Peter Hessler’s Country Driving


I probably don’t have to tell anyone here that I am a serious Peter Hessler fan. I took a circuitous route along the way, starting with Oracle Bones and then River Town. My friends told told me I should have started the other way around, and even though they were right, it hardly mattered. I loved them both.

Hessler set the bar impossibly high with River Town, and it’s almost sad – there is simply no way he can surpass it. An almost perfect blend of memoir, tour guide and history lesson, River Town is by far the most personal and moving of the three books (now including Country Driving) and, significantly, it’s the most coherent. It seems to flow effortlessly, without a lapse anywhere. The voices of his characters, like his uptight Chinese teacher, linger in your memory for a long time, maybe forever (“Bu dui!”), as do his students’ essays on a Shakespeare sonnet and Robin Hood. And you have no choice; you simply have to keep turning the page.

Oracle Bones is more demanding and less cohesive. Or maybe it’s more demanding because it’s less cohesive. It weaves several plot lines together, like the adventures of his Uyghur friend Polat, and the challenges faced by his former students, uprooted from home, some working in a Shenzhen factory. But it’s also about archeology and history, about the Chinese language and the Cultural Revolution. For me, the most gripping scenes were those in which Hessler traces the tragic fate of oracle bones scholar Chen Mengjia, who was denounced by a colleague during the CR and took his life. Relentlessly Hessler tracks down those who knew him and, ultimately, the man who denounced him. Their meeting is another of those moments when I simply had to put the book down and reflect; this man had done a terrible thing, and yet he was not a terrible man. This was simply what China was at the time, this was simply what you did. Like all personality cults and forced utopias, you look back and see insanity, though at the time it was simply what you did every day.

(I had similar feelings reading The Man Who Stayed Behind, and a few months ago Rittenberg was in Phoenix giving a talk. I asked him how he could describe in his book his revulsion at much of what he saw going on at the time, while simultaneously describing his active participation. “I surrendered my critical thinking,” the 81-year-old former Communist replied. “We all did.”)

But back to my point: There are so many things going on in Oracle Bones, which a friend described to me as a pastiche of Hessler’s New Yorker articles), that at times you can’t help but feel it’s meandering. It’s Hessler’s mesmerizing story-telling ability that holds it together. You kind of know it’s disjointed, but it’s so fascinating you don’t care. But it doesn’t come close to River Town in terms of pathos, or poetry. River Town is poetry.

And so we come at last to Country Driving, Hessler’s latest, a savagely funny and delightful read, and, like his earlier works, a combination of travelogue, colorful yarns, history (especially the history of the Great Wall), intensely personal profiles of individuals caught between the shifting social and economic forces of today’s China – all held together by the common thread of country driving.

Like Oracle Bones, this book is unashamedly disjointed. It is actually three separate books stitched together, perhaps a bit awkwardly, but again Hessler makes it work. The first (and funniest) section is mainly about the Great Wall, Chinese road maps and Hessler’s driving test. It’s punctuated with snippets from the written test he was given, with gems such as this:

If another motorist stops to ask you directions, you should

a. not tell him
b. reply patiently and accurately
c. tell him the wrong way.


When driving through a residential area, you should:
a) honk like normal
b) honk more than normal in order to alert residents
c) avoid honking, in order to avoid disturbing residents

That questions like this can even exist on a driving exam boggles the mind. Could there possibly be drivers who feel the best practice is to give false directions, or to honk the horn when entering a residential area? There must be, and a lot of them must be in China. (I think we all have a story to tell about horn honking in China.)

Roads and driving are the pervasive motifs in all three parts – what it’s like to drive along the “Great Wall” (of which there are so many) deep into the heart of China, how China’s new roads make or break communities, how they offer new worlds of opportunities to once isolated villages, and how a lot of Chinese drivers aren’t so good behind the wheel.

Along the way, as always, Hessler digs up nuggets of history and makes wry observations that ensure his journey is an entertaining one. Perhaps my favorite was his description of a book of maps that perfectly captures the Chinese psyche in regard to territories it sees as “part of China.”

