Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory
Peter Hessler recounts his 7,000-mile trip across northern China, traveling the country for seven years, documenting the transformation of modern China along the way. He investigates a historically important rural region being abandoned by young migrant workers. He spends six years in a fishing village called Sancha, documenting the dramatic changes that takes place there due to the new road and the auto boom. These and other documented changes around China show an enormous change in the way that people are living and working in a country that is continually modernizing itself and changing its landscape for the sake of progress.
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Review of Country Driving by Peter Hessler
The book Country Driving A Chinese Road Trip, by Peter Hessler , chronicles his road trip across China in 2001. The book is broken into three sections: Book I, The Wall, Book II The Village, and Book III The Factory. In each section, Hessler goes into detail about his experience and information he learned, first about The Great Wall, which often misunderstood by outsiders is actually a series of walls built during different time periods and made from different materials. Hessler describes how some parts of the wall are built from brick and to this day looks like quite a fortress while other parts of the wall are made from dirt mounds. My favorite part of Book I however had to do with the passages describing the questions on the written driver’s exam in China. The traditional educational approach of “drill and kill” has carried its way into the driver’s instruction program as well as the reader learns how driving instructors take months teaching and practicing the most basic steps to driving, like how to start the engine, and yet all drivers must also be able to balance two wheels of the car on a raised ramp while driving-a skill not likely to be encountered when driving, however it is hard to do, so it must be valuable.
During Book II The Village, Hessler and a friend had rented a house in a somewhat remote village in the countryside. Hessler not only introduces the reader to the villagers, but also goes into detail regarding their interdependence upon each other and the communist politics present even in a small distant village. The most interesting parts of this section for me had to do with the only young child in the entire village, a little boy named Wei Jai. Wei Jai moves from a free spirit without judgement over others regardless if the person be a disabled uncle or a white man from America, to a future Communist society member. This change begins once Wei Jai is sent away to a boarding school since there is no school in the village. It did cause me to consider how much the American school system also requires a certain amount of conformity in order for the student to be a member of our society. One big difference however is in America there is still much emphasis on the individual as opposed to the Chinese system where school achievement has more to do with group’s success.
The final portion of the book tells of two men who are trying to open a new factory together. In China a towns and cities become specialized in a particular type of manufacturing. Located in one area of China will be all the factories that produce a specific product like buttons or pleather. Once one factory becomes successful with a product it does not take long until another factory opens up making the same product and undercutting the price. Hessler also describes the layers of bosses a factory may have and the negotiations that go on between the hierarchy of bosses. Many of the jobs in these factories require a middle school education or less. These “factory towns” are often the place where rural young people go to looking for work.
The book was easy to read and I believe there are sections of it that would be useful and interesting to students learning about China.
An enjoyable road trip through modern rural China
I didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did! I'm not a teacher, but I thought the personal perspective of this book, coupled with its more high-level portrait of modern Chinese history, made for a totally winning combination. While I felt like I was learning a lot about the country, I was thoroughly entertained throughout by Hessler's anecdotes and dry sense of humor. While scope of the book was quite far-reaching, covering both rural and newly-industrialized regions, I thought the road-trip format was a clever way of smoothly transitioning (literally and metaphorically) between a range of topics.
Although there are many other books about modern China out there, I think this one is a concise and accessible introduction to the subject, and would be a valuable inclusion in a Chinese or history class.
I want to travel with no plans, too!
Peter Hessler's book Country Driving follows him as he explores rural and abandoned regions in China. Where his earlier book River Town examines his time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sichuan province, Country Driving does not rely on the school to advance the story. For the first third of the novel, Peter tells stories of exploring different parts of the Great Wall and the communities that sprung up around old forts. The excerpts from the Chinese Driving Exam are humorous as well as his anecdotes about Chinese drivers, many of whom are extremely inexperienced. He also discusses how many of these towns are now hemorrhaging citizens due to the massive migration to China's cities. The rest of the book follows his journeys while staying in a home north of Beijing and then in a city in the South.
