Beijing.
Some Chinese girls will be sure to have the hots for you.
But better be careful--" Wait I'm sorry.
This is the wrong letter.
PETER HESSLER: Believe me, it's all the same.
OK, we got to do this in order.
You're going to notice a theme anyway.
OK, this is the first letter. "Dear Pete, I was perfectly
glad to hear from you this time.
In my view it should be a great news for China since
there is an extra foreign toothbrush from the other side
of the Pacific Ocean.
Probably you are bedding a Chinese bitch
when my letter arrived.
Anyway please read it.
It can be used as Viagra.
My job in the school isn't so good.
I feel too tired.
In fact, we are [? coolies ?]
in the school.
We are discriminated.
So there is an old bitch who is in charge of salary.
She's undersexed and mean.
She can never get any pleasure from anything except money."
Half a year passed.
"I am feeling better.
Anyway I'm glad I can come to [? Zhejiang ?]
After all there are more opportunities here.
I'm still working hard in English.
For I have zealotry in this language.
I have confidence in myself that one day I will be a VIP
not like a toothbrush anymore.
Meanwhile my teaching here is successful.
You and Adam are somewhat my icons in the teaching.
Pete, I hope that you will visit me in [UNINTELLIGIBLE].
My yahoo students have itching desire to see you.
By the way, I have several questions for you.
One, what does KTV stand four?
That's Karaoke TV in China.
Two, what's the term, the proper English term, for the
people who go to other cities to earn a living, especially
farmers from Sichuan.
Three, what's the full form of DVD?
Four, do you want to be Chinese American?
Five, how many wives do you want to have?
Six, are you still impotent?" And then signed, "Yours,
Now this may strike you as an unusual student-teacher
relationship, but Willie was a character.
And, in a sense, this is Chinese countryside humor,
very informal, and often very close to the gutter.
One of the things that had happened to Willie when Willie
and Nancy first arrived, they went to an island off the
coast close to the city called Wenzhou which is a boomtown on
the east coast. And the moment they got there they found Mr.
Wong, and he said oh, I'm story, there must have been a
You thought that you had the $100 a month job.
Actually that job doesn't exist. You
must have heard wrong.
But I have a job for half that salary.
And he said, oh I'm sorry.
You thought that there was a free apartment.
That's not actually true.
You're going to have to find your own apartment.
And so the first thing that they realized was basically
that they had been tricked into going halfway across the
country to a place where they had no support system at all.
And the school itself was basically a fraud.
Willie realized that the school had been changing
location every year.
They would find abandoned buildings or half constructed
buildings, or old schools that were being abandoned for new
facilities, and just finding whatever the cheapest place
was they could rent and set up a private school just for the
And most of the students were people who had failed out of
And this was a high school, and in China the compulsory
education is only nine years.
So if a student does poorly he's not guaranteed to have a
high school education, but parents who wanted to send
their kids to the private school could do that.
But in this school the kids would arrive and realize that
they too had been tracked, and that
everything was low quality.
And then they would leave as soon as possible.
And Willie was fined for every student
there who did not stay.
So it was an incredibly rough
introduction to the new economy.
And of course Mr. Wong and the wife, Willie wrote about the
wife who only cared about money.
She was the one who dock his pay if he had
students who left.
And Mr. Wong himself was always talking probably about
his years in the Communist party and his military
service, which was always mysterious.
Mr. Wong's office had only one book, the massive book that
was entitled in Chinese A Record of the
World's Famous People.
And this book, when Willie leafed through it, only name
that he recognized was Mr. Wong.
And it was seemed to be one of these things where you paid to
sort of have yourself into this book.
And it was another device that this entrepreneur used to sort
of convince people that what he was doing
was actually education.
I would like to read another letter, the second letter that
he wrote me later that spring.
"Dear Pete, how's it going with you at present?
I hope that you're not feeling lonely in the city of Beijing.
Some Chinese girls will be sure to have the hots for you.
But you better be careful because Chinese girls always
blow hot and cold.
It has been raining all these days here.
My feeling is just like the raining.
Actually I'm a little bit bored and annoyed by the
things around me in the school.
For a long time I have no mood for teaching.
As soon as I stand on the platform of a classroom I hope
that the bell rings.
All the students are yahoos.
Some of them are brutal and uneducated.
Many of the students want to drop out of the school while I
fail to block the way out for others.
Many yahoos notice that they have been had.
Surely more students will escape from the school.
What interests me most is that I can learn English via VOA
and a dictionary of American colloquialism.
I hope that in a short time I can put them into use
correctly and freely.
