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Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip Paperback – February 8, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010: There is, as everyone knows, no place in the world changing as fast, and at such scale, as China. Accounts of the upheaval can be breathless and even alarming, but Peter Hessler is the calmest and most companionable of correspondents. In his reporting for the New Yorker and in his books River Town, Oracle Bones, and now the superb Country Driving, he's observed the past 15 years of change with the patience and perspective--and necessary good humor--of an outsider who expects to be there for a while. In Country Driving, Hessler takes to the roads, as so many Chinese are doing now for the first time, driving on dirt tracks to the desert edges of the ancient empire and on brand-new highways to the mushrooming factory towns of the globalized boom. He's modest but intrepid--having taken to heart the national philosophy that it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission--and an utterly enjoyable guide, with a humane and empathetic eye for the ambitions, the failures, and the comedy of a country in which everybody, it seems, is on the move, and no one is quite sure of the rules. --Tom Nissley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In his latest feat of penetrating social reportage, New Yorker writer Hessler (Oracle Bones) again proves himself America's keenest observer of the New China. Hessler investigates the country's lurch into modernity through three engrossing narratives. In an epic road trip following the Great Wall across northern China, he surveys dilapidated frontier outposts from the imperial past while barely surviving the advent of the nation's uniquely terrifying car culture. He probes the transformation of village life through the saga of a family of peasants trying to remake themselves as middle-class entrepreneurs. Finally, he explores China's frantic industrialization, embodied by the managers and workers at a fly-by-night bra-parts factory in a Special Economic Zone. Hessler has a sharp eye for contradictions, from the absurdities of Chinese drivers' education courses—low-speed obstacle courses are mandatory, while seat belts and turn signals are deemed optional—to the leveling of an entire mountain to make way for the Renli Environmental Protection Company. Better yet, he has a knack for finding the human-scale stories that make China's vast upheavals both comprehensible and moving. The result is a fascinating portrait of a society tearing off into the future with only the sketchiest of maps. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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This book is more of a recap of almost eight years, from 2001 through 2009, divided into three chapters: the country, the village and the factory. He starts out driving along the Great Wall in a rented Jeep Cherokee, descriping in fine detail the barren dunes, whispy mountains and desolation in the early years. Landscapes are interwoven with history, and Hessler knows his Chinese history well
He writes in a senstive mood. Even though he documents how even villagers are overcome with the technological and economic growth of the 21st century, a change in which sleepy, isolated towns are infected with the capitalist bug. The new middle-class Chinese city slickers have discovered the serenity of the mountain villages and the freedom of owning their own automobile. In the second chapter entitled "The Village" he recounts his time with the Wei family of the village Sancha in northern China, and especially their son Wei Jia, a skinny little boy he learns to love as his own. I found this chapter especially sentimentally written, to the point of watching the Wei family grow into a small village family of modest means, when ten years earlier they had nothing. He doesn't write like a tourist driving through the country; he writes with the keen observations and understanding of Chinese culture and its people.
The final chapter, "The Factory" gets into more detail of how development zones along the southeastern shore monopolize certain products under often austere conditions that would be unsafe or unhealthy for American standards. A bra ring factory and a "pleather" factory (fake leather) are featured, and Hessler interviews both managers and employees to talk about their lives and working conditions and what they have to do to keep their jobs. Few western authors have been able to get behind the often secretive Chinese bureaucracy as Hessler has, and been able to report about it in such a fine narrative. His characters come to life in a very humane way.
For readers of Chinese culture, there is perhaps nothing new to his narrative: drunk driving is common, corruption is high, peasants are looked down upon, women are disrespected and Foreigners are looked at suspiciously. Hessler himself is harrassed and sometimes degraded, but he never lets his experiences get in the way of genuinely caring for the Chinese he meets and befriends, and that makes this book on China more of a memoir than a travelogue.
Highly recommended for fans of contemporary Chinese society and culture.
The book is divided into three distinct, unrelated sections: "The Wall", "The Village", and "The Factory". Each of these sections could be read independently. It is almost like three books or stories in one.
In "The Wall" he describes his adventures driving the entire length of the Great Wall, from the ocean in the East to deep into Xinjiang and Qinghai Provinces. This constitutes several individual trips in rented cars. Along the way he visits many small towns along the ancient Great Wall. Like Gifford, Hessler speaks Chinese having been a long-term resident of Beijing as a correspondent for The New Yorker. His ability to speak Chinese allows him to interact on a close personal level with many regular Chinese people who live off the beaten track. Many of the individuals and towns that he describes in this section of the book seem to have been left behind the rapid modernization and development in the more populated areas of China. In fact, in almost every small town he encounters he rarely finds young people. They have all left the small towns to find work in the cities. This work ranges from working in factories to beauty parlors. In these forgotten small towns he only finds the very old and the very young.
In the next section of the book, Hessler finds a small village on the Northern outskirts of Beijing and rents a farmers house. He befriends a family in the village and recounts his rather intimate interactions with them over the course of several years. He discusses the development and modernization efforts in this small village (less than 300 individuals) and how that impacts this family and their neighbors. Among other things, he discusses the Chinese education system, the world of small, private businesses in China, the health care system, Chinese tourism, real estate and development, and so on. Through Hessler's eye for detail the reader really gets to know this peasant family, their joys, struggles, and triumphs.
The last section describes Hessler's many trips to Zhejiang Province and the factory towns springing up along a new highway. He meets two enterprising men who open a factory that makes the tiny fabric covered metal rings used in brassieres. He describes in detail how these men start and run their business, from building and outfitting the factory to hiring employees. Along the way we meet a migrant family that work in the factory. There are huge numbers of migrant workers in the factory regions of China's East. Hessler helps the reader understand how this huge migration of people is impacting China, on the larger scale as well as at the individual level.
I enjoyed this book for the intimate portrayals of individuals living on the edges of society--particularly peasants and migrant workers. It is not easy to have access to these classes of people in China. Undoubtedly, Hessler would never have been able to approach and get close to these people without a sound understanding of Chinese behavioral culture and good facility with the language. I admire him for being able to do that.
I think this book is much stronger that his previous book, Oracle Bones. I felt that book wandered and lacked focus. Though interesting in parts, I found it more difficult to follow the multitude of overlapping and sometimes unrelated stories.