on 4 April 2010
This book is based upon a car journey, but more important it reflects on how there got to be roads and cars in China. Its therefore a tale about modernisation and how people cope with it.
They cope with it remarkably well, given the circumstances and one conclusion might be: everything is fine. Of course, it isn't and the list of problems is huge: exploitation of workers, pollution, corruption, destruction of a way of life, destruction of heritage etc. It "works" because farmers are incredibly resourceful, the aspiration for wealth is high, disputes are absorbed (rather than dealt with) and, most important, the Communist Party retains absolute power.
Don't be mislead by the title. This book delves deeply into the politics, economics and society of China today.
on 6 January 2011
I think Hessler is the best kind of journalist, and the opposite of a sensationalist. He just hangs out with local people and conveys their struggles to completely change things. He must be a friendly guy to be allowed such access to people's family and business lives. They let him listen in as they conduct job interviews, discipline kids, handle tax inspectors, plan factories from the ground up, or have dinner with their families.
Part of the book concerns road trips. But most of it is about getting to know groups of ordinary people. Their intense pragmatism and determination to improvise give Hessler his opening to learn. We see how development areas are funded, how factories are thrown together, how police buy shares in speed traps, and traveling circus shows operate outside the law. Mostly, Hessler shows us common people taking huge risks, flying by the seats of their pants, making mistakes that are both dangerous and hilarious, clawing their way to a slightly better day.
--author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization
This is the third, latest, and perhaps the best, of Peter Hessler's books on China. River Town started his mission to China with an account of his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in a small town on the Yangtse. Oracle Bones hung its narrative around some scholarly and antiquarian research. Now here he is, a decade or more older and having that much more knowledge and experience of China, with three more stories to tell, only one of them about country driving.
There is not much autobiography left in this book. It is all about China and those Chinese that he got to know in various phases of his long stay there. Of the three `books' as he calls the three sections, the first is the country driving mini-saga. Peter had hired a car in Beijing on the understanding that he would drive it within the metropolitan area. Somehow, he got as far with it as Mongolia, and the rest of us are the gainers from that. One lifetime, nine lifetimes, would not be enough to experience China anywhere near comprehensively, but we can get a long way by proxy through the eyes and tongue of a guide as gifted as this. He is not pursuing any rigid agenda, just curious to find out more and knowing to expect the unexpected. Chinese drivers, and Chinese roads, have different characteristics depending on where you are, although it all still feels like a bit of a novelty even in the capital, I can say from my own experience. Even as a pedestrian in Beijing you need to be careful what might be coming round any corner, regardless of the traffic lights. Out in the desert provinces a lot of the tracks can only be called roads by way of courtesy, but what seems to be the same everywhere is the written driving test with its multi-choice questions. Those who already know Peter Hessler's deadpan and understated sense of humour will know what to expect from his selections, always with an undercurrent of sympathy and free from mockery. As for the traffic cops and the various local by-laws and their enforcers, Peter has had to find out about them from practical experience.
In the southern city of Wenzhou Peter went to look at some of the new business enterprises, and perhaps from what I just said about his sense of humour you will understand why he focuses on a business manufacturing brassiere-rings, these being part of that garment's architecture in case you, like myself, had never noticed. A sense of detachment goes with Peter's writing style because simply it is part of the man himself. However it is downright astonishing just how freely people feel able to talk to him and live their lives in front of him, and we meet some interesting new acquaintances here. Right at the end, after an absence, he finds the business gone like Snow upon the Desert's dusty Face, and there is a real sense of sadness for The Human Condition about the way he tells it. In the country driving `book' he bypassed Dunhuang in Gansu, and I was left wondering what might have happened to the Dunhuang Luminous Cup Company whose fine frontage I saw and photographed in 2009. At least I understand what brassiere-rings are when someone tells me.