A company called Sinomaps published the book, which divided the nation into 158 separate diagrams. There was even a road map of Taiwan, which has to be included in any mainland atlas for political reasons, despite the fact that nobody using Sinomaps will be driving to Taipei. It’s even less likely that a Chinese motorist will find himself on the Spratly Islands, in the middle of the South China Sea, territory currently disputed by five different nations. The Spratlys have no civilian inhabitants but the Chinese swear by their claim, so the Automobile Driver’s Book of Maps included a page for the island chain. That was the only map without any roads.

I’m fairly sure that to anyone from outside of China this would seem somewhat puzzling: a driving map with no roads, and maps of roads on which the publishers know their readers will never drive, placed in the book as a matter of principle. You know you’ve lived in China too long when things like this don’t strike you as absurd.

The other unforgettable image he conjures up is that of the fiberglass Chinese highway patrol officers that dot the freeways, terracotta scarecrows reminding citizens to drive safely.

There was something eerie about these figures: they were wind-swept and dust-covered, and the surrounding desert emphasized their pointlessness. But their posture remained ramrod straight, arms at attention with a sort of Ozymandian grandeur – terracotta cops.

Just as with the driving maps of Taiwan and Spratlys, the reader can only ask, “Why?” And the only answer is, this is China.

To briefly summarize the other sections: Book two is all about Hessler’s second home in a village north of Beijing. This is a radical departure from the previous section, in which there are no anchoring characters aside from Hessler himself, only strangers he meets for a moment on his travels and their fleeting stories. Now it’s all about one family and how the new roads to their village change their lives. This is much more like River Town, full of humanity and characters who you come to love, grappling with a world that puts their traditional culture on its head.

Book Three is about Hessler’s stay in Zhejiang province, where he tracks the birth of a factory that makes little rings used for the straps of brassieres. This chapter is all about the “New China,” the flood of migrant workers to the factory towns, the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, how the workers are hired and how they live.

The recurring thought I had as I read this chapter was of just how little most Westerners know about migrant workers and their lives. I’ve read countless articles about the slavish conditions in which they live and the torturous hours they’re forced to work. And while that’s often true, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Most of the workers Hessler describes want to work the long hours. The last thing they want is vacation time. They want overtime, and they want to work on the weekend, as much as they can. They’ve come to the manufacturing towns for one reason, and one reason only: to take back as much money as they possibly can for their families. Hessler shatters quite a few myths here.

I can’t go into the details of these three books stuck together as one. (I fly to Shanghai in 12 hours.) But here’s the main thing: Everyone who would read this blog should get a copy of Country Driving. My bigger wish, however, is that people who aren’t so familiar with China get to read it, too. There is such a plethora of articles on China, mostly bad, flooding the Internets and the newspapers, and Hessler’s book, like his earlier two, provide wonderful antidotes, stripping away all the pompous claims of the “China experts” (something I freely admit I will never be) and showing you…China. The real, unvarnished China, free of editorial bloviation and spin. A dizzying, breathless, magnificent country, irrepressible in its energy and ambition, often irrational, unjust and infuriating, and always unpredictable. And often achingly funny.

My main issues with the book: It really is disjointed, and unlike with Oracle Bones, you really feel the bumps. Also, I found that Hessler often tries to be funny in this book, something he doesn’t do in the earlier books, and it doesn’t always work. The thing is, he doesn’t have to add jokes; his anecdotes are hilarious as they are, and inserting bits of cutesy humor isn’t necessary.

But these are small nits. Country Driving is a beautiful read. It may not have the hypnotic force of River Town, but what does? It’s a very different type of book, much more sweeping in its focus if not quite as intimate. If you really want to know modern-day China it’s simply indispensable.

The Discussion: 58 Comments

so what are the right answers to those questions? I almost feel like they shouldn’t be obvious.

April 4, 2010 @ 11:01 am | Comment

They had better be b and c, respectively.

April 4, 2010 @ 11:23 am | Comment

I don’t share the rapant fanboyism towards Hessler’s writings that the rest of the Sino-blogosphere seems to have. He’s an okay writer, one who is actually a friend of a friend (although we have never met), but there’s a lot of books I have to get through before I’ll read this one.

April 4, 2010 @ 11:27 am | Comment

To each his own, of course. I like the way he writes, and he is a great story teller. Of his three books on China, this is my third favorite, but that’s only because the other two were so excellent, at least to me. It also depends on the kind of book you want to read about China. I can only read so many books about how China is or isn’t shaking the world. In this genre – first-person observations of everyday life with a generous sprinkling of history – Hessler rules.