Afraid that my strong will will be damaged, I wish
myself a way out.
is a very small place.
In other words, I'm somewhat isolated from the wonderful
I'm afraid I will not be able to use English well as long as
I stay here.
You see, I have zealotry about the English language which is
considered to be my better half all my life."
I'd like to talk a little bit about his
relationship with language.
First of all, that term yahoo that he uses, my
students had studied.
I taught literature, and he had picked that up and from
They had no idea about the company, Yahoo!
But they loved the word partly because it sounds like a
And actually in Szechuan they can't distinguish between Fs
and Hs, so the students would often call it yafoo.
Yafoo is the way that they said it.
Willie, even when he moved to this job and was immediately
disappointed, he was convinced that he still would have
opportunities if he improved his English.
So every night he would listen to the Voice of America or the
BBC, and would transcribe pages and pages of English.
During the time that he was in this town he wore out three
dictionaries, broke the spines of three dictionaries.
And when I visited his apartment he had them lined up
proudly on his bookshelf like the way that an outfielder
would keep his gold glove, never throw it away.
One of his favorite programs was called see American
Metaphors on Voice of America where he could use colloquial
But the problem with that, of course, is on Voice of America
there's never any obscenities.
But Willie solved that problem one day when he found a
dictionary that was called A Dictionary of American
Euphemisms. And that turned out to be devoted almost
entirely to the scatological, and sexual, and all the things
that Willie was interested.
One time I was visiting him, and picked up the book and
just randomly opened it to a page.
And the first word that sort of jumped out at me was
But this was away from him to supplement his vocabulary.
But he was, as he said, he was somewhat
isolated from the boomtown.
That was his interest. He had gone to the east to look for
life in a boomtown, and he was on the outskirts of Wenzhou.
I don't know if anybody has heard of Wenzhou.
It's one of the most famous new cities in China.
They're famous because after the reformers began in the
1980s, Wenzhou Joe was one of these places that responded
They had had a history of doing business before the
Communists came to power.
Because Wenzhou is geographically isolated from
the rest of China.
It's very hard for them to go to the interior.
So from ancient times on they were traitors.
They used their coastal position to do trade.
And they always had contact abroad.
There were Wenzhou people everywhere.
And so after the reformers began, even though the
government never gave them a special preference, the people
responded very quickly.
And often it was sort of bootstrap capitalism.
It wasn't for an investment.
It was local investment.
And so often they would start very small and
then gradually expand.
And what that meant was that often they
made very simple products.
And a family would start a small warehouse, and then they
would expand, expand, expand, and eventually get bigger.
And eventually Wenzhou became famous for certain things,
became famous for shoes.
Right now 600 million pairs of shoes a
year are made in Wenzhou.
They're famous for cigarette lighters.
70% of the world cigarette lighters come from this city.
I drove through this area recently, and all around this
town, all around the city are other small towns.
Each of them has found a niche in the economy,
in the global economy.
I drover through one place and I noticed that everywhere I
looked there was playground equipment.
It was called [UNINTELLIGIBLE].
And sure enough I stopped to check and there were 270
factories there that were making jungle gyms basically.
And that was 50% of the Chinese
market for that product.
I went through a place called [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
where, in the center of town, they had an enormous statue
that had a button with wings.
And it turned out that [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
is the button capital of China.
They had 380 factories making buttons.
They're also famous for zippers.
I went over to a place called [UNINTELLIGIBLE], and I asked
people there what do you make.
And some guy pulled out a pack of playing cards.
And sure enough, when I looked into the statistics,
[UNINTELLIGIBLE] makes more than a billion decks of
playing cards a year.
So this whole landscape is like this.
You have [UNINTELLIGIBLE] which makes
underwear and bras.
[UNINTELLIGIBLE] is famous for locks.
There is a place named [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
which is known for making ping pong paddles
and badminton rackets.
[UNINTELLIGIBLE] makes lace.
makes 1/3 of the world's socks.
makes 350 million umbrellas a year.
And there's a place called [UNINTELLIGIBLE]
that produces 40% of the world's neckties.
And even in China it's sort of a mystery how the Wenzhou
people do it.
And when you travel in China you often see books about the
Wenzhou business model.
What can we learn from the Wenzhou people?
The last time I was in Wenzhou I stopped in the airport, and
there were nearly a dozen books
about business in Wenzhou.
One book was called The Secrets of How Wenzhou People
Another one was called The Wenzhou Code: Deciphering the
Culture of a Kingdom of Business.
Another one was 36 Examples of Money-earning Wenzhou People.
