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Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip Paperback – February 8, 2011
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One of The Economist's Best Books of the Year
From the bestselling author of Oracle Bones and River Town comes the final book in his award-winning trilogy on the human side of the economic revolution in China.
Peter Hessler, whom the Wall Street Journal calls "one of the Western world's most thoughtful writers on modern China," deftly illuminates the vast, shifting landscape of a traditionally rural nation that, having once built walls against foreigners, is now building roads and factory towns that look to the outside world.
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“A fascinating road trip through a land in transition. . . . Hessler’s description of China’s new drivers is hilarious. . . . Country Driving tells us as much about contemporary China even when Hessler is not on the road.” — The Christian Science Monitor
“The best yet from Peter Hessler, whose two earlier books, River Town and Oracle Bones, were exemplary forays into the genre. . . . Told with his characteristic blend of empathy, insight, and self-deprecating humor.” — Time
“Peter Hessler, a modern Marco Polo crossing China in a rented Jeep Cherokee, has witnessed signs and wonders worthy of a Coen brothers film. . . . Every so often, I read a book that upends my perceptions about a place. This is one of them.” — Bloomberg News
“Hessler has made a career of interpreting contemporary China and, for my money, nobody does it better. . . . Hessler is a magnificent guide to this largely uncharted territory, witty, insightful, keenly aware of the ironies of this communist-capitalist society.” — The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“If you want to understand today’s China, and the forces changing it, you need to read Country Driving.” — The Huffington Post
“Hessler is a keen observer of mind-catching details and an engaging storyteller. . . . Full of exotic detail, solid reporting, and ironic observation, Country Driving offers a personal snapshot of the world’s second superpower hurtling through the 21st century.” — The Boston Globe
“Lively. . . . Engaging. . . . Hessler sets out with some suspect maps and a great deal of bravado. . . . He shows the effects China’s ever expanding network of roads exerts on individual lives. . . . Hessler [has an] irresistible urge to follow a story.” — The New York Times Book Review
“Delightful. . . . Epic. . . . The reporting in Country Driving is impressive in its scope. . . . Hessler delivers eloquent disquisitions on everything from how to buy a used car in China to the history of the Mongol conquest.” — Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Hessler’s genius has always been in his wry commentary and ability to transcribe the rhythms of his environment onto the page. . . . From this cast of thousands emerges a picture of great hopes tinged with sadness at what is being cast aside without second thought.” — The Wall Street Journal
“Extraordinary. . . . Country Driving, like Hessler’s previous works, tells the story of China’s transformation powerfully and poetically.” — The Economist
“Exceptionally moving. . . . Hilarious. . . . An absolutely terrific book, at once highly entertaining and deeply instructive. . . . Country Driving is a wonderful book about China that also happens to be a terrific book about the human race. — Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
About the Author
Peter Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as the Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007, and is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He is the author of River Town, which won the Kiriyama Prize; Oracle Bones, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and, most recently, Country Driving. He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting, and he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011. He lives in Cairo.
- Publisher : Harper Perennial; 1st Edition (February 8, 2011)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 448 pages
- ISBN-10 : 006180410X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0061804106
- Item Weight : 11.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.31 x 1.01 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #276,868 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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This is the final portion of Peter Hessler's China trilogy, and clearly my most favorite volume and the assigning of a 5-Star rating is totally superfluous. I am speaking with thorough enthusiasm because, as a Chinese knocking on the 5th quarter of a century I must admit that I was actually learning things about parts of China and some Chinese people from this very observing American journalist at times. As in his earlier two volumes he often pounding on a situation with annoying resentment of what he sees or confronting with to the point a Chinese may read about the story feeling unfairly criticized, but Peter Hessler rarely failed to offer a more objective explanation or a comparison with a similar situation in America which is sometime worse than what he sees in China.
What is very relevant here is the common denominators are often quite the same and they are only differ in time when the same situation had happened 80 years ago in America and China is now duplicating the same "mistakes" today. The key point here is the natural or unavoidable phenomenon must occur as in the economical development. There is a strong similarity here in economical-social development as in biological development of various animals or plants in their growing process.
Decades before Peter Hessler was born we had experienced numerous highways of very poor quality, even in California, but beginning in the late 50s we saw improvement when Interstate Freeways were constructed throughout America and even that the old U.S. highways, such as Highway 99 in California we had to stop on traffic lights including once I drove through a red-light on Highway 99 near Fresno during the 1961 winter split-pea soup fog. It is now reconstructed to the Interstate Freeway quality without traffic lights. Peter was often complaining about the road quality without seeing the time-lag in the development. No doubt, there will be cases like this but what I was disappointed by Peter's oversight is his failure stating the long term effects when so much precious farm lands are converted to economic development zones in Zhejiang Province (as well as many other places in other provinces), not to mention miles of farmlands are converted to highway constructions.
During the early days in prior to the Interstate Freeway construction it was frequent to see highway often follow the topographical shape and slope like the hills or rivers but gradually we see Freeways simply paved over a hill despite of the steepness since cars are more powerful year after year. I remember commenting the unwillingness to compromise with natural topographical terrain in building the Interstate freeways as "typical American big ax unrelenting approach" to a problem.