April 4, 2010 @ 11:34 am | Comment

Peter Hessler is a very quiet fellow in person. You’d never guess, but he’s actually taking down every detail about you. He observes without offering judgment, but also without shutting off his brain. In this way, he allows us to get a glimpse inside other people’s minds.

Given FOARP’s other writings, I can see why Hessler’s style doesn’t completely agree with him. Style is a very personal thing. How many times have people told you that you’d simply *adore* a certain film, but you can’t stand it?

P.S. Sidney Rittenberg’s still a Communist, isn’t he? Did he ever quit the Party? I’ve read some reports that he did, and some reports that didn’t say anything. I’m just curious if he’s ever talked about this point or if the reporter just assumed it. Maybe he’s simply a nonpracticing Communist, except during High Holy Days?

P.P.S. Surely the answer to the second question is (a), not (c). You should not be honking that much to start with — hence honk as “normal.” Another tricky question is the one about coming across an accident victim lying in the road, and what to do with organs that are hanging out of the wound. Hessler didn’t know the answer, and I’m not sure either. I think you’re supposed to cover them, but leaving them alone might also work.

April 4, 2010 @ 12:45 pm | Comment

Great review Richard. You can’t live in China, or blog about China, and not get super-saturated with references to Hessler, and I think that’s what has always discouraged me from picking up his books. Your review(s) changed my mind, and I’ll be tracking them down shortly.

If I read one more “China rising” book, I’m going to make sure a dull chopstick finds its way through my temple.

PS: Thanks for two words of the day — bloviation and Ozymandian.

April 4, 2010 @ 1:50 pm | Comment

Fascinating, about honking, Tom. But it further reveals the ridiculousness of the test. What is “normal” to the test writer has nothing to do with what is actually normal in China. What would any city in China be without a continuous cacophony of honking horns?

Rittenberg probably still is a Communist in theory (he left because he thought Deng wasn’t enough of a Communist). But God knows, he’s living the life of a capitalist now, doing the consulting thing.

April 4, 2010 @ 1:55 pm | Comment

Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

April 4, 2010 @ 1:59 pm | Trackback

Thanks, Ryan. Start with River Town.

April 4, 2010 @ 2:20 pm | Comment

The driving test reminds me of what Michael Foucault wrote in his preface about a Chinese Encyclopedia in his book “The Order of Things” :

‘This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that
shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought
– our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our
geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with
which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things,
and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our
age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes
a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are
divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame,
(d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in
the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a
very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water
pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment
of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing
that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another
system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of
thinking that.
But what is it impossible to think, and what kind of impossibility are
we faced with here? Each of these strange categories can be assigned a
precise meaning and a demonstrable content; some of them do certainly
involve fantastic entities – fabulous animals or sirens – but, precisely because
it puts them into categories of their own, the Chinese encyclopaedia
localizes their powers of contagion; it distinguishes carefully between the
very real animals (those that are frenzied or have just broken the water
pitcher) and those that reside solely in the realm of imagination.’

April 4, 2010 @ 2:23 pm | Comment

What a wonderful quote. Densely written, but very perceptive. “…the thing
that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another
system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of
thinking that.” Beautiful.

A note to commenters: I will be away for the next 24 hours so some comments may (will) get delayed, maybe for a full day. I’ll get to them as soon as I can.

April 4, 2010 @ 2:36 pm | Comment

“Most of the [migrant] workers Hessler describes want to work the long hours. The last thing they want is vacation time. They want overtime, and they want to work on the weekend, as much as they can. They’ve come to the manufacturing towns for one reason, and one reason only: to take back as much money as they possibly can for their families.”

Excellent point.

April 4, 2010 @ 7:45 pm | Comment

Very interesting review, Richard. Like you, I enjoyed “River Town” the most. Hessler has this unusual sensibility of a writer, capable of capturing nuances in seemly mundane or trivial details.

I just started “Country Driving” and am on page 65 at this moment. So far so good. I noticed though a small error near the bottom of page 62: “The change finally took place on January 31, 1945, after the Japanese had already surrendered.” But the Japanese actually surrendered on August 15 that year. I remember the date well because my parents mentioned it frequently when I was young.

