Many Chinese drivers don’t sit behind the wheel until well into their 30s and might only have to pass the bare minimum of driving tests in order to get a license. It might be argued that Peter Hessler takes his life in his own hands in his newest book, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, but he succeeds in finding something new and revelatory beyond the gridlock of China’s urban traffic jams.
Despite its title, Country Driving is not merely an account of a road trip through China; in fact, only one section is dedicated to Hessler’s experiences in 2001 as he drove along the Great Wall in a country "where people take such joy in driving so badly." The book’s remaining two sections are dedicated to the author’s experiences living in the village of Sancha near Beijing, and the events he witnesses during the opening of a bra parts factory in Lishui, Zhejiang province.
River Town and Oracle Bones, Hessler’s two previous books, established his abilities as both a writer and as a commentator on the state of modern life in China. He remains true to form in Country Driving. There is no shortage of insight or opportunity for comment as Hessler continues to examine how the country has changed since he first visited as an English teacher for the Peace Corps more than a decade ago.
Hessler’s themes will be familiar to anyone with any exposure to writing about China – the shift from the ancient to the modern, the price of capitalism and especially the decline of village life as China’s populace migrates to urban centers.
However, in a publishing market clogged with expatriates chronicling their experiences under the impression that they are the first and only foreigner to witness both the wonder and inanity of daily life in China, Hessler’s approach is refreshing. He displays a modest willingness to make the people he meets along the way the true stars of his stories, connecting events in their lives to broader trends in the country.
The protagonist of the second section of Country Driving, "The Village," is not Hessler himself, but Wei Ziqi, an entrepreneurial villager who returns to Sancha to open a restaurant, but struggles with the burdens of success. While the author is never afraid to write emotionally about his experiences, he is particularly affected by Wei’s story, especially after the man’s son is stricken with a serious illness.
Hessler’s ability to spin memorable anecdotes remains blissfully intact. He describes passing through the Inner Mongolian city of Baotou, where the only semblance of traffic enforcement comes in the form of inanimate fiberglass policemen statues, painted in detail down to their ID number and "managing the new traffic in the way that scarecrows manage birds."
In another incident, Hessler visits a museum where nearly everyone seems to be drunk, including a female guide who makes a pass at him while she mocks the way in which the barbarian Genghis Khan has been sinofied into a Chinese hero interested in relations with the West.
Off the map
Country Driving also displays the author’s willingness to follow every avenue. Throughout his travels, Hessler relies on a barely labeled series of maps that serve as both antagonist and savior. He repeatedly describes being "Sinomapped" into the middle of nowhere, far from his destination; yet in some cases, he finds the maps rescuing him from snow-covered traffic jams.
He eventually visits the Beijing office of the Sinomap corporation, where he meets the deputy editor in chief and discusses the logistical issues of mapping the cartography of a city like Beijing, where new roads are constructed every month to replace demolished hutongs.
All these experiences are bound up and presented in remarkable prose. Hessler describes one hitchhiker as "twenty-five years old, with a thin crooked mustache that crossed his lip like a calligrapher’s mistake." Elsewhere, he chronicles participating in a walnut harvest, where "the sounds of chewing were as common as the rustle of branches."
Country Driving lays out a roadmap for modern China. And just as a Sinomap may either lead a wayfarer awry or offer a detour around trouble, the book reflects the ways in which modernization has transformed the country, but in some ways led it astray.