Monday, July 23, 2012

Completed: Country Driving


The author
I'm plugging along with this year's reading choices. It's already mid-way through the year---how did that happen?---and it *feels* like I haven't read as much this year. But when I added Country Driving to the list of this year's list of completed books, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I've read more than I thought. I think part of it is that I usually pick up my reading pace significantly in the summer, but this summer so far has been too busy for lots of reading. But summer school is over after Friday, so I hope to squeeze in a few more books before school starts. In fact, one of the reasons I picked Country Driving for July was that I was starting late (I didn't finish June's book until the beginning of July) and I knew that I would enjoy the book and want to read it.

Not the author
I love the author Peter Hessler---I don't know why I have such passionate feelings about this guy. Obviously, he's a great writer and I like how he sees the world. His books are fascinating exposes of China, but I also like how they contain snippets of his own personal experience as an American abroad. His work is highly readable and informative: the perfect mix. (Also, I think he looks a tiny little bit like Christian Bale...mmm, Christian Bale.) In fact, I love Peter Hessler so much that I've considered subscribing in National Geographic because he writes for them so frequently. I already get the New Yorker, a magazine that also publishes his writing. Looks like Hessler's recently moved to Egypt, and I look forward to learning more about that culture. Okay. Enough creepy stalker talk about the author...on to the book!

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?



  1. Reading your review fuels a recent curiosity I've been feeling about the history (and resulting current status of) Detroit and, subsequently, Michigan. The story of how and why people end up moving from one place to another.

    You kind of mocked yourself for being interested in books about "traffic" but I have a feeling the story of Detroit revolves around a related topic: cars. Maybe... most stories of development have something to do with that? Even early hunters and gatherers... their story was about *moving* in some way, right?

    Re: the Chinese cultural perspective of "It's not Chinese civilization. It's civilization." I think, to some extent, anyone who only knows their own way of life feels that way, right? Like a friend of mine being surprised that I rode the bus when I think nothing of riding the bus. I live in a city, so of *course* I ride the bus. She lives in the suburbs, so of *course* she does not ride the bus!

    I'm dying to know: What were the "correct" answers to those driving test questions?!

    (Oh, yeah -- and your photos cracked me up. Heh. Christian Bale.)

  2. The whole book is about the massive movement of people in China, you're right about that. At one point, he cites some unbelievable statistic--something like 1 out of every 10 Chinese citizen in in the process of moving at any given time. (I should look up the exact quote). As a fellow "traveler", I think you and I are more attuned to the question of movement than people who have stayed in the same place for a long time. For every city I've moved to, I've gone through a period of wanting to get to know the place: the history, colorful characters, the successes and failures. Chicago has an incredibly rich and fascinating history (much like San Francisco or New York), and I like living in a place that has so much interesting stuff to learn about.

    Another one of my books is about The Great Migration, the mass movement of blacks from the South to the North during Jim Crow. Maybe I should read that next!

    He never gave the correct answers. I'm assuming it's the obvious, common sense answer...but you never know!

  3. Also, this is a hilarious blog post from a guy who is frustrated by the ever present ghost of Peter Hessler:

  4. > He never gave the correct answers. I'm assuming
    > it's the obvious, common sense answer...but you
    > never know!

    I would *hope* -- I was just curious if the lawlessness was actually sanctioned (meaning: if the answers are encouraging the terrible behavior).

    "Honk like normal" cracks me *up.*

  5. Here's another good one:

    If you come to a road that has been flooded, you should
    a) accelerate, so the motor doesn't flood
    b) stop, examine the water to make sure it's shallow, and drive across slowly
    c) find a pedestrian and make him cross ahead of you.

    Hee! I love the idea of hapless pedestrians being forced across flooded roads.