If you know how to reach him, perhaps you could tell him this?

By the way, I don’t think Rittenberg is still a communist. I had email exchanges with him a few years ago after I reviewed his book, and my impression is that he has left his communist past behind. But I could be wrong.

April 5, 2010 @ 10:50 am | Comment

I haven’t read the book, but I am wondering if Hessler explores any of the reasons behind some of the more stranger driving practices, apart from just poking fun? I have found that there are actual rational reasons people do the things they do when driving in China, even though they make no sense at first.

I also read in a review he pokes fun at the Chinese practice of having to fill your rental car to the exact same level it was when you received it, but I had to do this when renting a U-Haul van in Chicago, so I don’t think it’s just a Chinese phenomenon.

April 5, 2010 @ 7:57 pm | Comment

About Sydney Rittenberg’s CCP membership.
I believe the rule is that if you are a member of the CCP and choose not to live in China as your primary residence, your party membership is suspended. When you return, your membership is reinstated.

April 6, 2010 @ 3:02 am | Comment

Thanks for commenting Xujun. I think what sets Hessler apart the most is hs ability to tell the story both from a Westerner’s perspective and through Chinese eyes. That isn’t easy to do.

Jeff, I don’t think Hessler ever pokes fun at the Chinese. He shows us what is. He give a lot of background into why they drive the way they do. He is much too good a story teller to leave out the context; unfortunately, I can’t quote the entire book in a post like this, just the ones that I found most memorable. When you read it, you’ll see pretty early on that Hessler never mocks or sneers, but explains. The explanation may strike us as a funny one, like why China includes maps in a driving book of an obscure place in the South China Sea with no roads, but Hessler isn’t getting us to laugh at China, only to understand hw its mind works.

April 6, 2010 @ 7:02 am | Comment

Chinese do not need Westerners’ pity. Please do not show this kind of fake and disgusting “sympathy”.

April 6, 2010 @ 7:36 am | Comment

I assume if some Chinese author want to show what ‘true’ America is. He could go to the Appalachians in Kentucky, interview a bunch of rednecks who are dirt poor living in broken trailers, kids having advanced tooth decay because they drank too much mountain dew, mothers who are high on meth and prescription drugs that they can’t take care of the kids. He would write a book about this, that would probably never sell because Chinese wants the image that America is paved with gold.

April 6, 2010 @ 12:13 pm | Comment

Some people can’t tell the difference between laughing at and laughing with.

April 6, 2010 @ 1:53 pm | Comment

@18 — That stuff is standard fare in Xinhua retaliatory stories each year when the State Department’s human rights report comes out.

April 6, 2010 @ 9:49 pm | Comment

Better trolls, please.

April 7, 2010 @ 2:38 am | Comment

Now that the miners have been rescued, I send my condolences to CNN and BBC. Lost another great opportunity

April 7, 2010 @ 6:10 am | Comment

Brainwashing or stupidity? Except for pug_ster, of course – we all know he’s…


April 7, 2010 @ 10:27 am | Comment

“I assume if some Chinese author want to show what ‘true’ America is. He could go to the Appalachians in Kentucky, interview a bunch of rednecks”, etc.

“Chinese do not need Westerners’ pity. Please do not show this kind of fake and disgusting “sympathy”.”


Can’t you fenqing learn to develop thicker skins?

We Brits are constantly writing books and making documentary series — often fronted by comedians and celebrities like Louis Theroux and Stephen Fry — that take an irreverant and light-hearted view of the USA, highlighting the eccentricities, absurdities and naivity of its inhabitants.

And yet I’ve never once heard an American rant about our insults to the “American motherland”.

Chill out.

April 7, 2010 @ 5:27 pm | Comment

Ah yes, the hurt feelings thing.

April 7, 2010 @ 9:04 pm | Comment


There’s a difference between a documentary and a comedy. As far as I know, Peter Hessler’s book is not about comedy.

April 8, 2010 @ 1:44 am | Comment

Here’s a radical suggestion, pug: read the book, r at least read some excerpts and do your research. Then come back and share your opinions. Until then, you’re just quacking and making the usual wrong assumptions.

