Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years On The Yangtze chronicled his stint teaching English to Chinese students in Fuling when he was a Peace Corp volunteer. With Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present he took a long, hard look at China’s move from its ancient past to its modern, frenetic, Almost-A-Capitalist-Country status. In his newest book, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, Hessler puts us in the passenger seat as he does something very few Americans are likely to experience: Motoring around China.
William Least Heat-Moon took us on a nostalgic ride down America’s back roads in Blue Highways: A Journey into America. But even if we hadn’t driven on the very same routes he did, those of us who grew up in the days before the “I-roads” of the federal interstate highway system began to bypass much of small-town America knew what it was like to travel endless miles across the country on two-lane roads, eating in Mom & Pop diners, and filling-up at Texaco where you could Trust Your Car To The Man Who Wears The Star.
But the notion of renting a car and venturing across China seems, well, just plain alien. We know it’s a huge country on the far side of the Pacific Ocean. We know that a fair number of tourists from the U.S. travel there every year, and that Shanghai put on a big “expo” this year to attract visitors from around the globe. But it’s one thing to see that land out of a plane, train, or tour bus window; navigating your way around China by auto is an entirely different matter.
Off (To) The Wall
Our “ultimate, virtual road-trip” with Hessler begins in the summer of 2001 when he gets his Chinese driver’s license after taking a 50-yard long “driving test.” Then he sets out on “The Great Wall Drive” to see the monumental national icon which U.S. President Richard Nixon visited three decades earlier. Along the way we learn that the Chinese once considered turning the Great Wall into a highway, not just a destination for a “political photo op”, and that academics both in China and elsewhere have paid little attention to what is actually a conglomeration of defensive edifices constructed over a couple thousand years.
Hessler relates the rather frightening modus operandi of the horn-honking Chinese drivers: “They rarely use turn signals. Instead they rely on automobile body language…[T]hey convert sidewalks into passing lanes, and they’ll approach a round-about in reverse direction if it seems faster.” How a driver would behave behind the wheel depended on what kind of car he or she was driving. There is a “mandatory retirement age” (70) for passenger car drivers and Hessler says that “[o]nly the young have the fortitude for Chinese traffic, and time seems to accelerate once you begin to drive.” At the Inner Mongolia city of Baotou where he never saw a “live cop”, Hessler notes that “in hopes of managing the new traffic in the way that scarecrows manage birds, the government had erected fiberglass statutes of police officers…in full uniform, complete with necktie, visored cap, and white gloves.”
It Takes A Village
Reading about the vagaries of renting cars, using road atlases and maps, and the birth of the China’s home-grown automobile industry is fascinating, but Country Driving isn’t just a car-centric description of the world’s most populous nation. The book shines a big headlight beam on the evolution of Chinese society from largely rural-agrarian to migrant-urban-industrial.
In the second of the three main sections of the book, Hessler recounts his search for a home-away-from-home in the countryside near Beijing. Eventually he and an American friend, Mimi Kuo-Deemer, buy a house together in the village of Sancha, a two hour drive from China’s capital city.
Hessler became a close pal with Wei Ziqi, who quit school after the 10th grade, worked in factories, but returned home to become an entrepreneur and, later on, a member of the Communist Party. He and Mimi get to know other residents of Sancha, including a man they both call “The Shit Kicker”, a mentally disabled fellow referred to by his family and others as “The Idiot”, and the woman who wielded the most power—the local Communist Party Secretary.
The two Americans intercede with medical authorities when Wei Ziqi’s son becomes seriously ill and are probably responsible for saving his life. They also witnessed how Sancha changed after Chinese tourists from Beijing “found” the place.
To research the last third of the book, “The Factory”, Hessler spent time in the cities of Wenzhou and Lishui in the south of China where he followed newly-built highways to places where manufacturing facilities were cropping up in former farmlands. There he met Boss Gao and Boss Wang who decided to go into the bra-ring (the little thing that lets women adjust the straps on their “uplifting” lingerie) business, Master Luo (who was responsible for putting together and maintaining “The Machine” which made the rings), and the workers who had come from far away to toil under their supervision.
In the Economic Development Zone there was also a plant that made “Jane Eyre Series” electric switches and outlet covers and factories that turned out “pleather” (plastic leather). Shops sprung up nearby, selling cell phones to migrant workers wanting to “reconnect” with family back home, and stocking basic foodstuffs those workers could afford to buy to fill their stomachs.
The telecom companies put on free evening entertainment for the factory workers. Competing with these big-time outfits were traveling shows like the Red Star Acrobatic and Artistic Troupe with two women performers, wearing only bras, panties, and bobby socks, shimmying to blaring music, and drawing in a crowd of weary men who forked over about an hour’s wages to see that tawdry spectacle.
On one flight from Beijing, Hessler met a dead-ringer for the late Chairman Mao: An actor whose attire and face-makeup caused the Chinese passengers on the plane to, in Hessler’s words, do “a double take: Mao Zedong, sitting in economy class, seat 25E.”
Eventually the bra-ring factory closed. Boss Gao and Boss Wang decided to move the business to another town. When he returned to the empty plant, Hessler found discarded bra-rings strewn everywhere. A slogan that a former worker had written on the dormitory wall shouted out “A PERSON CAN BECOME SUCCESSFUL ANYWHERE; I SWEAR I WILL NOT RETURN HOME UNTIL I AM FAMOUS.” As the book ends, Hessler says: “But there wasn’t a single human sound, and for half an hour I stood alone, reading the walls of the empty factory.”
(Purchase Peter Hessler’s books through your local independent bookstore or through the Tales Told From The Road bookstore on Amazon.com. For more about Peter Hessler, to go Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding Website. Dick Jordan learned to speak Chinese Mandarin over forty years ago and has been thinking about China ever since; read his blog posts “China On My Mind” and Shanghaied Again: China Back On My Mind).