How could you not be engaged by the story of a man who travels along the Great Wall surviving mostly on gatorade and oreos!
I would definitely recommend this book for other teachers! It's an easy read in terms of language and accessibility. The storytelling is also well done and I never had to struggle through passages. It had me contemplating the life of the rural Chinese far more than I typically do, considering I mostly teach about the urban explosion. Also, Country Driving made me want to go on adventures similar to Peter's in China or somewhere else. So many of my trips are highly regimented (which I thoroughly enjoy since I don't have to do the planning), but I would love to just spend a summer exploring. I'd have a general plan of where I wanted to end up, yet I'd have no daily plans. I think teachers should read this book and hopefully it'll be a catalyst for more summer travel.
Country Driving Review
Samantha Cameron AP World, 11th Grade
Country Driving is at times entertaining, but also at times, a little boring. If I were to use this book in a classroom, I would most likely use the sections from the beginning where the author describes the Chinese Driving Test and what Chinese drivers are like. Since many of my students are just learning to drive, they would probably find this to be entertaining. The best section of the book is Part II, where Hessler describes living part time in Sancha. In this section, Hessler demystifies the inner workings of entrepreneurship and the communist system, and the people of Sancha are the most interesting of the people he describes in the book. Since he spent longer in Sancha than anywhere else, he also is able to show how the people and the village dramatically changed as a result of the changes taking place around them. I feel that this section gets to the heart of the issues in the book better than some of the other sections.
Peter Hessler's book Country Driving offers a unique perspective on the changing social, political, and physical landscapes of modern China. Written in three sections, Hessler takes the reader on a journey along the Great Wall, to his new home in the countryside, and to the economic development zones in the south. In each experience, the reader is drawn into the dramatic changes sweeping China and creating tensions between tradition and the allure of the modern. Throughout the book, the reader experiences the rapidity of change through Hessler's driving journey. While this is not a book that I would use in its entirety with students, there have been interesting excerpts that provide useful narratives to talk about with students. I teach 9th and 10th graders who are in the process of getting their permits and licenses, so the sections on driving in modern China were relatable to students when I shared a few excerpts in class. The first two sections The Wall and The Village, were my favorites as these are both situations that not many tourists get to experience. While the tourist sites are exciting to see when traveling, they don't necessarily give you a taste for the true flavor of a country. I like getting lost when I travel and Hessler's book gives the reader a window into his wanderings and exploration without ever leaving your reading chair.
graphic insights to a changing China
This book is a road trip, hence the title Country Driving, in three sections: The Wall, The Village, and The Factory. Each separate book covers years of Hessler's exploration of a particular aspect of the country and his experience of driving in a country where the national road system is an expansionist endeavor and residents are new to the road.
Hessler selected fortuitous topics and time frames in which to explore them. In The Wall Hessler shows us a Chinese shift in attitude toward The Wall. In the recent past, bricks from the wall were repurposed for municipal buildings. When the structure itself became a tourist destination bricks remained in the wall. While The Wall is a fascination for tourists, it is not a subject for Chinese scholarship. The Wall itself is not a singular entity. There are multiple walls in various locations and different building materials used for construction at various sites.
In The Village Hessler describes a budding entrepreneur, his various business endeavors, his wife's growing interests beyond the home, and his son's transformation from a young man who couldn't be stilled to a couch potato. We also learn of the rate of change for village life, its economy and its ecology. The Village is transformed in the few years that Hessler is observing it. His attention to the details of those changes inform his readers about this diminishing aspect of China.
In The Factory Hessler unveils the evolution of a factory as its owners develop the plans for their 21,000 square foot building in ONE HOUR AND FOUR MINUTES! The contractors had the building ready within months. The dizzying speed of factory development is difficult to grasp but revealed in detail.
Some insights from The Wall section may be helpful in historically understanding the purpose and value of the wall. The value of this book, however, is in gaining insight into the pace of change in China today. This selection is most helpful in a curriculum that addresses modern China.
Both The Village and The Factory provide multiple points of view of the speed of change in contemporary China. These insights are worth a read.
