Books: a Chinese road trip

Kevin Rushby enjoys a white-knuckle ride along China’s highways and byways -- and into sometimes-surreal places -- guided by Peter Hessler and his warm-hearted Country Driving.

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip
Peter Hessler
Canongate Books, 2010

Imagine a place where almost every driver is a first-timer. Not only that, but the roads are all new, uncharted and often unfinished, while the rules of the road are inconsistent, disorganised and universally ignored. The traffic policemen in some towns are only glass fibre models placed on the curb, and even the driving schools haven’t got a clue – instructors themselves are often scarcely capable. This is modern China, a country that in 2009, for the first time, bought more new cars than the United States. Most went to novice drivers whose parents had been proud to own a bicycle.

Peter Hessler, the New Yorker magazine’s man in Beijing, has been an invaluable guide to modern China in his last two books, River Town and Oracle Bones. In Country Driving, which has just been long-listed for the Samuel Johnson prize, he continues to take us to places that others never seem to reach. He begins in 2001 at the moment he receives a Chinese driver’s licence. Car hire is in its infancy, as are Chinese driving standards: dents, scratches and breakages are daily occurrences. When Hessler hits a dog, Mr Wang at the rental office asks if he ate it.

Part of the delight of this tale lies in the fact that Hessler is a native of the United States, that quintessential motoring country with time-honoured ways of doing all things automotive, including, of course, the road trip. The Chinese, on the other hand, may derive some inspiration from images of Yankee expressways, but in everything else their methods are marvellously, insanely different. They certainly have never encountered a foreigner doing a road trip. Hitch-hikers chat with him for hours, then tentatively inquire, “You are not from our China, are you?”

Hessler may not be from “our China”, but he is an extraordinarily sympathetic and patient outsider, albeit one whose motoring expectations are constantly confounded. Mr Wang’s car-hire business, for example, has mysteries that he struggles to decipher: a minor crash leads to him being asked to pose as a driver for the “US-China Tractor Association”. It is untrue, but somehow it keeps everyone happy – at least until the next, inevitable, collision. Roadside signs only add to the surrealism: “A man with knowledge turns into three heads and six arms.”

Undeterred by all the contradictions and dilemmas, Hessler stays moving. He is nothing if not tenacious, talking his way out of police roadblocks, always checking his facts and pursuing leads. On one occasion he stops to pick up litter falling from a truck in Tianjin, only to find it is a mortgage application to the Woolwich Building Society in the United Kingdom. Being the writer he is, Hessler contacts the Woolwich to ask how their paperwork came to be there.

In fact, of course, almost everything ends up in China at some point in its life, as either a new product or a recycled one. Down in the mountainous coastal region of Zhejiang, Hessler finds a newly industrialised area, one scarcely heard of by the outside world, where single cities produce single products. Wenzhou, for example, produces 70% of the world’s cigarette lighters; Yiwu makes a quarter of all plastic straws; and Datang knits an astonishing one third of all our socks. Entrepreneurial locals, all of them from former farming families, many without much formal education, have unlocked the secret of making money.

Hessler happens upon Boss Wang, planning his new factory on the back of an envelope in an hour. His product is the tiny rings that appear on every bra strap. His machines are built by an illiterate technician who worked on a German original, memorised the design, then had a copy constructed. His workers are largely young women of formidable stamina and ambition. Hessler hangs around with their families, eats with them, visits their simple shacks, sees how absent the government is – except when extorting a little cash from the boss. These later chapters read like a set text for development studies, all the more valuable because this is a world that few outsiders have seen, let alone investigated.

The triumph of this warm-hearted book, however, comes in the middle. On one of his rent-a-car forays from Beijing, Hessler happens on a village called Sancha, a rundown abandoned sort of place close to the Great Wall. Most younger inhabitants in Sancha have skedaddled – fled — to the city, leaving the opportunity for Hessler to rent a house. Slowly he is accepted by the remaining residents and, as time goes by, we are privileged to observe the changes that are engulfing Chinese society, even in this backwater (isolated place). The village is unexpectedly discovered by a new set of people: Beijingers with motors in search of picnics and days out. Restaurants are opened. Financial success comes to a few. Hessler’s adopted family benefit – at least materially.

Happiness, however, is harder to come by than money, and Hessler observes people’s sadness and thwarted ambitions. He does not often intervene, but when he does, the story moves up an emotional gear. His relationship with the family’s single son, Wei Jia, brings out the best, alternating with dizzying speed from comedy to tragedy. Having arrived in the village as a weird, unprecedented novelty and been dubbed “Monster” by the child, he ends up as a trusted family member and so, naturally, becomes “Uncle Monster” – and finds himself helping to save the boy’s life in a medical emergency.

The book is full of wonderful close observations, such as the hitch-hiker with a “crooked moustache that crossed his lip like a calligrapher’s mistake”. The broader picture is of a culture being simultaneously destroyed and created before our eyes. The decor in Wei Jia’s family living room in Sancha becomes a symbol of the cultural and social mayhem. Progress has brought a motley accumulation of ornaments: a pig’s fetus in a bottle, two Ming-dynasty cannons rescued from the Great Wall, a Buddhist shrine, two bottles of Johnnie Walker whisky, and pictures of a People’s Army tank opposite one of the Denver skyline. The author looks around and reflects: “How could anybody hope to make sense of this world?”

We can only be grateful that we have Peter Hessler to try.


Kevin Rushby’s Paradise: A History of the Idea That Rules the World is published by Robinson.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2010