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Chinese Wheels

In China, it’s not such a terrible thing to be lost, because nobody else knows exactly where they’re going, either.” This sentiment is at the heart of Peter Hessler’s valuable account of his long road trip across contemporary China. Hessler got his Chinese driver’s license in 2001, at a time when nearly a thousand new drivers registered daily (in Beijing alone) and brand-new roads laced through the country. The Chinese people were in unchartered territory, but proved to be remarkably skilled at improvisation.

Country Driving is divided into three separate parts, all tied to the theme of China’s auto boom. In the first section, Hessler rents a car and sets out on a seven thousand-mile journey to follow the Great Wall from the East China Sea to the Tibetan Plateau. He relies on imperfect “Sinomaps” and the kindness of strangers. “[F]ew Chinese had traveled,” Hessler observes, “[e]ven fewer had driven. They knew little about roads, even around their homes, and they were terrible at explaining how to get someplace.”

Punctuated with historical tidbits about the Great Wall, these early pages of Hessler’s book serve as an introduction to China’s new driving culture. Driving school is a particularly fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants operation. Hessler visits a course in the southeastern city of Lishui, where driving students learn to drink beer during lunch, honk for no good reason, or become obsessed with passing other vehicles. One student saw no reason to check the rearview or side mirrors.

Hessler includes questions from the Chinese driver’s license test to illustrate an automobile culture in which nothing is taken for granted:

If another motorist stops you to ask directions, you should

a)      not tell him.

b)      reply patiently and accurately.

c)      tell him the wrong way. 

In the second section of the book Hessler rents a home in Sancha, a northern farming village that is transformed when a new paved road brings an influx of tourism. He explores these changes through the personal experiences of the Wei family. Hessler develops a close bond with Wei Ziqi, his wife Chao Chunmei, and especially their young son Wei Jia, who falls victim to illness and substandard health care.

Sancha’s development has a different effect on each Wei. Wei Ziqi starts a restaurant and guesthouse to cater to outside visitors. He joins the Communist Party and gets involved in local politics, growing more distant from his family. His wife turns to Buddhism. Wei Jia becomes an increasing consumer of television and junk food, and grows round and soft as a result. What they all share is a feeling of confusion, even emptiness. “Many people were searching; they longed for some kind of religious or philosophical truth, and they wanted a meaningful connection with others. They had trouble applying past experiences to current challenges,” Hessler observes. Keeping your bearings, he writes, is “all but impossible” in a country that is changing so fast.

Finally, Hessler offers a portrait of a factory town in Lishui, and the migrants who scramble to find work there. Hessler spends most of his time in a factory that manufactures the small rings that hold brassieres together. These rings are produced by a makeshift, not always reliable machine whose originally European machinery was surreptitiously copied by a wiley Chinese fellow named Liu Hongwei.

Hessler describes a world in which people happily cut corners to get what they want. Young women lie about their ages to get jobs, pleather factories emit toxic fumes, and employers cheat workers out of cash. Quality is never king. “No matter what you make, you’re going to have competition,” a man named Boss Gao tells the author. “So now it’s not the product that counts. It’s the volume.” And the race for volume is lightning fast. Hessler describes three men designing a new factory: “All told, they had mapped out a 21,000-square-foot factory, from bottom to top, in one hour and four minutes.”

Country Driving depicts China’s development as determined and unsentimental. People cast aside factories, villages, and even families in their pursuit of the new. The only vaguely nostalgic character is Hessler himself, who occasionally marvels at the emptiness around him. “There was something poignant about driving through the dying villages,” Hessler writes of his journey along the Great Wall. “These were the last glimpses–the end of small towns and rural childhoods . . . [a]nd rural traditions of honesty and trust wouldn’t survive the shift to city life.”

This is one of the rare moments when Hessler’s emotions bleed into the writing. He mostly offers anthropological observations and invites readers to draw their own conclusions. His attention to detail is impressive, and certain passages resemble photographs that capture a fleeting moment in time. China has not always been so effective at historical preservation, so future generations of Chinese may thank Hessler for his efforts.

Country Driving is defiantly anti-sound bite: China is not a strategic threat, rival or ally, nor is it an economic juggernaut or a bubble waiting to burst. Hessler is more animated by the journey than the destination, and this will disappoint those looking for some new take on the “China story.”

But Hessler effectively demonstrates that there are in fact millions of “China stories” – and they are all hurtling into the future without a roadmap. He best illustrates the impossibility of a single China story with a description of the household possessions in the main room of the Wei family home. There is a “medicinal” boar fetus in a jar of alcohol displayed near a small Buddhist shrine. Nearby are two bottles of Johnnie Walker, along with two Ming-dynasty signal cannons from the Great Wall. An image of the Denver skyline faces that of a People’s Liberation Army tank.

Hessler writes, “Sometimes, when we sat down for dinner at the family table, I looked around and thought: How could anybody hope to make sense of this world?”

Emily Parker is a senior fellow at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. She is a former staff editor at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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