Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip

( 55 )

Overview

One of The Economist's Best Books of the Year

From the bestselling author of Oracle Bones and River Town comes the final book in his award-winning trilogy on the human side of the economic revolution in China.

Peter Hessler, whom the Wall Street Journal calls "one of the Western world's most thoughtful writers on modern China," deftly illuminates the vast, shifting landscape of a traditionally rural nation that, having once built walls ...

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Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory

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Overview

One of The Economist's Best Books of the Year

From the bestselling author of Oracle Bones and River Town comes the final book in his award-winning trilogy on the human side of the economic revolution in China.

Peter Hessler, whom the Wall Street Journal calls "one of the Western world's most thoughtful writers on modern China," deftly illuminates the vast, shifting landscape of a traditionally rural nation that, having once built walls against foreigners, is now building roads and factory towns that look to the outside world.

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Editorial Reviews

Time Magazine
"The best yet from Peter Hessler, whose two earlier books, River Town and Oracle Bones, were exemplary forays into the genre. . . . Told with his characteristic blend of empathy, insight, and self-deprecating humor."
Dwight Garner
“Delightful. . . . Epic. . . . The reporting in Country Driving is impressive in its scope. . . . Hessler delivers eloquent disquisitions on everything from how to buy a used car in China to the history of the Mongol conquest.”
Jonathan Yardley
“Exceptionally moving. . . . Hilarious. . . . An absolutely terrific book, at once highly entertaining and deeply instructive. . . . Country Driving is a wonderful book about China that also happens to be a terrific book about the human race.
Time
“The best yet from Peter Hessler, whose two earlier books, River Town and Oracle Bones, were exemplary forays into the genre. . . . Told with his characteristic blend of empathy, insight, and self-deprecating humor.”
The Economist
“Extraordinary. . . . Country Driving, like Hessler’s previous works, tells the story of China’s transformation powerfully and poetically.”
The Wall Street Journal
“Hessler’s genius has always been in his wry commentary and ability to transcribe the rhythms of his environment onto the page. . . . From this cast of thousands emerges a picture of great hopes tinged with sadness at what is being cast aside without second thought.”
The Boston Globe
“Hessler is a keen observer of mind-catching details and an engaging storyteller. . . . Full of exotic detail, solid reporting, and ironic observation, Country Driving offers a personal snapshot of the world’s second superpower hurtling through the 21st century.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Lively. . . . Engaging. . . . Hessler sets out with some suspect maps and a great deal of bravado. . . . He shows the effects China’s ever expanding network of roads exerts on individual lives. . . . Hessler [has an] irresistible urge to follow a story.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“A fascinating road trip through a land in transition. . . . Hessler’s description of China’s new drivers is hilarious. . . . Country Driving tells us as much about contemporary China even when Hessler is not on the road.”
Bloomberg News
“Peter Hessler, a modern Marco Polo crossing China in a rented Jeep Cherokee, has witnessed signs and wonders worthy of a Coen brothers film. . . . Every so often, I read a book that upends my perceptions about a place. This is one of them.”
The Huffington Post
“If you want to understand today’s China, and the forces changing it, you need to read Country Driving.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Hessler has made a career of interpreting contemporary China and, for my money, nobody does it better. . . . Hessler is a magnificent guide to this largely uncharted territory, witty, insightful, keenly aware of the ironies of this communist-capitalist society.”
Jonathan Yardley
…an absolutely terrific book, at once highly entertaining (his accounts of the driver's test and of how the Chinese act on the road are often hilarious) and deeply instructive, as he paints a portrait of a country in the midst of change so widespread and profound that it can scarcely be grasped…Hessler clearly came to love China in the more than a decade he spent there, and he was endlessly surprised, amused and delighted by it. He has a highly developed taste for oddness, incongruity and just plain weirdness, all of which he describes with not a scintilla of condescension. Country Driving is a wonderful book about China that also happens to be a terrific book about the human race.
—The Washington Post
Dwight Garner
The story of this emerging China has been told before, of course, by other writers, and by Mr. Hessler himself, in his previous books and magazine journalism. But the reporting in Country Driving is impressive in its scope. This book contains dozens of characters and multiple set-pieces and subplots. Along the way Mr. Hessler delivers eloquent disquisitions on everything from how to buy a used car in China and what hospital stays are like to the history of the Mongol conquest and the pros and cons of the Great Wall as a defensive structure. Mr. Hessler is an impeccable compiler of facts, in the John McPhee Eagle Scout mold, and he lays these facts out elegantly
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In his latest feat of penetrating social reportage, New Yorker writer Hessler (Oracle Bones) again proves himself America's keenest observer of the New China. Hessler investigates the country's lurch into modernity through three engrossing narratives. In an epic road trip following the Great Wall across northern China, he surveys dilapidated frontier outposts from the imperial past while barely surviving the advent of the nation's uniquely terrifying car culture. He probes the transformation of village life through the saga of a family of peasants trying to remake themselves as middle-class entrepreneurs. Finally, he explores China's frantic industrialization, embodied by the managers and workers at a fly-by-night bra-parts factory in a Special Economic Zone. Hessler has a sharp eye for contradictions, from the absurdities of Chinese drivers' education courses—low-speed obstacle courses are mandatory, while seat belts and turn signals are deemed optional—to the leveling of an entire mountain to make way for the Renli Environmental Protection Company. Better yet, he has a knack for finding the human-scale stories that make China's vast upheavals both comprehensible and moving. The result is a fascinating portrait of a society tearing off into the future with only the sketchiest of maps. (Feb.)\
Library Journal
This is American journalist Hessler's third travelog-memoir about present-day China, following his Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present. Here he writes of his multiyear journey across mainland China, from the interior farmlands to the heart of urban life there, living for a time with a family from the small but historical Sancha village. Through accounts of his day-to-day interactions, Hessler reveals the struggles of rural life amid the enormous modernization of the country and how the modest ways of life are slowly being erased by the lure of the market economy and big money. Hessler then travels to the coastal regions of Zhejiang, to the booming industrial city of Lishu, where he finds a cast of fascinating characters, including factory bosses, farm girls, and traveling troupes, their lives intertwining in a struggle to survive and adapt to the new life and philosophy of a growing consumer-driven society and an often brutally corrupt political system. VERDICT Hessler offers Western readers an intimate story of a much-analyzed but often misunderstood world; both lay readers and scholars will appreciate. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/09.]—Allan Cho, Univ. of British Columbia Lib., Vancouver
Kirkus Reviews
On the road in China with New Yorker staff writer Hessler (Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present, 2006, etc.), as he explores the remnants of its dying rural past and its booming, uncertain urban future. The author received his Chinese driver's license in 2001 and set off on a 7,000-mile journey following the twists and turns of the Great Wall. In a rented car and armed only with junk food and Chinese road maps of questionable accuracy, he explored the great expanses of China's north and northwest, areas largely left behind in the country's surge of economic development. In villages as ancient as the Wall itself, few except the very old and the very young remained, the rest having escaped to the cities and the promise of work. "To drive across China," he writes, "was to find yourself in the middle of the largest migration in human history-nearly one-tenth of the population was on the road, finding new lives away from home." One village north of Beijing seemed also bound for extinction, but the appearance of paved roads, a boom in private-car sales and an urban longing for a glimpse of rustic rural life revived the village and the fortunes of Wei Ziqi and his family. Hessler follows Wei's rise as a village entrepreneur and Party leader and discovers what is possible and what may be lost as poor Chinese villages become tourist hotspots. Finally, the author traveled southern China, where the construction of new roads has enabled the rise of industrial boom towns to which rural migrants continue to flock. He traces the fate of the owners and workers of a factory that makes rings for bras. All of them illiterate peasants, Hessler writes of their dreams and courage in makinga better life within a "no-holds-barred version of capitalism." Though he befriends his subjects, the author never intrudes in their stories, and he follows their lives over a number of years. The result is a remarkably detailed, engrossing account of China today. The human side of China's great transformation, told with humor, affection and great insight.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061804106
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/8/2011
  • Series: P. S. Series
  • Pages: 438
  • Sales rank: 258,560
  • Product dimensions: 7.82 (w) x 5.28 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Hessler