April 8, 2010 @ 6:21 am | Comment

I hate it when I accidentally hurt China’s feelings! It makes me feel really bad…I hurt an entire big country’s feelings! Little me!

April 8, 2010 @ 9:12 am | Comment

“There’s a difference between a documentary and a comedy. As far as I know, Peter Hessler’s book is not about comedy.”

These programmes I was referring to are documentaries, and beneath their surface lightheartedness they invariably adress serious issues — white supremacists, the narcissistic obsession with cosmetic surgery, the evangelical American Right, and so on.

April 8, 2010 @ 12:36 pm | Comment

I always bring Band-Aids whenever I talk about China, just in case.

April 8, 2010 @ 1:41 pm | Comment

I would also like an apology from Soujourner for his comments about lighthearted British documentaries. Perhaps “lighthearted” in this case refers to the immensely hurt feelings that I, as an American descended from the White Emperor George Washington, have developed after reading about them, making my heart bleed, and hence making it lighter.
I hope that all Brits will always remember that the American people stood up sometime in the late 1700s on a specific date that I can’t remember and expelled the crafty British imperialists. Hundreds of years later, they have clearly still not changed their tricky old ways and are now promoting a “Food Revolution” on ABC with that secret agent Jamie Oliver. Please, Jamie Oliver, stop hurting the American people’s feelings! Stop making my heart lighter!

April 8, 2010 @ 1:49 pm | Comment

Not only do I refuse to aplogise for my comments, or for the documentaries, I equally deny the so-called “truth” of the Boston Massacre of 1779, and await the radiant day when our American compatriats overthrow the splittist regime that has usurped power in the colonies for two centuries and reunite them with the glorious British motherland.

Long live Jamie Oliver and warm beer!

April 8, 2010 @ 2:10 pm | Comment

I spewed my Cabernet on the keyboard! Because I am a secret Cheese-eating Surrender Monkey…

April 8, 2010 @ 2:50 pm | Comment

I demand an apology from Americans for the books written by that Imperialist running dog Paul Theroux regarding the British. One can tell, as his not much better compatriot Bill Bryson pointed out, that he could not have done much research or indeed travelling in Britain by engaging in conversations with Britons on trains. We British do not speak to strangers unless proper introductions have been performed – who is this running dog Theroux to say he spoke to strangers and claim they really engaged in conversation with him?

Hope this comment is as incomprehensible as the ones we normally get 🙂 I also think the Chinese should return our properties stolen from us like Rover cars. After all, they bought the company from asset strippers…stealing, in other words 😉

April 8, 2010 @ 5:58 pm | Comment

putz_ster: “As far as I know…”

You, putz_ster, should never ever begin a sentence with this phrase. You are an ignorant Know Nothing, the apotheosis of 愚民.

April 8, 2010 @ 6:25 pm | Comment

Read enough pugster, merp and red star and you can begin to understand why the CCP is loathe to give the Chinese people any say in how they are governed. Contempt is the only reaction I can summon for their opinions on anything.

April 8, 2010 @ 11:24 pm | Comment


First of all, I wasn’t talking about how Chinese people or Chinese politics for that matter. Second, I am sure that most westerners would like the Chinese government would be in the state like Kyrgyzstan. Let democracy ring until the government is toppled over again.

Gang Dew,

Instead of trying to understand how Chinese thinks, you think they are backwarded and put these hate filled words here. That’s true ignorance.

April 9, 2010 @ 5:08 am | Comment

Because I’m sure all Chinese people think exactly the same. Sheesh.

April 9, 2010 @ 8:00 am | Comment

“Second, I am sure that most westerners would like the Chinese government would be in the state like Kyrgyzstan. Let democracy ring until the government is toppled over again.”
Ummm, just what is Kyrgystan to do with democracy? And if you bother reading the western press you would see most westerners – the vast majority, in fact – do not want China destabilised. That would be a major no-no for all of us in this globalised world.

Talking of how Chinese think
Seems they aren’t so different after all 🙂

April 9, 2010 @ 8:11 am | Comment

Happy and harmonious Chinese people
“It comes as new figures show that China is spending unprecedented levels of money and manpower to contain “internal threats” from its population.

