On Reading Peter Hessler’s latest book, Country Driving

I first heard about Peter Hessler several years ago, when his first book River Town, the story of his experience living in a town along the Yangzi River, became widely known.  At that time I had little interest in reading the book, having already lived in China for several years and having just earned a PhD in Chinese history from Columbia.  At that point a book about a young American “discovering” China for the first time was not high on my list of China readings.  Been there, done that was the thought in my mind.  Perhaps others among us “China heads” felt the same way.

Then in 2006, while in Beijing prepping for my Dartmouth FSP directorship and making a film about my fellow Dartmouth alum and Great Wall expert David Spindler, with whom I’d been on many grueling hikes along said Wall, I had a chance to meet the author.  Peter was writing a piece on David’s obsession with the history and geography of the Great Wall and wanted to interview me for the article he was researching for the New Yorker.  I gladly obliged.  Peter met me on the campus of Beijing Normal University where the Dartmouth program is located and we talked for an hour or so about my experiences hiking with David since my first hike with him in 1997.  I showed him photos of our early hikes, which I had on my laptop, and related how we’d nearly frozen on one January hike while sleeping in a tower to the west of Mutianyu, as I was totally underprepared for the -20 degree temperature.  While I related my stories, Peter patiently wrote down every word in his notebook.  He eventually told me that he always kept a notebook, recording his experiences longhand, before transferring the notes to a computer.  Finally, when he felt he had enough information from me, he began to relate some of his own stories about recent trips to a factory town in southern China, and showed me some photographs he’d taken.  He told me he had seen some pretty wild things there, including strip shows hastily put together for the factory workers.  He was going to write a book about this and other experiences he had had while on the road.

Naturally, after having met the fellow, I wanted to read his book.  At that time, he hadn’t yet published his second book Oracle Bones.  I picked up a copy of River Town back in Sydney, where I was teaching at the time, and devoured it in the span of a week or so.  I realized that I had misjudged the situation.  This book did have new things to tell me.  How many foreigners had lived in such a remote place in China and wrote about their experiences in such telling detail?  It was a wonderful account of the mixture of loneliness, bewilderment, culture shock, and comedy that confronts any foreigner who begins to learn the culture and language of China and live for a spell in the country. 

But in this respect his experience was still quite unique, since he lived in a much more remote place than most of us.  In 1996 and 1997, while I was living it up in a rapidly modernizing and westernizing Beijing and Shanghai, surrounded by other Chinabound foreigners like myself, he was experiencing what it was like to be practically the only foreigner in a pollution-choked town in China’s deep interior.  The book was basically a chronological account of his experiences as an English teacher working for the Peace Corps in Fuling, a town in Sichuan located along the Yangzi River.  I admired his personal honesty in relating his story, and how he did not hold back describing his feelings about both the positive and negative sides of living in this country as a foreigner.  Of course, the scope of the book was limited to the town and to what he could learn about people through his rudimentary Chinese.  But the writing was high quality, and it was not hard to see the influence of his mentor at Princeton, John McPhee, in terms of the details that he had amassed and painstakingly recorded along the way.

The following year I picked up his second book, Oracle Bones.  Professor Hua-yuan Li Mowry, who ran the Dartmouth FSP program and who had hired me as a temporary director, was using it for her class and highly recommended it.  Admittedly, the book took me several months to read.  Unlike River Town, this book was a much more sprawling affair, covering several different epochs in Chinese history and featuring a bewildering array of characters and situations he had encountered while continuing to live in China.  Somehow the characters and themes came together at the end, but like reading a Pynchon novel it was hard to get through all the details, even though I was familiar with the general terrain, both historical and geographical, through which he roamed.  The book ended up being my “toilet reading”, meaning that it was consigned for a long while to the shelf by my bathroom, which meant that whenever I sat down I’d get through a page or two before moving on with my day. 

This is not to demean the quality of the writing or the research that went into Oracle Bones.  Clearly, in the span of just a few years, Peter had picked up an astonishing array of information about the country, demonstrating that phase that many of us “China heads” go through:  the fascination with anything and everything going on in this country, whether historically or at present.  His interests ranged from the “oracle bones” of the ancient Shang period, hence the title (these were divinistic writings etched on cattle bones or tortoise plastrons, and constituted the first written historical record in China’s history) to the sad fate of the old hutong neighborhoods in Beijing.  Yet despite tying up many loose ends, the book struck me as a grab bag, a welter of details interspersed with occasional observations about the country’s culture and history that the author did not yet have the authority to make, and while I was able to shrug some of those statements off, other colleagues of mine (one in particular) bristled at a few of his more lofty pronouncements. 

I accepted the book as the product of a phase in the life of a China head, where we desperately want to make sense of the enormous and elephantine body of facts and experiences that make up China, and like the proverbial blind men, we end up inevitably grasping onto a few choice fragments and trying to extrapolate from them.  Professional historians, sociologists, journalists, and many others do this all the time, so there was no reason to target Peter for doing the same.  And despite this, the book did have a lot to offer to even the most seasoned China head, as Professor Mowry, Jonathan Spence and many others have rightly ascertained.

