Country Driving—A Chinese Road Trip: Peter Hessler

Published by Cannongate and Harper

Peter Hessler is an American journalist who speaks fluent Chinese and was The New Yorker’s correspondent in China from 2000 to 2007. While he was there, he got himself a Chinese driving licence and travelled through the country.

Hessler applied for a Chinese driving licence in 2001. Acquiring the licence means sitting for a written driving test which consists of multiple-choice questions such as:

“223. If you come to a road that has been flooded, you should
a) accelerate, so the motor doesn’t flood.
b) stop, examine the water to make sure it’s shallow, and drive across slowly.
c) find a pedestrian and make him cross ahead of you.

352. 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.”

The book is divided into three parts: The Wall, The Village and The Factory. Each takes the reader a little deeper into the country.

For his trips, Hessler hires cars (including a Chinese-made Jeep Cherokee) from Capital Motors, a car-rental firm capitalizing on the car boom in China. The car boom reminds Hessler of the US in the 1950s, when cars represented mobility, freedom and prosperity, with new roads were built across the country to accommodate them.

Hessler starts out by following the Great Wall and goes up to Inner Mongolia, visiting the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan on the way. There is a tomb but no body: it is probably buried in independent Mongolia, something that the Chinese don’t talk about.  

The next section of the book takes in the life of a village. Hessler rents a small house in a village, Sancha, north of Beijing. He goes there regularly, and becomes a part of the village. He becomes friendly with one of the men, Wei Ziqi. Through his portrait of Wei Ziqi and his depiction of village life, Hessler traces the changes taking place in China. Wei Ziqi starts off as a peasant, but he is ambitious, and becomes a bit of an entrepreneur, making forays to the nearby town. Eventually he joins the Communist Party and runs for office in the village.

The village also changes. Initially, there are no other outsiders, but eventually tourists from Beijing start to trickle in, looking for a getaway. Wei Ziqi and his wife Cao Chunmei take advantage of this and start a little restaurant, which becomes popular. But this means that Cao Chunmei is does all the hard work—the cooking and washing—while her husband serves and chats to the guests.

The final section takes Hessler to an early industrial development site, to a small factory that makes the small rings used in bras. He gives the reader a real sense of the way factories work: the negotiations to build the factory, hiring staff, and the ups and downs of finding buyers for the product.

This book takes the reader to the real China—the China outside Beijing. Hessler’s fluent Chinese means that he can have meaningful conversations with people. He picks up hitchhikers, and is invited to weddings and funerals that he passes. Weddings can be a bit of a problem: he is plied with alcohol. His hosts aren’t convinced by his excuse that he is driving: they suggest that with his years of experience, he could just drive very slowly. Besides “the police would be so shocked to see a foreigner behind the wheel that they’d never think of arresting me for driving while intoxicated”.

There are a lot of interesting details here. Hessler finds villagers digging holes to plant trees in the countryside for a World Bank project. But there are no trees: the officers have embezzled the money. The workers are paid in instant noodles, five bowls a day. If they don’t do the work, they don’t get government relief. World Bank officials come by in their cars to inspect the work, but the workers are not allowed to talk to them.

My favourite part is the section set in the village. Hessler’s descriptions bring the people to life: their dreams and frustrations and manoeuvring. He paints a picture of a rapidly changing China, and I felt I learned a lot about the lives and aspirations of the ordinary Chinese.

5 thoughts on “Country Driving—A Chinese Road Trip: Peter Hessler

  1. Pingback: The Best Books of 2021 – Talking About Books

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