Authorities fear people are becoming increasingly disgruntled by rising prices and a growing rich-poor divide that is overshadowing China’s massive economic achievements of the last 30 years that have lifted millions out of poverty.

Common grievances include injustice at the hand of corrupt local officials, rising house prices, a failing healthcare system, forced evictions and land-grabs by developers and heavy-handed policing by the municipal authorities.

At his annual speech to China’s rubber-stamp parliament, Premier Wen Jiabao, explicitly recognised that endemic corruption and rising inequalities were the two main threats to the Communist Party’s sole right to rule.

Earlier this year, Yu Jianrong, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, issued a paper estimating that the Chinese state contains 90,000 such protests a year, a level of discontent that he said was “truly worrying” to Chinese leaders.

As an indication of Chinese government thinking, Mr Yu recalled a conversation with a retired “ministry level” official who told him: “You think that China’s society will not experience upheaval. I think that it will definitely experience upheaval, and that time is not too far distant.””

Of course, do you trust the “biased western press” or the rigidly censored Chinese press? Such a dilemma….

April 9, 2010 @ 9:03 am | Comment

I’m sold. I’ll pick up a copy of River Town after exams. Thanks Richard

As for pug_ster/other misc riff/raff please chill. It’s very easy to see when criticism is offered with malice and when it’s objective. I very much welcome the latter. China isn’t spotless (anyone claiming such is delusional) and well intended open discussion can only improve it.

on the other hand it takes two idiots to make a village and Mike Goldthorpe has offered himself as the other “fuck_wit” good luck good luck.

April 9, 2010 @ 11:52 am | Comment

Ahhh, Justin, I am that indeed. Merely the comedic interlude, the minstrel that likes to tease.
Actually, only 1 idiot per village. At least, that’s the going rate in the west. Guess things are different in China…

You don’t know what “Justin” means in English, do you 😉 I’ll spare your blushes 😀

April 9, 2010 @ 5:56 pm | Comment

Other Lisa,

Exactly, typical Western Attitude. Americans don’t care what Chinese think.

April 10, 2010 @ 4:10 am | Comment

Actually, my point is that trying to say what “Americans” think and what “Chinese” think is sort of a waste of time. There’s a huge diversity of opinion. Being born in a country does not mean you’ve automatically been, I don’t know, formatted with a specific set of opinions pre-installed.

Sure, there are somegeneralizations one could make, but…no, really, there aren’t. For example, you could make some generalizations about what certain groups of Americans are likely to think. But across the entire population? It’s absurd to even try.

And I think the same thing is true of Chinese people. I really hate it when people make too many generalizations about, you know, A BILLION PEOPLE! Who are individuals, and who have a huge range of opinions.

April 10, 2010 @ 11:53 am | Comment

Interesting proposal to learning to drive safer.

Go to China

Follow the link for more information

April 12, 2010 @ 11:22 pm | Comment

For those that have read the link, another proposal.

Send American drivers to China to learn to drive defensively

Send Chinese drivers the US to learn to drive following the rules.

Use special marked car so local driver can be aware of different driving technique.

April 12, 2010 @ 11:24 pm | Comment

One of life’s great ironies, at least as manifested on this and some other blogs, is that the very same people who champion the need to understand how Chinese people think, are simultaneously quite adverse to giving Chinese people the means to truly and fully express the contents of those thoughts.

Another one is that, while an American spending extensive amounts of time in China by definition remains wholly incapable of enhancing his/her understanding of Chinese people, a Chinese person living in America can still unabashedly claim to have a hard-wire link to the hearts/minds of 1.3 billion people.

April 13, 2010 @ 1:06 pm | Comment

I’m almost finished with Country Driving–a bit more amusing than the previous two. I also read his first two books out of order, and I think it was better for me that way. I met Hessler in NYC and got to interview him (interview isn’t published yet)–he’s a really nice guy.

April 14, 2010 @ 12:05 pm | Comment

One of life’s great ironies, at least as manifested on this and some other blogs, is that the very same people who champion the need to understand how Chinese people think, are simultaneously quite adverse to giving Chinese people the means to truly and fully express the contents of those thoughts.