Meanwhile, my own life had taken a decisive turn when I chose to leave my job in Sydney (a decision for which I still feel occasional pangs of regret as I recall our life in that beautiful city and country, not to mention the stability of a tenured academic post) and live permanently in Shanghai.  This was owing mainly to my wife’s decision to take a job with Shanghai’s new international TV channel, and the thought of being a continent apart from my family was simply too much to bear.   And since our family was growing, although we didn’t know it at the time, it made sense to be close to her parents and her extended family, and enjoy the kind of familial support that had been sorely lacking in our lives in Sydney.  Long story short, we settled back in Shanghai, and later that year we discovered that we would be making an addition to our little brood. 

With a second child on the way, my wife began to subtly pressure me into buying a car. I had not driven in China before, and like many foreigners, the thought of engaging with Chinese road traffic was a bit terrifying.  Yet I finally relented and caved in to her request.  When some friends of ours left Shanghai for Beijing and offered their Chevy Blazer up for sale, throwing in the license plate (which if you know Shanghai is in itself a costly investment into the world of car ownership), we made the plunge.  After a long struggle involving flying back to the USA to reapply for an American license, which had expired and regrettably not been renewed while I was in Australia, then heading down to the license bureau in Minhang several times for application and testing, I finally had my Chinese driver’s license and was ready to roll. 

For the next six months, I became obsessed with driving in Shanghai.  For me this was a new and exciting way of experiencing big city life in China.  It did not take long to accustom myself to the wide range of vehicular, cycle, and pedestrian traffic and the seemingly random ways that people navigated city streets.  After years of navigating the city by foot, bike, and taxi, I could predict most onroad behavior patterns and see the vectors as they unfolded.  And in my tall Chevy Blazer, I felt quite safe compared to most of the other cars that flailed around below me.  I quickly became used to the occasional brushups with other cars, usually the fault of a new driver.  One time, a woman plowed into my Chevy from the right lane as if she had completely failed to notice its existence on the road.  I became well acquainted with our insurance man, Mr. Gu, who miraculously appeared and whisked the car away to make the necessary repairs, returning it usually in around three days.  I eventually gave up on trying to fix every scrape that appeared on the car. 

In the spring of 2009, I even made a long journey southward to Ningbo, Hangzhou, and Thousand Island Lake with a few friends.  Once out of the city I found that driving was both more simple and joyful on the new and immaculate highway system of Zhejiang Province, and I relished the experience of crossing one of the world’s longest ocean bridges, the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, on the way from Shanghai to Ningbo.  It was quite an experience to be driving over the waters of the bay without seeing land for several kilometers in either direction, and from the perspective of the road, it was fascinating to witness the incredibly rapid development of one of China’s most economically developed provinces.

Thus, by the time Peter’s third book came out, I was in a pretty unique position to appreciate it. 

Country Driving is about Peter Hessler’s various experiences in China since the early 2000s, loosely organized around the subject of driving.  The book is divided into three sections.  In the first section, he describes his experiences driving out to remote areas of western China to research an article on the Great Wall for the National Geographic Magazine.  The second section focuses on the village of Sancha, located near the Great Wall north of Beijing, where Peter and a friend rented a house that served as a weekend writing retreat.  In the third section, he travels to a factory town in Zhejiang, where he becomes friendly with the bosses and workers of a bra ring factory. 

Throughout the book we learn plenty about what it is like to drive in this country and how rapidly the road and highway system is developing and how that in turn is changing the communities that become part of the national road network.  Incidentally, I had spent part of 2009 researching and writing an article on the early history of the automobile in China, and so in addition to my own experiences on the road, I also had built up a welter of knowledge about the expansion of China’s automobile industry and road system in an earlier epoch.  It is thus no surprise that I found Peter’s third book a fascinating read.

Personally I feel that this is his best book yet.  In book one, River Town, Peter was a total neophyte with almost no communication skills in Chinese, and while he did improve over those two years, he did not reach a level where he could have any kind of serious discussion with a person in Mandarin Chinese (not to mention that living in such a remote place, the language that most people spoke barely resembled standard Mandarin).  In book two, he became Mr. China, a role that did not quite fit his position or his linguistic skills.  Book three reveals a more modest and focused Peter Hessler, more confident of his skills in the language and culture, but less prone to overgeneralizations about the people and country.  At least, one feels that the general statements he does make about China are hard earned, if not always on the mark.  Yet overall what I felt about this book was that it was a far deeper and more nuanced portrayal of China than his earlier books, not to mention those published by a myriad of China heads today.  The main reason is that Peter is astonishingly good at bringing us into the intimate lives of a wide range of people.  He has a real knack for befriending people and drawing out their most personal stories, a quality that was evident in his first two books, but not to the degree we find in his third. 