The highlights of this book include Hessler's ability to graphically portray what he sees: people going to the wall because the best phone reception is on top of the wall, a group of men on their knees finishing a new highway, workers negotiating with their employers, an active young boy devolving into a couch potato. The images provide a human scale to a perspective of China.
Sustainable Development Goals Examined through "Country Driving, A Chinese Road Trip"
In Country Driving, a Chinese Road Trip, Peter Hessler provides an account of his adventures in China from about 1995 into the 2007, which he published in 2010. Mr. Hessler is an international traveler and journalist. In his book, he provides a wonderful, witty account of the people of China, in both rural and urban settings. He broke the book into three sections: “The Wall,” “The Village,” and “The Factory’” all three are interrelated. He relays a great deal of cultural practices and weaves so many historical facts into his storytelling that the reader comes away with both the old and the new history of China. He also provides a tremendous amount of data regarding the economic expansion of China and the shift of its people from rural farming to factory workers. If I were to assign this book to middle schoolers, I would like to have my students pre-read the current United Nations listing of Sustainable Development Goals, then read Mr. Hessler’s recent Chinese encounters. I would provide the students with a study guide asking them to comment on specific cultural aspects of the people that Mr. Hessler writes about, the history he provides as it relates to their current daily lives and practices, and then consider what they are reading comparatively to the possibilities of the practices being sustainable and leading into China’s future. There are so many to choose from in each section, that a student truly would only need to read one section. If a class presented a synopsis of what they completed, each student could end up with a gallery walk of all the book’s sections.
To help a student choose which section to read, here are some highlights of each section and what might catch a middle school student's attention.
In “The Wall,” Mr. Hessler obtains a Chinese driving permit, and he decides to take excursions into rural China to find all the pieces of the Great Wall. He uses maps provided by China, and he drives mostly back roads and sometimes even streambeds in his quest to explore western reaches of the Great Wall. As he recounts his exploration, Mr. Hessler tells about the people he encounters. No one is too insignificant for him to mention. For example, he describes the man with twenty-one different occupations on his business card, everything from Feng Schwa master to funeral planning. He describes a Mongolian woman who leads tours of a fake museum which supposedly is the burial site of Ghengis Khan. He also tells of his run in with youthful policemen and the actual fine he received at the far end of his westward journey for entering into a forbidden town. These are just a few of his adventures. I believe that with some supervision from the teacher and follow-up discussions about key points, middle schoolers could enjoy the frank and open reveals that Mr. Hessler has made part of his book. Certainly, any reader would be amazed at the historical detail that is included. Mr. Hessler has completed exhaustive research and expertly woven those details into his tales. I was able to better understand a college text of Chinese history based on parallel reading with this book. As the author drives through the countryside, he mentions repeatedly how the younger populations are moving away from the rural areas to find employment. He explains the environmental reasons for this change as well as the cultural changes that are occurring which are leading the young away from their ancestral homelands.
In “The Village,” the second portion of the book, Mr. Hessler explores a remote village that is still within Beijing’s city limits. He describes the difficulties he initially had as an outsider being accepted as a resident in the quiet little town. He hikes and explores a cattle trail only to find a man living so remotely that he only sees people about four times a year. Yet that gentleman offers him, a stranger, tea and spends some time telling his story. A key event in this portion of the book is Mr. Hessler’s struggle to find proper health care for a son of a villager of whom he has become fond. In the first portion of the book, Mr. Hessler encounters the Chinese philosophy that “nothing can be done,” It seems to be a resounding resignation on the part of people who have accepted their plight and learn to live with things they cannot change. In this portion of the book, he fights with everything he has against that philosophy, even risking arguing with hospital providers and bargaining with the only tool he has left which is cold, hard cash – all to save the life of this one little five year old. The little five year old’s family is also examined in great detail in this portion of the book. The dad changes from a rural farmer into a bed and breakfast innkeeper. He finds strength to challenge the political heads who are withholding funding and resources needed to take care of a special needs man that he must support. The whole village transforms because the state chose to pave its road and the residents encouraged a change to tourism as a source of employment. The mom and dad get a car. The mom turns to her religious roots to help her through the changes, and the dad holds fast to his beliefs that hard work will get in through all the increased stress and changes. There is much for a middle school to consider as they read both the good and the bad effects on the people that are portrayed in this portion of the book. A middle school student will also undoubtedly draw comparisons between the types of schools he/she has personally attended and those described in “The Village” section. The public parent/teacher conferences, the boarding school requirements, and the existence of class monitors and public shaming for misbehavior. The author takes an observers point of view as he recounts his stories, but clearly he had become much vested in the life of the Wei Zigi family in Sancha during the several years he lived in the village.