And another book was called The Jews of the East: the
Commercial Stories of 50 Wenzhou Businessman.
I actually met an entrepreneur who explained to me very
seriously, he said, you know in Europe, they say that the
Jews are the Wenzhou people of Europe.
That was his perspective on it.
I happen to be and Wenzhou for Valentine's Day.
It's a good place to spend a romantic holiday.
And the local paper had a survey where they had surveyed
20 Wenzhou Joe millionaires to ask them about Valentine's.
These were all men, and the asked them, what do you do for
What do you give your wife, and these sort of questions.
And one of the questions they asked was if you had to choose
between your business and your family,
which would you choose?
60% chose their business, 20% chose their family and 20%
couldn't make up their minds.
So that says something about the Wenzhou model.
In Wenzhou the economy is 90% private, and that has actually
come to include education.
In this city even private schools have
found a distinct niche.
Now China education is still strictly controlled by the
You cannot start a school and begin to teach theories that
are not kosher.
And so, in a sense, if you're starting a private school some
of your options are limited.
You can't have a radically different curriculum.
But what the private schools realize is that they can teach
the same stuff basically at a higher volume.
In a way, I mean this is an area that their economic model
basically is margin production.
They're not involved in innovation or
high value-added goods.
They are making very simple things, but they find ways to
cut the margins.
And in education they did the same thing essentially.
For example, the school were Willie taught distinguished
itself because they began teaching English in first
grade instead of in sixth grade like
local public schools.
And that became their niche.
And, of course, the public school quickly responded, but
the private school was always a little bit ahead.
For example, in Willie's school, the students who were
in their examination year would have class every day of
the week including Sunday.
The eighth graders had 75 class hours a week.
That's more than ten hours a day in the classroom, whereas
the average Chinese public school has 45.
And like so many things in China the competition was
In Willie's generation one of the lessons is of movement,
another lesson is simply competition.
This is the first generation that has been forced to
compete on the free market.
And this was something that, whenever I talked to Willie,
this weighed on him very heavily because in his school
there had been a public school that decided they were going
to drive his private school out of business.
And every year there was a cutthroat competition between
who would send the most students, graduating students,
to the good high school.
Because the goal was to have your eighth grade students
qualify for the good high school, and they competed on
And, of course, the first stage of competition was to
study as much as possible.
They realized if you prepare diligently then you're going
to do better on the exam.
But very quickly, they realized that if you actually
know the questions in advance you're
going to do even better.
And it did not take the people in Wenzhou very long to get to
And by the time Willie was at the school an enormous amount
of energy was being invested in cheating basically, trying
to find leaks in the examination.
And so every year Willie would tell me they would invite a
member of the Ministry of Education from Wenzhou, from
the city government, to come and give a talk.
And the idea was that he would leak information because he
was known for doing this.
And so he would come in Willie said they were take him out to
a fine meal and then they would give him
a few hundred dollars.
And then they would hire a young woman to spend
some time with him.
And I asked Willie what does that mean?
Is she a prostitute?
And he said, what do you think it means?
And every year the man would give them some tips for the
exams. And every year the tips turned out to be false.
One time I ask him well, why do you continue to do this?
He said, you don't know.
Maybe next time it will be accurate.
That was the perspective in the school.
But every year it seemed to be the same ritual.
And every year I received a letter about this.
One year he wrote, "the same thing happened again.
Many other schools got the info about the high school
Our school got a little secondhand or
maybe third hand info.
So we are doomed to failure.
Again the fucking guy from the Educational Administration let
out the secret of the examination." So he would
often give the secret to the schools that paid more, and
the other ones would be left without much.
Now I'd like to talk a bit about the climate for a young
person like this.
One of the issues of migration is simply what is it like for
a young person who goes this far from home in China?
One thing, obviously, is they suddenly enter an
entirely new economy.
The sense of competition was totally different from what
someone like Willie had grown up with.
But even the culture was totally foreign.
One year another of my former students who was called
Shirley wrote me a letter after she migrated
to that same area.
And she wrote, "Peter, until now I never get the feeling of
living in a completely different place.
It's not good to feel.
I can understand now what you and Adam said to us before.
You said you were foreigners, and that makes a difference in
For the native, you are a stranger.
It's hurtful because they don't group
you in their group.
You can understand what they say.
So the feeling of home clings to you naturally.
Here we can't understand what the natives say.
They're dialects are strange to us because their tone and
rhythm are so far different from ours.
We can only speak standard Chinese, but some natives can
understand standard Chinese, especially the older people."
I think sometimes we have a vision of China as a
monolithic place, and people speak Chinese.
