Thursday, December 15, 2011

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory

by Peter Hessler

The author, a journalist and old China hand, describes life on the road in a rural China that is rapidly developing, with new roads and factories being built every year.  At 420 pages, the book’s scope is much wider than the simple comedy of renting a car in a heavily bureaucratic society that nevertheless has a vibrant under-the-table economy, or the perils of driving in a country where most people behind the wheel have had very little training and eschew wipers and lights.  Hessler rents a house in a village, and describes one family's gradual rise to political and financial success.  He follows the Great Wall, visits an artist community in Lishui, and follows the creation, rise, and struggles of a bra-ring factory, and the workers who live in it.

So the title is only partially descriptive of the book, but so what? Hessler’s breadth of knowledge, empathy, sense for the human side of the story, and clear, witty writing make all his subjects interesting.  He unfolds the drama of an ill village boy, and the disjunct between his own Western eyes and China’s traditional medicine coupled with xenophobic doctors.  He shows the great cultural divide between East and West (citing “group impulse” twice to explain some Chinese behavior), but also zeroes in on the emotions and frustrations that all humanity share.  He keeps encountering a sort of superficiality in Chinese economic life, where appearance is more important than content, and where bribes and lies are a part of life, but explores the deeper currents that motivate the players.  Hessler is a gifted reporter of cultures, and this is a thoroughly fascinating look at a modern but still changing China.  

four stars

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