Now, similar things are seen in China, and at times, in my view, far worse. There is an old Chinese saying that mountains and rivers are easy to change but not human personality indicating the profound difficulty in changing a person's habit or character but not that the Chinese in ancient time ever removed a mountain or a hill and that is why there are plenty the terraces rice fields on the sides of mountains and hills. When Peter visited one of the economic development zones in south east Zhejiang Province (which is to the south of Shanghai a few hundred miles) he was told by the person in charge who had been in the PLA tank division with a 5-year experience driving tanks, that they are simply removing the mountains and hills by brutal force with modern powerful machinery and dynamites blowing away all the hills! I did not believe in what I read but Peter returned to this topic later in the book saying that they are removing even more hills and mountains to provide spaces for economic development zones. They removed some dozens of hills! I couldn't help thinking if the powerful men in the government can now modify their personality and may be even a little bit of their political conviction?
Repeatedly, Peter mentioned the superhighway constructions in Zhejiang Province and the leveling of the terrains of the crop land converting them to economical development zones but failed to elaborate the tremendous size of the land conversion which is a serious loss to agricultural ability to provide basic food stuff to feed the 1.4 billion people and the reality of changing China from a grain exporting nation of some 8 million tons of grains to a net grain importing nation of 16 million tons in a short span of only couple years during the 1990s. .
Prior to Peter's coming to southeaster China he had ventured into inner Mongolia more or less parallel to the Great Walls and this is an area I had never seen with my own eyes. His description is an opener for me both about the terrain and the poor condition of life and the simple and gentle peasant life he encountered but there are always the banquet loving Communist cadets in the midst of nice common folks. I wish Peter had taken more effort telling people the eastward moving desert wind taking more and more of the historically low quality farmland year after year. All of this will have very serious negative impact to China's effort to feed the billion plus people of the country.
His moving into peasant territory north of Beijing was a delightful experience I can only admire from far away. How he was able to penetrate into the lives of the common peasant people community is truly interesting experience and the story was told in such a way that you feel you were there personally.
This is a book telling the economical development in China from very close distance at people level but unfortunately it failed to bring forward the tremendous demand what the country must eventually confront in not too distant future and the demand for automobiles and Western style of life and the growing obesity problem will exert enormous pressure on the government, but ultimately, on the people themselves. Peter, however, never failed to alert us that the Chinese males are endlessly smoking cigarettes.
But first, the set up. A few years ago, Hessler decided to get out of Beijing for a while, so he rented a car (as per the rental company, he wasn't allowed to leave city limits). Hours later he was cruising well beyond the borders of Beijing, looking for parts of the Great Wall. On the way he met locals, Great Wall experts, amateur Historians, picks up hitchhikers, and got shaken down my more than a few Government officials (not because of the car, but because as a journalist, he's considered a troublemaker). All of the adventures are detailed here, and that's just the start. Interwoven in his misadventures are rich historical backgrounds on all things China.
After spending extended periods of time outside of Beijing, he decided to rent a house, something small and neat. As a writer, he was looking for someplace peaceful to get his work done. As his stay in the countryside progressed, he met his neighbours and became more and more involved in their daily lives. Armed with his linguistic mastery and astute Chinese sensitivity, he was permitted, even welcomed, into their lives. This book relates to the reader, some of the most intimate records of Mainland Chinese Country life. And since many of the country's people are moving into the city, it allows anyone living in China for the first time, a better understanding at the elusive `Chinese mind.' That, I believe, is the strongest part about this book.
There are countless books on Chinese history, opinion pieces, books on the Tao, books on how Confucian thought has influenced Chinese society. Mountains of this stuff. This book shows, with incredible detail, the level to which the Chinese family supersedes all, and the oft-cited Guanxi (Chinese for `Relationships') can lead one to greatness, or corruption.
Now previously I had theorized that Guanxi was how the Chinese `made up' for not having a strong legal system. I suppose I was half right. There are contracts all over China which are completely worthless. Ultimately Guanxi represents your personal recourse. Backing up those contracts is no one, certainly no court, but rather, the other people in the community who will support you. In a sense, you have to go out and get your jury.
Moreover, guanxi isn't just a form of currency, but a useful re-useable one. Chinese often buy big cartons of cigarettes and pass them to friends and business partners as gifts; you can imagine the cartons of cigarettes getting passed around the city, as one upstart has dinner with a client, who then passes it onto an official, who then passes it on to a good friend, who then tries to start up his own business, and uses it to get favours there. Sometimes, they don't even smoke these gifts, they just pass them around. Sometimes the `gift' is no gift at all, but a favor, or the patronage of someone's business. As you see, these are favors that everyone benefits from, in many ways.
At this point you must be thinking, it sounds like a madhouse, to be so desensitized to corruption. But don't forget, corruption aside, China can be a very strict and locked down place to live. The Guanxi, or palmgrease, is the wiggle room. It may be that the locals don't feel it the way outsiders do, because locals know how to bend the rules. So Guanxi is not only the legal system, and the system of currency, but the valve that makes life liveable. With connections.
Some of those with connections will rise; in fact, those same officials often started as little fish, growing their network to become big fish. To grow their connections even further, they join The Party, and before they know it, they're on the other team. That's one way to go from nothing, to being super famous in China-to leave your mark. And to some, that's the most important thing of all.
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Don't make the mistake if believing that this book is all about driving - far from it - driving is merely the vehicle (oops) for his experiences, thoughts and encounters in his journey. The second section of the book is reminicent of "River Town" where, based in a small village, he charts the changes that occur to the people and the surroundings as urbanisation encroaches.
If you have read and enjoyed "River Town" this will not disappoint.