Peter Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as the Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007, and is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He is the author of River Town, which won the Kiriyama Prize; Oracle Bones, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and, most recently, Country Driving. He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting, and he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011. He lives in Cairo.

Biography

Peter Hessler, one of four children, was born in 1969, in Pittsburgh, but moved shortly thereafter to Columbia, Missouri. His father is a recently retired professor of sociology at the University of Missouri, and his mother teaches history at Columbia College.

Hessler attended Princeton University, where he majored in English and Creative Writing. The summer before graduation, he worked as a researcher for the Kellogg Foundation in southeastern Missouri, where he wrote a long ethnography about a small town called Sikeston. This became his first significant publication, appearing in the Journal for Applied Anthropology.

In 1992, Hessler entered Oxford University, where he studied English Language and Literature at Mansfield College. After graduating in 1994, he traveled for six month in Europe and Asia. One of the highlights of that trip was taking the trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Beijing. That journey resulted in his first published travel story, an essay that appeared in The New York Times in 1995. And that journey was his first introduction to China.

He spent the following year freelancing and attempting to write a book about his travels. Although the book didn't work out, he was able to publish travel stories in a range of newspapers, including The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, and The Newark Star-Ledger, among others. In 1995, he received the Stratton Fellowship, a grant from the Friends of Switzerland and spent two months hiking 650 miles across the Alps. Afterwards he continued to freelance, writing travel stories for American newspapers while teaching freshman composition at the University of Missouri. He also organized volunteer projects for students on campus.

In 1996 he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to China. For two years, he taught English at a small college in Fuling, a city on the Yangtze River. While living in Fuling, he studied Mandarin Chinese and became proficient in the language.

