'Country Driving': a journey down the superhighways, roads and paths of China
"Country Driving" is Peter Hessler's lively, in-depth story of his 7,000-mile driving journey through China, including following the path of the Great Wall. Hessler speaks Thursday at the University Book Store and at the Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Peter HesslerThe author of "Country Driving" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle, free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com); at noon Thursday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle, free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com); and at 7 p.m. Thursday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
Reared in mid-Missouri, Peter Hessler, born in 1969, journeyed to China as a young man dedicated to the Peace Corps. He learned the language well, giving him a gigantic advantage over most Westerners who write for English-speaking audiences about the mysteries of China. Free from the yoke of interpreters, Hessler can roam the vast nation at will, reporting through anecdotes galore, told in a conversational writing style.
The New Yorker magazine gave Hessler a large audience starting in the 1990s. He published his first book about China in 2001. "River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze" focused on education and general culture. The second book, "Oracle Bones," focused on ancient history.
"Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory" (Harper, 438 pp., $27.99) began as a road trip to see what he would see. Hessler's experiences on Chinese superhighways, local paved roads, and dirt paths paralleling the Great Wall are simultaneously hair-raising and humorous. Until recently, as is well known, most Chinese could not afford to buy cars, had few places to drive, and did their best to survive in times of regimentation imposed by the Communist Party and its affiliated government apparatuses.
The increasing availability of cars in China granted individual freedom that drivers abused wantonly, at least according to American rules of the road. Hessler was a privileged American who had driven an automobile since age 16, trying to fit in with millions of new Chinese drivers who were beginning as adults and generally ignoring every safety measure.
Hessler learns plenty about Chinese highway development as he explores. But his education expands far beyond that — as Hessler drove across the expanses of China, alone in rental cars, he found business development everywhere. Eventually, he decided the book would arrive in three sections: highway development dominates section one, retail development in a previously remote village dominates section two and industrial development in mid-size cities becoming larger cities dominates section three.
Unlike most journalists, Hessler is able to immerse himself in the culture, befriending Chinese of all ages and ranks. In the village of Sancha, previously remote from Beijing but becoming a distant northern suburb because of better roads, Hessler buys a modest home. Living in Sancha month after month, he becomes friendly with a married couple who capitalize on increased tourism by opening a restaurant.
The third section of the book moves from the north to the south of China. Hessler provides a case study of factory development in Lishui, a previously sleepy small city now determined to increase wealth and employment through manufacturing. Most Chinese manufacturing cities specialize in a single product. In Lishui, that product is a small ring used in the assembly of bras for women.
The scenes rendered by Hessler are unforgettable, page after page after page. At the bra-ring factory, Hessler shows the ingenuity of Chinese workers through a 15-year-old female from a rural area who cons her way into a job by fooling a plant manager about her age and her work history. Later, other family members obtain employment in the same factory, with their youngest member having greased the path.
Hessler resides in Colorado now. But China permeates his mind and his heart. Westerners who want to understand the faraway nation must hope Hessler visits China often.
Steve Weinberg (www.steveweinbergwriter.com) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
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