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Review: Peter Hessler’s Country Driving

Ed note: This is a guest post by Zhang Yajun.


As a Chinese person, books written by foreigners about my country always intrigue me. Of course, some are good, others…not so much.  The bad books occasionally rate a mocking giggle, but the better ones are like mirrors that reflect the country, the people, and yourself. Peter Hessler’s new book Country Driving is one of those mirrors.

The book has three distinct sections: The first recounts Hessler’s experiences driving along the Great Wall from Beijing toward the Tibetan plateau, a trip of nearly 7,000 miles. He spoke with people he met along the road and observed first hand how automobile ownership and the boom in new highway construction have transformed interior regions of China. The second part focuses on Wei Ziqi and his family, who live in Sancha, a village in the rural hinterlands of Beijing. For six years, Hessler rented a weekend home from this family and built deep connections with them. He saw the effects on Wei’s family and the village as China’s economic development trickled into this previously isolated pocket of rural life. In the final section, Hessler describes how a little town in Zhejiang has become a boomtown in large part due to a newly built expressway.

The book is about change, because that is what China is all about these days. Everyday there are new roads, new cars, new drivers, new business, new rules and new development. It is so different from the China of my parents and grandparents: the China where everyone was told what to do and nobody was supposed to do anything other than that.  Wei Ziqi, like the other residents of Sancha, lived in the old China for most of his life. His village remained mired in extreme poverty and isolation. (The annual income was a little over US $250 per person.) Even though their village, officially at least, is a part of the Beijing municipality, few people from there had ever ventured out their valley into the city itself. They lived only a couple hours drive away from Tiananmen Square, but for the residents of Wei’s village the capital city might just as well have been another planet.

But no village is too isolated to feel the effects of China’s dynamic economic growth and Wei Ziqi’s generation is very much a watershed generation. They see the changes and the opportunities happening in the country and they want their share. Every Chinese learns early on that he/she will have to compete with many other people for scarce resources – from space in a good school when young, to jobs and houses later on.  So when they see an opportunity to change their lives they are desperate to grab hold of it. Everyone is in a rush. Nobody wants to be left out. Certainly, some win and some lose, but Wei Ziqi’s story is one of relative success. He develops a new business, learns how to dress and behave as a “modern businessman,” and even runs in an election for the village party secretary. Despite these accomplishments, however, neither he nor his family seems happy.

Wei Ziqi is not alone in this problem. For many Chinese, their biggest concern has always been poverty. They believe that all their problems would float away if only they had money. When success does strike — and for the first time in their life they don’t need to worry about money — many Chinese are still anxious and lost and don’t know why. They are just unhappy.

In Hessler’s account of Wei Ziqi, I see my family, my relatives and my friends all facing a similar predicament. But it is not their fault. They are just normal human beings looking for the best for their families and themselves. At the same time, China is developing fast — almost everyone is better off than before — but the psychological and mental adjustment to cope with the rapid change is much more difficult than they expected. Hessler does a good job capturing both the anxiety and opportunity of this transitional period:

“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.”

There is a myth, one believed by many Chinese, that foreigners do not and cannot understand China.  This book shows that this myth is simply nonsense.

Hessler makes the effort. He drives through many of the least developed provinces and villages in China and down little country lanes for months on end.  He camps in the open air and lives on Red Bull, chocolate bars and Oreos.  He saw the China where villagers worked for months to dig useless tree holes even though the diggers only received two bags of instant noodles each day to show for their work; the China where young people move away to cities or towns to find jobs while the elderly cling to their old life in the villages; the China where desperate migrants have to lie about their age and identities to seize a job in a booming industrial coastal town. Even many Chinese, especially those who live in the cosmopolitan illusion of Shanghai and Beijing, are unaware of this China. It may not always be pretty in pieces, but there is great beauty in the mosaic of a people living their lives in a time of great change and working to make a better life for themselves and their children. It is a China I want more people to know about.

Yajun (A.K.A. Mrs. Granite Studio) works in the Beijing bureau of The Christian Science Monitor.  You can read her latest article for the Monitor here. Her last post for The Granite Studio was on the recent Chinese student demonstrations in Paris.


6 Comments on Review: Peter Hessler’s Country Driving

  1. Very nice review: Hessler’s Oracle Bones has been a capstone reading in my Modern China courses; I may switch to this next time. I’d like them to read both, but….

  2. Jonathan,

    I’ve also used selections from Oracle Bones in my Contemporary China class, but I too am thinking of making a switch to Country Driving. It’s a little harder to do short selections from CD than it is from OB, but Hessler writes so well that I think it might be okay to try to stretch the usual limitations of attention span and assign one of the sections as opposed to just a chapter here and chapter there. I’m particularly thinking of the first (Road Trip) section as a possibility, but given that my students are here living in China for the year, Hessler’s time in the village and his work in breaking down barriers and making friends also has intriguing possibilities both as snap shot of contemporary Chinese society but also as a possible inspiration for students to go out and break down some barriers of their own.

  3. I teach a course on contemporary China and use Gifford’s “China Road.” It’s another excellent introduction to the complexities of modern life here.

  4. I am just finishing up “Country Driving” and having lived more than 20 years in China and seeing amazing change at neck break speed, I resonated with Hessler’s comments on change and how the Chinese are dealing with it. Again and again I found myself agreeing out loud with many of the points in his book. BUT… Just before I started Hessler’s book I reread Gifford’s “China Road” and now that I have them both fresh in my mind I’d choose Gifford’s book over Hessler’s as a recommendation, if you could only read one that is. In my opinion, “China Road” hits on more points that had me shouting out ‘Amen!’ more often than “Country Driving.” And perhaps I was drawn to Gifford’s leaning towards the “glass half full” attitude more than Hessler’s leaning towards the “glass half empty” approach. Fortunately most people don’t have to read just one of these books and so I can highly recommend both books and encourage both to get a broader and deeper understanding of the people of today’s China.

  5. Great review, and I plan on getting the book shortly.

    I was wondering what anybody here thought of Hessler’s River Town though. I loved it because I saw a lot of my own experiences reflected in the text (I live in Mianyang, an hour north of Chengdu). I do not want a ‘China’ book, I want a ‘Sichuan’ book (I’m not a splittist! I promise!), and River Town gave it to me. Your thoughts?

  6. Both Yajun and I read China Road. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but both of us preferred Country Driving. That said, China Road is a good book and this really might come down to a “I like chocolate/others like strawberry” distinction. Perhaps Gifford is more positive about China than Peter Hessler, but I feel Peter is a bit more realistic about China’s problems while remaining relatively hopeful (big picture) about China’s future.

    Personally, I loved River Town and it’s still my favorite Peter Hessler book. I just think it has more of a flow, more of a story, than either Oracle Bones or Country Driving.

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