|Not the author|
This is a book about the rise of car culture in China. In fact the full title of the book is Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. The book has 3 major sections, and I'm happy to report that it's a nice, clear organizational structure. You may remember that my only real quibble with his last book, Oracle Bones, was the forced narrative structure. In the first section, Hessler take several driving excursions in a rented Jeep Cherokee (hilariously renamed The City Special for the Chinese market) along the path of the Great Wall of China. The second section details the five or six years of visiting a small village, Sancha, as a writer's retreat from Beijing. The last section describes life in the special development zones and factory towns in China's southern provinces.
It was all excellent, but I'd say that I enjoyed the first two sections the most. The first, about the Great Wall and how it was actually built and for what purposes, was probably the most interesting in terms of expanding my knowledge of China. Specifically, he recounts the fascinating the history of the Great Wall. He debunks the myths about how you can see the Wall from space, or that the number of bricks could go around the Earth twice. But what was most interesting was that the Great Wall isn't *one* wall. It's hundreds of smaller walls, built over thousands of years for defensive purposes. Just reading about the Mongolian invaders and the response of the Ming Dynasty was fascinating. Basically, the Mongols were nomadic while the Chinese were sedentary. The Mongols, unlike other people near China, didn't want anything to do with the Chinese way of life. Hessler quotes a historian who explains that the Chinese were perplexed by the Mongols: To them, it wasn't Chinese civilization, it WAS civilization. It would naturally appeal to anybody, regardless of their ethnicity, in the same way dentistry with novocain would appeal to anybody...The horse nomads are the first people to whom [Chinese civilization] has no appeal at all. And this baffles the Chinese" (35). I just found this whole discussion fascinating. Of course it made me think of the large extensive walls that we've built along our border with Mexico. What does it mean when a society relies on walls to keep others out, or to preserve a way of life?
The other part of this section was the extensive descriptions of the driving culture of China. (What is it with me and books about driving?) For example, when you get into a fender bender, the 2 parties quibble over a proper payoff at that moment and money exchanges hands immediately. He talks about how everyone in China loves to use their horns and no one obeys the standard rules of driving. It sounds harrowing, but he vividly portrays life as a driver in China. Hessler quotes directly several questions from the Chinese driving exam, and they are appallingly hilarious.
When driving through a residential area, you should
a) honk like normal
b) honk more than normal, in order to alert residents
c) avoid honking, in order to avoid disturbing residents
When overtaking another car, the driver should pass
a) on the left
b) on the right
c) wherever, depending on the situation
I don't know why, but I laughed out loud at some of them. For example, in the first question above, aren't you dying to know what it means to honk like normal? Hah!
The second section describes life in small Chinese villages. Many---most---villages are dying out as their young people leave for factory towns. Hessler and a friend are determined to find a writer's retreat in the countryside, and they settle on a small rental house in a town called Sancha, which is near a beautiful section of the Great Wall. Here, Hessler and his friend become friends with many of the local families. In this section, he movingly writes about these dying villages: the difficulties farmers face, the results of a town without young people, and the slow changes that happen as the city encroaches on rural lands. There's a heartbreaking story of what happens when the last child in the village develops a life-threatening illness. This was definitely the most personal part of the book, but it also contained fascinating information about the political systems that rule China.
The last section was fine, but didn't have the hum and zing of the first 2 sections. In the last part, Hessler describes the booming factory towns popping up in the southern and eastern parts of the country. He interviews the bosses and workers at a bra ring and underwire factory (bra rings are what he calls the plastic tab that adjusts the lengths of a bra strap). Maybe because I've already read a few articles or books that explored this phenomenon, it was less interesting. Still well written and and I enjoyed it, but less revealing.
Overall, a good book and an easy and interesting non-fiction read. I feel like my review was just summarizing, but that's not too bad for July, right?