Sunday, January 30, 2011

Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory

by Peter Hessler

New York, Harper Collins

425 pages    Non-Fiction

In my job as an academic editor, I come face-to-face with China nearly every week. My latest project has been to edit the English translation of the Beijing Normal University website. My contact at the university is named Nicole, and the other company representatives are Derek, Harrison, and Alex. All of these people are Chinese and live in Beijing and Shanghai.(Why the English names, I have no idea—I guess because they are dealing with Americans.) A few weeks ago, I edited a journal article about Internet addiction among Chinese students. Even in my limited experience, I can see that China is changing rapidly. I am fascinated by the changes.

Peter Hessler lived in China for about ten years, worked as bureau chief for the New Yorker magazine in Beijing, and has written three books about his experiences there. Country Driving is the third; doubtless it will not be the final book. The other books in the series are River Town and Oracle Bones.

Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory is divided into three parts, all about Hessler’s experiences in the countryside of China. In the first section, Hessler follows the Great Wall for several thousand miles, camping in the wilderness, having his hair washed in small villages, and picking up hitchhikers along every route. The hitchhikers are usually young people from the industrial centers of the country traveling home to visit parents in the small rural villages.

This is a country that is just learning how to drive, and Hessler delights in telling the readers about the challenges of driving among countrymen, most of whom have had a driver’s license for less than three years. Such experiences include left turns from the right lane and passing on the right-hand sidewalk. He has encounters with local police who kick him out of their villages for being a spy. Because he speaks fluent Chinese, he can ask the locals the right questions and they help him find the interesting local people who can explain local life to him. He reminds the reader that China is in the midst of the largest migration in human history and most small rural villages are devoid of young people or children. He also throws in history and folklore about the Great Wall.

The second section of the books is about a small village outside Beijing where Hessler finds a small house to use as a weekend retreat. He spends several years there and becomes extremely good friends with a local innkeeper, his wife and small son. They are the only young couple in the village and their son is the only child. This is the most significant portion of the book, because it exposes the reader to the immense changes happening through the experiences of one family. We learn about to the health care system, the education system, free enterprise, the local Communist party and changes in eating habits.

The third section talks about one small region of China and the changes that come when industry moves in. Along the way, Hessler reminds us constantly that things are changing so rapidly that people can’t adapt; there is a hollowness that comes when one’s roots are torn from their grounding. He says, “The longer I lived in China, the more I worried about how people responded to rapid change. This wasn’t an issue of modernization…But there are costs when this process happened so fast…from what I saw, the nation’s great turmoil was more personal and internal. Many people were searching: they longed for some kind of religious or philosophical truth, and they wanted a meaningful connection with others. They had trouble applying past experiences to current challenges. Parents and children occupied different worlds and marriages were complicated-rarely did I know a Chinese couple who seemed happy together. It was all but impossible for people to keep their bearings in a country that changed so fast.”

We know these things are happening in China because we are exposed to the results of the change every day. Hessler documents them with uncanny accuracy and with good humor. This is not a travelogue in the traditional sense, but the reader certainly wishes to have been along for the drive with such a natural tour guide.

This book was named one of the New York Times best books of 2010.

A review in the New York Times.

A blog review by a Beijing resident:

A speech before the Asia Society:

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