In this respect, I found his second section, on the village in Sancha, to be among his best writing on China yet.  Over a span of several years, he befriends one of the characters in the village and becomes a surrogate caretaker of his son, driving him to school and one time to the hospital in an incident where his kindly intervention was obviously of great benefit to the boy and his family.  Most foreigners who live in China, myself included, restrict themselves to the big cities, primarily Beijing and Shanghai.  Our interactions with country folk tend to be limited to giving instructions to waitresses, hair stylists, and to our ayis—the women who clean our homes—and because of the power dynamic involved, we rarely delve into the personal lives of these people (though I do know quite a lot about our own ayi and her family situation). 

Peter’s intimate portrayal of the people of Sancha and their transformations over the years was one of the best accounts I’ve read of village life in China in recent years.  The thrust of that section is that the highway came through in the early 2000s, bringing with it a welter of Chinese tourist traffic from Beijing.  The main character in the story is an enterprising villager who sees the business opportunities of the emerging situation and with great vigor proceeds to make the most of it, changing his own ways and habits, giving up his line of cheap cigarettes for more expensive ones, and adopting city clothes and manners as he strives to build a network of guanxi with businesspeople and officials (often one and the same) in the nearby town of Huairou while setting up his own business serving the needs of the tourist trade.  I thoroughly enjoyed this story and came out with quite a few factoids that I hadn’t been aware of yet, such as the relative symbolic value and merits of different brands of Chinese cigarettes (not being a smoker nor a businessman, this was something I hadn’t paid much attention to in the past), and the devious ways that people at the village level struggle for control over the politics of their little domain.

The third section was also full of fascinating insights into China’s recent economic development.  In this section, Peter situates himself in a Zhejiang boomtown just as it is revving up, and spends a lot of time in a factory that produces bra rings.  He gets to know the bosses and their story, but he also becomes quite intimate (though not in a sexual way of course) with the female and male workers, plumbing their characters and their stories as well as witnessing their frequent and often volatile interactions with the factory managers as they negotiate for pay and other issues. 

At times I found this third section dragged on a bit, but overall it provides a focused case study of the way that factory enterprises are run in this part of China today—often on a shoestring budget and with precious little advance planning.  He highlights the struggles of migrant worker families to survive in this milieu, focusing on one family whose two teenage daughters and their father engage in all sorts of subterfuges to land and keep their jobs in the factory.  Even though one daughter is legally underage for this line of work, she proves to be the most efficient, productive, and toughest worker of them all.  There is one poignant story where the wife of the factory’s most skilled machinist, Master Luo, heads back to her home province of Guizhou with her recently born son, where she is mugged by a gang of men who pretend to offer her a ride in a van only to take her to a remote spot, drug her and steal all her belongings.  Only the presence of her baby boy saves her from being killed on the spot, but she also manages to rescue her most prized possession, a digital camera. 

Peter skillfully and sensitively attunes us to the dire plight of these uneducated and unskilled workers, who are drifting into cities and towns in the coastal region of China by the millions to make a living, better their situations, or just survive.  But his stories of Wei Ziqi, the Sancha villager, and Master Luo, the skilled machinist in the bra factory, also reveal how those who do possess the advantages of education and ingenuity are able to parlay themselves into higher status positions.  At the end of the book, in a recap of the main characters of that section and what happened to them since he left the town, he reveals that Master Luo has become the boss of his own factory enterprise, a fitting ending for a man who had spent years negotiating with bosses who would often refuse to pay his salary for fear that he would leave them for another job.

The weakest part of the book in my opinion is the first section.  Like the story that it covers, a succession of trips in rented cars to remote sections of Great Wall, it is more rambling and less coherent than the others.  The main character in this section is Peter himself.  We discover that in order to fuel his long, dusty journeys into China’s western regions, he subsists on a diet of canned soda pop and candy bars, and that he goes without bathing for days at a time.  He also relates a lot of statistical information about the growth of the auto industry in China, which gets a bit dull over time.  His growing knowledge of the Great Wall peppers this section, but while he acknowledges his reliance on David Spindler’s incredibly meticulous research on Great Wall history at the end of the book, he gives him little credit in this section, and I wish he had described his own journey on the Great Wall with David.  His hike with David is recounted in the aforementioned New Yorker article he wrote but only mentioned in the acknowledgement at the end of the book.  But I admit that in this respect I do bear a minor personal grudge here, since after interviewing me for an hour, the only statement of mine that Peter ultimately included in that article was this one:  When asked by Peter if the Chinese view David, who stands two meters high, as a “monster,” I replied, “Sure, but aren’t we all?” meaning that as foreigners in China we are all prone to being regarded by most Chinese in the same way that we might react to seeing green talking aliens from Mars.  This was the only quote of mine that made it into his article, and it certainly wasn’t the best thing that I had to say about my experiences with David on the Great Wall.  But such is the world of journalism. 

In sum, while I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the first section, sections 2 and 3 more than make up for it, and altogether in my opinion this is by far the best book that Peter Hessler has written about China.  I recommend it to both teachers of China and to lay readers, who no matter what their experiences with the country have been, whether as Chinese or as foreigners, will still emerge with fresh insights into the country and people.  Word has it that Peter is moving on to other countries and world regions, which will certainly be their gain and our sad loss.