They can express 99.9% of it, in exchange for that .1% they are free from having 10-50% of their culture supplanted by Japanese, Taiwanese or Korea style Westernization. Look at what Hollywood did to Hong Kong and Korean cinema. Any complaints about suppression is generally worth hearing, the bullshit “freedoms” arguments from “Americans” (more like American MSM) about freedom of speech sound too much like Hollywood fatties bellyaching about not being able to bulldoze yet another culture for $$$$$

If anything, freedom to publish peer reviewed and well sourced information along with a cultural exception aimed at fending off greasy, disgusting, race-baiting Hollywood would make more freedom of speech a good thing.

April 16, 2010 @ 1:18 pm | Comment

Merp, you are so right about Hollywood – race baiting! greasy! disgusting!

What are you referring to? There are many Hollywood movies that attack racism. There are probably some that can be accused of furthering racial stereotypes. But what are you referring to? What are the voices in your head saying? Be specific – what on earth are you talking about in regard to Hollywood’s race-baiting?

“Look at what Hollywood did to Hong Kong and Korean cinema.” No one forced Hong Kong or Korean cinema to adopt H’wood’s methodology. Hey, look at what China’s big developers have done to the hutongs. Progress can be an ugly thing, pulling down the traditional and replacing it with what makes more money. Many, many examples of that here in China. It’s not evil, it’s just how the world goes. Once China makes better movies maybe other countries will similarly follow its example.

April 16, 2010 @ 2:45 pm | Comment

No idea where Merp gets his percentages. From Merp-Math, I guess. So when I say that Chinese people should be able to “fully” express their thoughts, his response seems to be that they can express “most” of it, and should be satisfied with that. Well, awfully gregarious of Merp to concede the rest to the CCP, on behalf of all Chinese people.

Oh, and look, he’s got “westernization”, “Americans”, “mainstream media”, and “Hollywood” all rolled up into 1 thankfully short paragraph. Cuz if you’re gonna misconstrue stuff, might as well do it with the shotgun approach, and hope something sticks. As a further example of irony, Merp utilizes the same methods favored by good folks like Beck, of whom Merp probably holds in high regard, his previous criticisms of Beck notwithstanding.

Now, we know that Merp detests much of “western”/”American” society (and we already know that those 2 things seem to be synonymous in his mind), yet doesn’t mind living within it. So although he may rail against Hollywood, any bets on whether he ever visits the local multiplex?

April 16, 2010 @ 4:54 pm | Comment

Aaaah, yes – Hollywood = Westernisation

Remind me…what sphere is France in?

I assume by saying the Chinese can express 99.9% of their thoughts means they have learnt to make sure their thoughts are within the boundaries laid down by the CCP? Why are Honkers allowed more leeway? Is it because they are less Chinese…as your mate Hong Xing suggested a wee while back?

April 16, 2010 @ 6:10 pm | Comment

More Hollywood Western propaganda…

April 16, 2010 @ 6:15 pm | Comment

More Hollywood Western propaganda…

We all know the average bloke in the UK would rather bash a poof or do some football related rioting, stampeding and killing than watch some melodramatic film about a bunch of Chinamen dying.

April 26, 2010 @ 8:13 am | Comment

Great review of the book. I also started with Oracle Bones, and had a very similar feeling toward its disjointed nature. Once I read River town, however, I became a dedicated Hessler Fan. I am often jealous of his ability to make such great observations and still seem to remain relatively unbiased (at least for the most part). He continues to be a huge source of inspiration. I was worried that Country Driving would just be a compilation of his New Yorker snippets, but he seems to have used them to good measure in building the narrative.

April 29, 2010 @ 4:52 am | Comment

[…] and while they may have looked odd they certainly didn’t seem to be threatening anyone. In Country Driving, Peter Hessler describes how the family he shadows in Book Two participate in the dangerous cult […]

May 19, 2010 @ 8:31 am | Pingback

[…] photos cracked me up and brought back a stream of anecdotes from Peter Hessler’s new book re. the oddities of driving in […]

May 28, 2010 @ 8:21 am | Pingback

[…] nearly all the middle managers were women. (Never the CEO or chairman, of course.) I remember in Peter Hessler’s Country Driving a description of the hiring practices at a Chinese factory: they only wanted to hire women, because, […]

December 29, 2010 @ 8:00 am | Pingback

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