The final portion of this book is “The Factory.” Mr. Hessler had previously described the movement of the youth from the rural areas into the cities. He said they were pursuing jobs at factories, a better source of income than farming. In this section, Mr. Hessler finds a town called Lishui which is on the fringe of major factory development in the province of Zhejiang. Then he observes the sweep of change as the little rural area high in the mountains gets bought up by factory developers. Middle schoolers might enjoy thinking about the products that the factories are producing. Mr. Hessler even gives some statistics, like the one which produces one-fourth of all the world’s socks. The Zhejiang became connected by the construction of a major new highway that included 29 tunnels. The students might enjoy looking up these locations on Google Earth to see an Arial view of the terrain and the still existing highway. Mr. Hessler includes a posting for hiring on a worker door: it reads “Ages 18 to 35, middle-school education.” This might spark a good discussion among readers about why there would be workers with only a middle-school education. Students could try researching to find out education success in China or find first person accounts of school conditions. Students could also compare the several examples of job postings with those found in our local papers or those online on Monster.com. Mr. Hessler follows the life of a fifteen year old from Anhui Province who hides her age to get a job at a bra factory, and he states the life of Master Luo who started working at age 14, without completing middle school because his parents could no longer afford the school fees. Because my students will be 14 year olds by the end of 8th grade, I believe they may identify with the story told about this girl’s life. In addition to the human aspects of this section, Mr. Hessler weaves in cold, hard business facts. He tracks the changes in Lishui from the initial bulldozer breaking ground to the development of entertainment for the workers that came long after the factory development was in full swing. He also tracks taxes, the kickbacks of government officials, and the methods that lead to funds used for development. He discusses the promotion and advancement opportunities or lack of those for the employees, along with their working conditions. He tells of the employees’ long hours doing repetitive tasks, with what he recalls from one employee an “empty mind.” He explains that the employees write on the walls surrounding their work space. The subject of their writings are self-help sayings. This reminded me of the Chinese Song of Song, which was one of the early Confucian annuals that school children studied. Mr. Hessler also took another look at the Chinese education system in this section of the book to help explain the success or failure of business models. He stated that because the system relies so heavily on memorization and rote tasks, there is little room for innovative thinking, so when the employees are hired for low skilled jobs, low pay, with lower educations, they have trouble helping with the efficiencies needed to make the businesses run successfully. There’s little motivation for the employees to stay put in a failing business to try to rescue it because they can just move on to another new start up and take their chances there. One last item from this section is the environmental effects of the rapid development start-ups and cycle of failures. Mr. Hessler brought out the fine line walked by the company bosses and the environmental control officials. Middle schoolers could be encouraged to review articles in National Geographic which over the course of the last 15 years or so have brought to light the tremendous environmental impact on China’s Yellow River and the practice of burning computer wires for recycling at the cost of exposing humans to the toxic gases released during the process. Mr. Hessler chose to close his book by mentioning that he left China and was back home living in the United States by 2007. He visited again the bra factory which had closed and noted that the self-help sayings of the workers from the factory were still on the walls in the abandoned factory. The reader is left at the end of the book with very real experience of vacancy left by the factory closing, of the strife of the employees who had to pick up again and move on, and the environmental impact of the abandoned concrete and equipment and even bra clasps that were left just as they were.