Review: Peter Hessler’s “Country Driving”

by Jessica Marsden on April 14, 2010

Peter Hessler’s latest book on China is loosely organized around the theme of driving in China: along the Great Wall, out to the countryside and through factory zones. Key to the research for Country Driving was the fact that Hessler got a Chinese driver’s license, and stories of that process are some of the funniest moments of the book (excerpted here). From the written driver’s test:

344. If you see an accident and the people need help, you should

a) continue driving.

b) stop, do what you can to help, and contact the police.

c) stop, see if the people offer a reward, and then help.

Throughout the book, Hessler has a keen eye for the absurdities that come along with modernization in China. This shines through in the book’s cover, which a statue painted to look like a traffic cop, stationed along a stretch of remote western highway where there are no real cops around to enforce the rule.

But he is also sympathetic to the ordinary Chinese who are swept up in this development. This is clearest in the second section, which describes life in Sancha, a village near Beijing where Hessler rented a second home. His main subjects are the Wei family, who escape peasant status by turning their rural home into a restaurant and homestay for middle-class Beijingers on vacation. As the family succeeds financially, Hessler watches them struggle with their son’s illness (during which he drove them to a hospital in Beijing), village politics, and and the changes wrought in their marriage by newfound wealth and status.

Like his previous book, Oracle Bones, Country Driving suffers from some structural problems. Namely, the fact that the middle section about his time in Sancha is significantly more compelling than either of its companions. But the book is still an important read for those with a special interest in China. For travelers, Hessler’s reporting helps to put a face on the social changes that we read about in newspaper headlines.

P.S. On the other hand, you may find that Hessler’s popularity will ruin your China experience. Consider yourself warned.

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  3. Review: Beijing Coma
  4. eGuidebooks: A Review
  5. Review: “Lost on Planet China”

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