After completing his Peace Corps service in 1998, he traveled to Tibet, where he researched a long article, "Tibet Through Chinese Eyes," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in February of 1999. Following that trip, he returned to Missouri and wrote River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. While working on the book, he continued to write travel stories for The New York Times and other newspapers. In March of 1999, Hessler decided to return to China independently and try to establish himself as a freelance writer.

Over the following years, he traveled widely in China and freelanced for a variety of publications. For a brief spell, he was accredited as the Boston Globe stringer in Beijing. In 2000, The New Yorker began publishing some of his stories; the following year, he became the first New Yorker correspondent to be accredited as a full-time resident correspondent in the People's Republic.

In 2000, Hessler also started researching stories for National Geographic Magazine. The first assignment was a story about Xi'an archaeology, which sparked his interest in researching antiquities. Subsequently he accepted an assignment for a story about China's bronze-age cultures, which led to his interest of the oracle bones of the Anyang excavations.

River Town was published in 2001. It won the Kiriyama Prize for outstanding nonfiction book about the Pacific Rim and South Asia. It was also a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover award, and in the United Kingdom it was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. The book has been translated into Korean, Thai, and Hungarian. The Hungarian translation won the Elle Literary Prize for nonfiction in 2004.

Peter Hessler's magazine stories have been selected for the Best American Travel Writing anthologies of 2001, 2004 and 2005, and also for the Best American Sports Writing anthology of 2004. "Chasing the Wall," a National Geographic story published in 2003, was nominated for a National Magazine Award.

Hessler first conceived of Oracle Bones at the end of 2001 and spent the next four years researching and writing the book.

He currently lives in Beijing.

Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.

Good To Know

"The only steady job I ever held in journalism was delivering the Columbia Missourian," Hessler revealed in our interview. "I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was sixteen years old. Mary Racine, who taught sophomore English at Hickman High School, first encouraged me to take writing seriously. Mary Ann Gates taught juniors and Khaki Westerfield taught seniors; they were all remarkable teachers It makes a big difference to be encouraged at such an early stage."
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    1. Hometown:
      Beijing, China
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 14, 1968
    2. Place of Birth:
      Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
    1. Education:
      Princeton University, Creative Writing and English, 1992; Oxford University, English Language and Literature, 1994

Table of Contents

Bk. I The Wall 1

Bk. II The Village 123

Bk. III The Factory 277

Acknowledgments 425

Sources 429

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 55 )
Rating Distribution

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(20)

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(14)

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(11)

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(8)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 55 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 14, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A Great Road Trip

    I've read all of Peter Hessler's books and this one is by far my favorite. I wish I was able to do like Hessler and drive through China, encountering newly paved highways and dirt roads leading to long forgotten places. There is a small detour where the author makes a home in a village for a number of months, but he continues his journey on the road to encounter ordinary Chinese citizens trying to make a living in a continuously changing China. There are corrupt Chinese officials, honest village leaders, artists, simple country folk, factory workers, and entrepreneurs both in factory towns and small villages. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about China and how its citizens and a foreigner may perceive the progress of China in different ways.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 5, 2012

    Couldn't put it down

    Highly humorous, informative, and entertaining, there are three stories in this book. Each offers glimpses into the evolving world of the Chinese. The 1st is really about driving in the country and exploring the Great Wall. 2nd is a story about a country family as they learn to adapt to their rapidly changing/urbanizing world. 3rd is a story about one factory and the people whose livelyhoods depend on it. This is very well written and my favorite Peter Hessler book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2014

    Great!

    A wonderful book about travel and the state of China today.

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  • Posted December 27, 2012

    I think Hessler is the best kind of journalist, and the opposite

    I think Hessler is the best kind of journalist, and the opposite of a sensationalist. He just hangs out with local people and conveys their struggles as they try to completely change things. He must be a friendly guy to be allowed such access to people's family and business lives. They let him listen in as they conduct job interviews, discipline kids, handle tax inspectors, plan factories from the ground up, or have dinner with their families.

    Part of the book concerns road trips. But most of it is about getting to know groups of ordinary people. Their intense pragmatism and determination to improvise give Hessler his opening to learn. We see how development zones are funded, how factories are thrown together, how police buy shares in speed traps, or how traveling circus shows operate outside the law. Mostly, Hessler shows us common people taking huge risks, flying by the seats of their pants, making mistakes that are both dangerous and hilarious, clawing their way to a slightly better day.

    --author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization

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  • Posted February 27, 2012

    If interested in modern China, you will enjoy

    Our book group tackled this, some of us read only one or two of the three sections. I liked the human portraits best, scattered among the three sections. some of book group laughed at the driving parts in the first section while others were appalled. The village and factory sections, 2 and 3, drew me in the most, especially when children or adolescents were in focus. Very well written, lends itself to selection among the three parts depending on your own personal priorities.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2011

    Really Good Book

    Lots of first hand info about an important and, for many of us Americans, obscure part of the world. Well researched and enjoyably written.

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