On top of everything else, we now import our human-interest stories from China. Chinese news of the weird—like the recent story of the Shenzhen policeman who drank himself to death at a banquet and was honored for falling in the line of duty—makes US headlines. But longtime New Yorker writer Peter Hessler has always balanced his observations of China's peculiarities with a sense that the Western world is pretty strange, too. In Country Driving, his latest travelogue, he writes, "Everything depends on perspective," a platitude that he reinvigorates by viewing China's modernization from unexpected angles.
In the first of the book's three parts, Hessler recounts two technically illegal driving expeditions along the Great Wall ("forgiveness comes easier than permission" in China, he notes). The route suggests sallies into the deep history of China's interaction with foreigners, and the mode of travel is the perfect vehicle for describing the country’s current moment. Driving is not yet common in China; Hessler is often alone on brand-new expressways, and when he visits a Beijing driving school, the students' first exercise is to practice opening and closing car doors. Still, the highway is China's frontier of social change, where car ownership telegraphs social rank, billboards command "Do Not Get Tired," and migrant workers hitch rides back home to visit their parents.
Most of the people Hessler writes about are part of what he calls the "largest migration in human history," from China's countryside to its cities. They are travelers in a foreign land as much as he is—still villagers at heart. Hessler captures the effects of this movement when he rents a shack in Sancha, a village near Beijing that, after it younger generations heads to urban locales, seems to be close to extinction.
Sancha is supposed to be a retreat for solitary writing, but it becomes a site of hard-won friendship and unexpectedly intimate reporting. The author befriends a couple that, idiosyncratically, moved to Sancha from the city. Meanwhile, a new road to the town transforms the backwater into a rustic vacation destination for Beijing yuppies. This affords Hessler a village-eye view of the outside world re-invading the countryside. His interviews up to this point have shown his skill at navigating the public sphere, but one wonders whether he will penetrate the private. In Sancha, he does, achieving an insight into the personal turmoil of villagers, who are quite used to hardship, but struggle with "success."
In the final part of the book, "The Factory," Hessler recounts his experiences in Lishui, the economic-development zone of southern Zhejiang province. Places like Lishui are China's link with the global economy, where factories churn out buttons, bra straps, and synthetic leather, not to mention a brand of light switch called Jane Eyre. To call it a "Wild West" wouldn't do it justice, since, as Hessler notes, even an old American boomtown had a court, church, bank, and newspaper; in Lishui, factories open and fail before a major road is built (or police arrive). It might seem a bleak scene of dehumanizing mass production, but through Hessler’s eyes and ears we can feel the sometimes startling determination and resilience of its ambitious, often very young workers.
A Lishui factory where workers mass-produce paintings of Venice and other European cities, with no idea of what they're depicting, is almost too perfect as a metaphor for China’s perspective on the outside world, but it's one that Hessler doesn't press too hard. Indeed, earlier in the book, he writes that the Great Wall has "become such an easy metaphor that people are more inclined to interpret than they are to research" it. Hessler doesn’t interpret China, rather, he lets his one-on-one experiences suggest its multitude of possibilities. The result is a book about China that the Chinese could learn from at least as much as Americans—were they were permitted to read it.
Jonathan Taylor has written for publications including The Believer, Stop Smiling, the Village Voice, The Nation and Time Out New York.