But the truth is that it's incredibly diverse, and
especially from a linguistic point of view.
The languages of China are about as diverse as the
languages spoken in the romance parts of Europe.
And if somebody from Sichuan goes to Wenzhou, they won't
understand a word that the locals are saying.
The languages are that different.
So many of my former students who left home, at some point,
they always wrote me a letter like this.
Now I know what it's like to be a foreigner.
So, in a sense, it was the first time for them to view
their country as if through an outsider's eyes.
One year Willie wrote to me about his experiences there.
Often they would experience prejudice
of one form or another.
For example, when Willie was in that town he noticed that
the teachers from Sichuan tended to be
paid lower, paid less.
He noticed that factories sometimes would have signs up
that would say, we don't want anybody from Sichuan Province
or [? Zhejiang ?]
I was recently in one of these factory towns watching
recruiting at a factory.
And as workers were coming in looking for jobs, potential
workers, there was a guard at the gate who was checking
everybody's ID, and anybody who was from Wenzhou Province
he turned away.
And I asked him why, and he said, well,
we don't like them.
They fight too much.
And really because Wenzhou was a fairly
poor part of the country.
It's like, in America, if you had a guard at the gate saying
nobody from Alabama can come here, no workers from
And Willie once commented to me that when he was a child,
he said, when he was growing up, his parents would often
threatened, or adults in the village would often threaten
children if there are bad by saying, if you don't behave,
the foreigners are going to come and steal you, or the
foreigners are going to come and eat you.
And in Wenzhou, in the new economy, he would hear people
say, if you're not good the migrants are going to get you,
the people from Sichuan or the people from [? Zhejiang ?].
So, in a sense, they had become foreigners.
One year he wrote to me, "I completely understand what
you're feeling when you're treated differently in China.
Obviously the Sichuanese people were treated
differently by other people.
For Sichuan is very famous for being poor and backward.
Here the same thing happens.
People from Sichuan and [? Zhejiang ?] were always
looked down on by the natives.
I don't care much about that.
I know that China is not their China only.
Each citizen in China has the equal right to go anywhere in
So I think this is one of the more interesting aspects of
migration is, first of all, the new perspective, but also
the sense of being an individual.
He was making a decision that it doesn't matter
what group he's from.
He is the same as anybody else, and he should be treated
the same way.
Of course, the flip side of this is when you look at a
young person like this in China, what is the option if
you were from the countryside?
And this is something else that's quite striking.
For a young person from the countryside, more and more
living in the village is not sustainable.
There are still jobs there.
There are still farming positions.
But compared to these boomtowns, the gap is growing
wider and wider.
And by now Willie was one of the first from
his class to migrate.
But by now he says pretty much everybody that he grew up with
is gone, is gone from the village.
And he often described to me how when he went back to his
hometown nobody was there except the older people, and
nothing had changed.
And he's living in a place in these factory towns where the
infrastructure is being built constantly.
Everything is changing day to day.
And then he would go back to the village and
it would feel dead.
One year after returning home and visiting his parents he
wrote, "when I am home nothing has changed and the roads are
still rough and people are getting older.
It makes me sad that I cannot find familiar people or
friends who I knew well when I was young.
Sometimes I think this kind of life, going out to the coastal
regions without a stable home, is the saddest and most
stressful thing in the world."
In some ways, whenever I read these kind of comments, it
made me think of descriptions of the industrial revolution
in England and in Europe where young villages were basically
emptying out as people went to the centers of productivity.
And in China we're seeing the same thing but at a much
There are villages in a Beijing outskirts where I
often go hiking and camping.
And a number of times I've come upon villages that are
completely abandoned, just totally empty, a group of
maybe ten houses.
One time I stumbled onto a group of ten houses that were
just the walls were falling apart, the
roofs were caving in.
It was like a ghost town.
But then when I went in the houses had been wallpapered in
the traditional countryside manor with newspapers.
And so you can read the headlines and read the dates.
The newspapers were from 1986, 1987.
And that told me that the houses had been lived in
fairly recently, but it showed how fast this
change had come about.
In the matter of less than 20 years a place to go from being
a vibrant village where people were improving their houses to
being a ghost town.
So this is the climate for young Chinese.
I think actually this is sort of an
introduction to Willie's story.
But I don't want to go too long before I get to questions
because I want to give you a chance to see
what interests you.
His story is something that I continue to follow in this
book, Oracle Bones looking at how he copes with this new
environment and with new competition that he
So now I'd just like to leave the floor open for any sort of
questions that you might have about his story or about
anything else in China.