Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory
© 2010 Peter Hessler
First things first: that statue on the cover intrigued me enough that I bought both books that used photographs of it. Emperor Far Away made nary a mention, but Hessler comes through in the first third, referencing the statue as part of a scarecrow police system in one of China’s western rural areas, erected along freeways and at roundabouts to discourage reckless driving. Mounted automobile ruins and signs that keep a running count of how many people have perished on the highway are also part of the safety campaign. Such measures are needed because China is a nation on the move: its villages are emptying out as people move en masse from villages throughout the country towards the southern and south-eastern coasts. There, China is being remade month by month as factories and people move, chasing opportunities at a frantic pace. In Country Driving, Hessler drives China’s highways, lives in one of its villages, and explores its burgeoning factory districts. Country Driving is a China memoir that first seems like a collection of miscellany: Hessler opens the book like a travel memoir, but halfway through, he’s relating village politics and writing about one of the neighbor boys turning into a couch potato. Not until the book’s end in the factories does the subtitle make sense.
Country Driving’s largely appeals on a human-interest basis. The people of China are experiencing the industrial revolution seemingly overnight: most of the factory managers Hessler spoke with had been farmers as children, and all of them acquired their expertise on the job, often by shoving themselves through the door. Hustling and social connections are more important were more important than degrees. Lying about one’s age to get a job was nothing offensive: bosses saw it as a sign that that people wanted to work. The amount of energy in China’s development zones is attractive read about: these cities are like New York and Chicago in the late 19th century, growing voraciously and teeming with newcomers who are creating a new society on the fly. Like those examples, these boomtowns aren’t necessarily pretty: factory workers often live in dormitories on-site, and the state-controlled ‘union’ exists more to provide free movies to workers. Those who want a better deal have to effect it themselves, arguing with management or simply leaving without notice.
Hessler refers to the rural-urban move in China as the largest migration in human history, and in his early chapters driving beside the Great Wall, he finds deserted village after deserted village: the young have left for city work, leaving only the old behind. Rural China, it seems, is literally dying. In his rural travels, the only young people Hessler encounters are those who are hitching rides to visit their families, typically bearing gifts of food. Country Driving illustrates the concept of liquid modernity fairly well: things are changing so fast that no one really seems to know what they’re doing. Driving, for instance, is a relatively new skills, but millions of Chinese are taking to the road: the number of registered drivers doubled in the time that Hessler was living in-country. Driving instructors teach people to use standard-transmission cars in ways that would make a mechanic grimace, and for seemingly arbitrary reasons. The standard practice is to begin all maneuvers from second gear because it’s more difficult, and more difficult means it’s worth doing — even if no driver will ever need to get their tire onto a single plank of wood, it’s still part of the exam on the merits of difficulty alone. What is missing, apparently, is any notion of orderly driving beyond “the bigger the car, the more right of way it has”. Cars jostle against one another the way people rub shoulders in Times Square, and in some cities, no rental agency expects its cars to come back without new dents. Like bugs on the windshield, they are to be expected.
Those who are interested in what life in China is like will find much of interest here, but the organization almost makes it seem unfocused at times. This is the third in a trilogy of China memoirs, however, and might make more sense when combined with the other two — just as the third section here made the first two more connected.