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Showing 1-10 of 152 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 212 reviews
on July 18, 2017
If you wish to have an informative and thoughtful view of rural China during the years when the country was just emerging from wide spread conflict and poverty, you should enjoy this book. Mr. Hessler's narrative provides clear and insightful pictures of rural places and people. The pace of narrative is somewhat leisurely but very enjoyable. Perhaps my brief visit to some of the same settings during that time period helped me enjoy this well written book.
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on February 5, 2013
I expected this book to be similar to Rob Gifford's book China Road--an account of a Chinese road trip. This was only partially true. His approach in this book is to look closely at three different areas of China and how the increase in drivers and the mobility that it has afforded has influenced these areas.

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.
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on September 8, 2015
As a Chinese American who moved to Amercia at a young age and has not been immersed in Chinese culture for most of his life, the one complaint I had about this book was that it was over too soon. Peter Hessler writes with humor and grace, but most importantly he sincerely tries to portray the characters in his book as people, not stereotypes or caricatures. He mentions many aspects about authoritarian China but doesn't force the point down people's throat. All too often have I read books and articles that portrayed the Chinese people as helpless and oppressed, with little agency of their own. Hessler does describe the constraints the people live in but show them as resourceful and adaptive, people making the best of a bad situation, not brainwashed slaves or democracy loving martyrs. It's refreshing to read about the common people who are often left behind in literature and Hessler is one of the best at letting us curious readers a glimpse into that world.
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on April 23, 2013
Hessler's most recent tome takes the Great Wall as its theme. He spends the first part of the book covering much of the extent of the Wall along neighboring roads by rented car. In the second part, he shacks up in a village outside Beijing for an extended stay with a peasant community hemmed in by rapid social change. In the third part, he hangs out in a small factory in Zhejiang Province that makes bra parts in order to observe the mindset of startup entrepreneurs. Hessler has many virtues as a writer. Instead of pronouncing generalities he tends to focus on what is immediately at hand, on the particular, and the cliché count celebrating the Communist Party's achievements and condemning its excesses and outrages is kept to a minimum. He is usually engaging and at the same time very thorough, delving deeply into all aspects of each new topic that comes his way, backed up by much homework (with I assume financial backing for his research needs from Harper, his heavyweight publisher). On the subject of amusingly inaccurate Chinese road maps, for instance, he goes into engrossing detail on the history of Western and Chinese cartography - something a lesser writer would lack the curiosity or patience to pursue. And there is always something new to learn, such as the "strange stones" (soft rocks that have been carved into various objects) market Hessler unwittingly chances upon. The shops are all scams, set up to entrap customers into believing they are at fault for destroying the rocks and forcing them to pay for them.

This attention to detail also makes the book a long one (a smaller publishing firm might have hacked off substantial passages to reduce printing costs), and there are more than a few longueurs, notably in the somewhat static and uneventful middle section in Sancha village. Page after page of the minutiae of several peasant families' lives may be fresh for the average reader unfamiliar with the country, but as a longtime China resident my own reading experience is obviously different and admittedly more jaded. I found myself putting the book down a lot, until the pace picked back up in the third part of the book, with the attention focused on the ups and downs of the bra parts business - though Hessler's notorious lack of erotic interest in Chinese women should forewarn readers not to expect much discussion of the object bras are designed for.
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on February 8, 2017
I lived in China for 1.5 years while I taught English. This is the second Peter Hessler book I have read. The first, River Town, was a significant emotional experience that reminded me of my own experience and the great Chinese students I knew. Country Driving was no less captivating and took me to villages and people similar to those whom I visited and met during my China travels. Each page was a human interest story or lesson in China's vast geography or fascinating culture. Peter knows how to invite on the trip and make it personal. Finishing the book was like saying goodby to a close friend.
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on May 6, 2017
Wonderful. A grand tour of China on a curious man's budget. Eye-opening to say the least. Eye-popping even. You will learn that China is worth the trip. But I'd stay off the beaten path, like Mr. Hessler did. Good stuff. I lost my first copy and replaced it to keep it on my shelf for another read.
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on August 29, 2013
Peter Hessler does a FANTASTIC job in describing day to day life in China for a peasant farmer, a factory worker, a factory owner, a government official. He lived in China from 2000 - 2007. He spoke the language ( I forgot which one) which opened endless doors for him that resulted in a book full of interesting, detailed interactions with locals and their particular situations.
The book is in 3 sections. The first is he drives 7,000 miles tracing the Great Wall of China. We discover that possibly as recently as 25 years ago locals would dismantle parts of the Wall for building materials ! The concept of the Wall being something worth preserving and studying is a very recent idea.
The next section is he rents a house fro 6 years in a town called Sancha - not far from Beijing. In the beginning it is a desperately poor peasant/farming town - they have no litter because they have nothing to throw away. By the end of 6 years, due to the economic transformation taking place across China, the town has economically improved and now has trash that recyclers come to pick through.
The 3rd and final section, he covers a town that was designated an economic zone by the government. To promote businesses to open up in this selected town the government pours money into infrastructure. They changed the misreable road to a highway with 26 tunnels (one was 2 miles long !) Cut the travel time to Beijing from 6 hours to 2 hrs. This is an example how government helps the private sector, something some Americans don't understand. When the author shows up in this town he sees 3-4 men standing in a dirt field he goes up to them, and it is 2 business men talking with a contractor about building a factory where they stand. They sketch our some drawings on the spot and based on that rudimentry information the contractor has a price for building the factory the next day! The author ends up being friends with these business men and follows them through the entire process, to the point of producing parts for bras. The author also befriends workers at the factory, goes to dinners at their apartments etc.

This book is PACKED with detail on living and working in China. What are the wages, how much does something cost, what do people eat, how does the health care system work, class differences, small town politics, how do business men conduct business in a Communist country.

I plan on rereading this book. Peter Hessler does an EXCELLENT job in painiting a detailed human picture of life in China.
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on July 15, 2016
To my surprise, this has proven to be a book that I can use year after year in my course on China's economy. It's a very good read, but it's also undergirded by a very good analytic understanding of issues from village-level political economy to the nature of shift from farm to city of migrants to the regional disparity of this empire-becoming-a-nation-state. Over the past 30 years of teaching about China, I'm not sure I've had any other book that I've been able to use this many years in a row. So even though parts are about the China of 10 years ago, I've continued to assign it to my students.
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on August 10, 2011
Peter Hessler first visited China in 1996 with World Corps as a Volunteer, helping out in some of the poorest parts of the country. Years later, his experience in the area landed him work as a Journalist with the Wall Street Journal (among other publications), which seemed to keep him in China. When it comes to Zhongguotongs (Foreigners adept at all things China), he is one of the best and most famous. Not only does his rich understanding of China come through in this book, but his Mandarin is impeccable.

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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on October 29, 2015
A warm, revealing look at rural Chinese through the experiences of this author, who lived and traveled China for five years. Peter Hessler, a journalist, first describes his travels along the Great Wall, and in the second section recounts his experiences living in a remote town, and finally tells us about visiting factory-towns south of Guangzhou. Taken together, the many simple lives of these rural people expose underlying characteristics of the culture and attitudes of Chinese peoples. I have lived here for some six years, and my understanding is now greatly enhanced by this nation of peoples on the brink of overshadowing the rest of the world. You will love the humor and surprises of this book!
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