The book, Peter Hessler’s “Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip,” published in 2010, covers the American journalist’s rental-car exploration of three rural regions of China between 2001 and 2009. China was building expressways into those regions, and wherever those expressways went, people’s lives were irrevocably changed. People whose families had been peasants for generations overnight became factory workers and entrepreneurs.
Hessler traveled the length of the Great Wall (which, by the way, is really not a single “wall” but a collection of walls built in the vicinity of China’s northern border).
He rented a house as a writer’s getaway in Sancha, a village north of Beijing that was dying when he first went there but rebounded as other Beijingers acquired cars and began to fancy country retreats.
And he became a frequent visitor to Lishui, a town in southern China past which the government was building the Jinliwen Expressway and where it had accordingly blasted away mountain tops to establish an economic development zone. As elsewhere, Hessler found people in Lishui who were willing to let him into their lives—in particular, the bosses and workers at a factory set up to manufacture two things: underwires for brassieres and the rings for adjusting their straps.
“Country Driving” is so rich in the details of people’s lives that after reading it, I felt I had some glimmer of understanding of what it might be like to live a life so different from my own—and so much more challenging.
The only fault I could find with the book was that it ended, while the lives of the people Hessler wrote about went on.
I wonder and worry about those people—most especially Wei Jia, the boy whose photo is on the cover of the book. He was 5 in 2002 when Hessler first started going to Sancha and became friends with his family; he called Hessler “Mogui Shushu” or “Uncle Monster,” and Hessler was very much a part of his life even after he went off to school in a nearby town.
Wei Jia, about whose childhood I know so much, would be a teenager now. Has he read Hessler’s book? Did being written about in a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” change his life? What’s he doing? What and how are his parents doing? My online searches have come up empty.
My friend Connie insisted upon lending me “Country Driving” shortly before I went to China in October 2012. I resisted, because I knew I’d never get it read before I left, and I don’t like having possession of things that I have to remember to return. But her insistance was stronger than my resistance, and I accepted the book—and more than a year after it started sitting on my coffee table, I began reading it, a few pages at a time, right before I went to sleep at night.
Connie doesn’t like my saying that she insisted on lending me the book, but really, she did—and I am extremely grateful.
In fact, I think everyone with the good sense to be interested in China should read “Country Driving”—and no one more so than my son and daughter-in-law, who lived in Taiwan and traveled in mainland China for a couple of years in the mid-‘90s.
Indeed, I have purchased a copy of “Country Driving” and will give it to them next time I see them, gifting being my form of insisting….