2010.06.24: June 24, 2010: Discovering China with Peter Hessler
Peace Corps Online:
Special Report: China RPCV and Author Peter Hessler:
2010.02.28: February 28, 2010: Lynn Harnett reviews Peter Hessler's "Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory" :
2010.06.24: June 24, 2010: Discovering China with Peter Hessler
Discovering China with Peter Hessler
Hessler's adventures began in "River Town: Two years on the Yangtze," specifically the city of Fuling in the province of Sichuan, where he taught English in a teacher's college. Having earned an undergrad degree at Princeton and a master's at Oxford, he was accepted by The Peace Corps (referred to as "Friendship Hands" because the Chinese government had previously denounced the "Peace Corps" with a rash of anti-American pejorative) and worked as hard at mastering Chinese as he worked at teaching English. When his teaching assignment ended, Mr. Hessler stayed in China making a living as a freelance journalist for Western news outlets, particularly the National Geographic and The New Yorker. In the runup to the Olympics, with a lot of company coming, China was in a frenzy to spruce up, mandating English lessons for cab drivers and tearing down "unsightly" old neighborhoods for shiny, modern high-rises. "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present" shared the economic and emotional highs and lows in a China fevered with growing pains.
Discovering China with Peter Hessler
BOOK NOTES: Discovering China with Peter Hessler
"Country Driving" (Harper, 2010) should be read as a trilogy with "River Town" and "Oracle Bones"
Thursday, June 24, 2010 4:05 PM EDT
By Joan Ruddiman Special Writer
A decade ago, Peter Hessler set out on his personal quest to make a living as a writer. In doing so, he has taken his readers on fascinating journeys across China and through Chinese culture. His most recent book, "Country Driving" (Harper, 2010), should be read as a trilogy with "River Town" (Harper Collins, 2001) and "Oracle Bones" (Harper, 2006).
Mr, Hessler's adventures began in "River Town: Two years on the Yangtze," specifically the city of Fuling in the province of Sichuan, where he taught English in a teacher's college. Having earned an undergrad degree at Princeton and a master's at Oxford, he was accepted by The Peace Corps (referred to as "Friendship Hands" because the Chinese government had previously denounced the "Peace Corps" with a rash of anti-American pejorative) and worked as hard at mastering Chinese as he worked at teaching English.
When his teaching assignment ended, Mr. Hessler stayed in China making a living as a freelance journalist for Western news outlets, particularly the National Geographic and The New Yorker. In the runup to the Olympics, with a lot of company coming, China was in a frenzy to spruce up, mandating English lessons for cab drivers and tearing down "unsightly" old neighborhoods for shiny, modern high-rises. "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present" shared the economic and emotional highs and lows in a China fevered with growing pains.
In the past several years, Mr. Hessler has turned his active curiosity to documenting how the car is further transforming the landscape of China and the lives of the Chinese people. "Country Driving" is every bit the trumpeted subtitle, "A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory." With the Beijing Olympics in the record books, Mr. Hessler pursued his passion for all things Chinese by exploring the new roadways in myriad rented cars.
"Country Driving" is remarkable not only in the stories Mr. Hessler tells, but in how he tells them. The narrative is brilliantly pared and shaped into three parts that capture the past, present and future of China.
Book One tells of his "Great Wall Drive," which offers a view of ancient China that has almost disappeared. Over the course of two seasons, the author follows the path of the Wall from the crowded urban regions to Inner Mongolia, through cities, villages and wide expanses of open land. He explodes myths (no, the Wall cannot be seen from space, a claim made by National Geographic Magazine in 1923) as he attempts to root out history, which he found is - surprisingly - lacking.
"There isn't a single scholar at any university in the world who specializes in the Great Wall," he notes. "Chinese historians focus on textual research, and usually they study political institutions that can be traced through the records of a dynasty or a government. In the field, archaeologists tend to excavate ancient tombs. The Great Wall fits into neither tradition."
Mr. Hessler does find locals like "Old Chen" who are working to piece together this ancient puzzle. He also warmly acknowledges the work of David Spindler whom, he writes, "completely changed my concept of the Great Wall."
In Book Two, "The Village," Mr. Hessler relates his experiences in Sancha, a largely vacated village north of Beijing where he sets up a second home to pursue his writing - and to record contemporary Chinese life that, like ancient China, is vanishing. He writes that, "I hoped to find a place where people still farmed, their lives tuned to the rhythms of the fields."
In his search for such a place, he found whole villages that had been abandoned. But in Sancha, Mr. Hessler found his "writer's retreat," and a cast of local characters on the cusp of transitioning from being peasants to entrepreneurs.
One family in particular becomes like his own. This section resonates with Mr. Hessler's worries as he attempts to help his friends Wei Ziqi, Cao Chunmei and their son Wei Jia, who is literally the last child in Sancha. Mr. Hessler becomes embroiled in all the trappings of life in the village - from making a living and making rent, neighborhood spats, local politics, and Wei Jia's school issues. As much as he would like to remain the dispassionate journalist, the realities of his friends' lives draws him into their world, most of all when they all struggle to negotiate the scary health care system when Wei Jia becomes ill.
Then in Book Three, "The Factory," Mr. Hessler follows the millions of migrants moving south and into the future of China.
"China's total number of migrants, as estimated by the National Bureau of Statistics, grew from 89.61 million in 2001 to 132.12 million in 2006. Today most experts believe the figure to be over 140 million. But these statistics should be considered rough estimates, given the difficulty of tracking and even defining migrants."
So where are they going? Most are moving from farms to factory towns, much like Lishui, where Mr. Hessler visits repeatedly over time. These "instant cities" tend to specialize in a product like "pleather" - fake leather that "eventually becomes handbags or car seats in bigger Chinese factories." The name of the game for China's neophyte businessmen is to try to figure out what Western consumers want and then how to make huge quantities to sell cheaply.
Here is the future of China, what Mr. Hessler saw as "China's version of the Industrial Revolution: where rural people were moving to cities [with] a gift for re- invention that rivaled anything in Dickens" - as well Dickensian economic exploitation, substandard living conditions and dangerous working environments.
As in all his reporting and writing about China, Mr. Hessler is eloquent in his narrative; always respectful without being obsequious, honest without being judgmental. Though he is fluent in the language and deeply knowledgeable of the history and culture, Mr. Hessler recognizes that he will always be a boy from Missouri who can never be fully absorbed into China. Even after years of living in China, he finds the unique customs and traditions still to be confusing. Yet for him, the Chinese are transparent, driven like most people by love of family, loyalty to friends, and a desire for a better future.
In one of the factories, Mr. Hessler recorded an inspirational quote the owner had inscribed on the wall in gold calligraphy: "The tremors of the future/ are happening right before your eyes."
In this trilogy of his travels in China, Mr. Hessler deftly chronicles the "tremors of the future" that happened right before his eyes - and for his fortunate readers, right before our own.
Joan Ruddiman, Ed.D., is the coordinator/facilitator of the gifted and talented PRISM program at the Thomas R. Grover Middle School in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District.
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