Travel literature review: Country Driving

Country DrivingCountry Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler

5 star

Rating: 5 out of 5

Reviewed by Ben Handicott

Ben Handicott is Associate Publisher of Trade at Lonely Planet.

Country Driving is a look at modern China through the eyes of a journalist fluent in the language and with a keen understanding of Chinese culture. The title is more than nominal with Peter Hessler traversing large parts of the countryside, but if you want to learn a great deal about all facets of China, the country and its people, then this is your book.

That said, Hessler does a pretty good job of keeping the driving theme motoring throughout, although it’s the first third of the book that truly focuses on vehicles and roads. Part two explores Hessler’s metaphorical journey to the heart of a village, albeit a village on a major highway west of Beijing coming to terms with what it means to be an express-way town. It’s a kind of journalistic Under the Tuscan Sun (without the recipes), as he takes up occasional residence over a few years, becoming a de facto member of that community, particularly one family. The third part of the book examines the colossal industrial machine that China clearly is – from giant manufacturing equipment to bra clips – as Hessler follows the evolution of a new business.

The eponymous driving revolves around a road trip along The Great Wall – the mythic structure so representative of China. As the book notes, the wall is not one great stone wall, not the great fortified highway found in cheap postcards, traversing craggy mountains and spanning the great plains of western China. In reality the wall ranges from the majestic tourist-traps near Beijing, to countryside clumps of rubble. Here the wall has long-since been pilfered for local buildings. A great deal of it is stone, but mud was also used, particularly for western sections. And it’s not one long connected wall either – a number of tributaries add to its overall length – some 9000km. From the start, Hessler's driving is clearly a way in to the culture: getting a license, the challenges and humour of renting a car, the connections with random hitchhikers in faraway places, and the outward and, in some cases, dying towns not benefiting from China’s rapid climb up the wealth ladder.

Part three of the book is required reading for anyone thinking of doing business in China. Hessler shows the personal side of industry in China, from the factory floor to the schmoozy management and local official meetings.

But it's part two that takes this book beyond a piece of travel writing or China-analysis. Here is a story of a town, Sancha, and the people in it. The narrative is personal and engaging, and centres on one family's entrepreneurial journey in a fast-developing part of China, powered by a growing middle-class in Beijing and the rise of cars, roads and leisure time. Their restaurant business booms, local politics becomes a pre-occupation, if not an occupation, and family life ebbs and flows, as family life does. And Hessler is there to witness it, and also take part in it. It's a wonderful story and could be read in isolation, if nothing else in the book gripped you.

Hessler is a truly great writer. Throughout the book he applies his journalistic understanding of the whole picture and a brilliant sense of storytelling. But the real achievement is his warmth and sensitivity in shining a light on starkly different ways of looking at the world. It is hard to imagine that he doesn’t remain in touch with many of the people he writes about. It’s a rare talent to write unpatronisingly about another culture, and Hessler doesn't appear to have a patronising bone in his body.

Better reviewers than me have had their say on this book. If you look around you'll find quite a few more. The overwhelming consensus is that you should read it.

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