The central `book', slightly the longest, may make the biggest impression on you, but let me say that I speak from personal knowledge of the main parties concerned. That, given the narrative (which I also knew beforehand), disqualifies me as a detached commentator, and probably no bad thing either. Sancha is a hamlet in the mountains about 40 miles north of Beijing, the nearest town being Huairou. The Great Wall (unrestored at this point) lurks in the thick woodland right above Sancha, climbing to about 3000 feet. The enterprising Wei Ziqi and his hardworking wife Cao Chunmei have set up the Great Wall Hostel, and apart from the modest charges and Cao Chunmei's excellent cooking, this is where one can experience village life without enduring the most primitive shortcomings - e.g. my room had a flush toilet. The main narrative here relates how the couple's son Wei Jia was critically ill and how among them, with Peter as the driver in more senses than one, they improvised desperately to keep him alive. The setting makes this story unforgettable, and it is my great pleasure to inform readers that in 2009 I encountered a hale and lively Wei Jia, aged 12 and speaking a bit of English. I also encountered the Idiot, and from Peter's account I understand what brought him to the condition in which he has to live out his life. If you ever go there, you should now find a lively little business with real individuality, some very interesting and varied company, genuine friendliness, and of course The Wall for you to climb. I don't yet know the significance of the red armband that Wei Ziqi wore twice when I was there, once when he went to investigate a broken-down van, and once when he very kindly but quite unnecessarily came to meet me on my return from the Wall carrying a waterproof in case I got soaked in a small storm passing overhead. I can see it all like yesterday, with the workmen sitting along the low wall smoking and chatting, and the universal interest aroused when I handed over a few foreign coins that I had, explaining the British denominations but unable to get across where the United Arab Emirates might be.
I wish them all good fortune, and I hope I helped Cao Chunmei in her attempt to rise above a woman's condition of village life through showing her how to pronounce English from the primer that I did not know she had.
on 8 June 2010
Peter Hessler wrote an excellent book about the hazards of driving in China and while doing so he became a close observer about the (micro)-economic development in China. I found his book hilarious because the many anecdotes he tells should make you laugh out loud. What I found terrifying about this tale are the author's observations about economic life in China. This book should be compulsory reading for a lot of people in the west, if only to understand what is really going on in China.
Part One of the Book deals with Hessler's road trip along the wall and back. Given that foreigners are not supposed to leave Beijing Municipality, this is quite a feat. I couldn't decide whether the many questions he quotes from the Chinese driving exam are for real or if he made them up. I have no idea if it is allowed to bring small amounts of explosive material into a taxi but I would instinctively answer "Yes". Hessler tells many stories about the Chinese style of driving and if you have been to China none of these will be unfamiliar to you. I read somewhere that Peter Hessler was terrified of the Chinese style of driving. I would wager that the Americans were probably more terrified of him, when he re-joined traffic in the US.
In Part Two, Hessler rents a house in some village north of Beijing and it is incredible to observe through his eyes how the place develops with his "Family" developing from a level of poverty hardly any of us would be able to imagine into "the entrepreneur" of the village. One might be inclined to believe that this development was exceptional but as you read on it becomes quite clear that this sort of thing is happening all over China. In Part Three, Hessler writes about a development zone in Southern Zhejiang in general and about a bra ring production plant in particular. And again it is incredible to observe how this development takes place.
All told I found this book a real page turner and I can only highly recommend it.
on 26 July 2010
For those who have lived and worked in China in the Noughties (like myself), the book is an excellent reminder of a lot of the social changes that have happened in the last ten years. Peter's journeys, and encounters with ordinary Chinese people will be shared by many who have lived in China at some point in this decade. Overall, well written and edited accounts of Peter's trips around this vast country - I enjoyed reading the book and finished it in 6 days.
For those not familiar with China, the book is an excellent insight into how the modern world is developing and changing peoples' lives in countries such as China and what is most noticeable through reading the book, for me, is the impression of the pressures and tribulations many Chinese people have to earn enough money in modern China. A very compassionate book in this regard.
on 1 December 2015
Great book ! Saw reference to it as one of good reads on China in one of the articles (Forbes?). It is well written and offers a good sense of humor, even when it sometimes describes sad things. The author spent a lot of years in China, speaks Chinese and his on "field" experience is very impressive. As a Russian I also recognize a lot of similarities in how the life is arranged and what motivates people in both China and Russia. Also how the people treat the state and how the state treats them. Alas, both countries share recent totalitarian past, from which they are still trying to break free.
I also liked this diverse description of life. From traffic to hospitals, to schools and then to factories.
Well done and congratulations to the author !