Peter Hessler: The Open Road in China

*Asia Society, Feb 2010

Imagine following a wall across a country. With that initial childhood reaction, journalist Peter Hessler embarked on a road trip across China, from the cities into the interior, from farms to factories. The result is Country Driving: a Journey through China from Farm to Factory, part reportage and part memoir, is a culmination of his life and research in China that spanned over eight years.

As a former Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker, Hessler’s articles have also appeared in the National Geographic, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, and the Boston Globe. Based in China for a decade in the 2000s, he has previously written two books on the country, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtzeand Oracle Bones.

In conversation with Arthur Ross Center on US-China Relations Fellow and journalist Emily Parker at the Asia Society headquarters in New York, Hessler elaborated on his experience and examined the effect of China’s rapid development on its citizens.  

With a photograph of an empty stretch of road, Hessler began reading the opening sentences of Country Driving: “There are still empty roads in China, especially in the western steppes…It was the thought of all that fleeting open space – the new roads to old places, the landscapes on the verge of change – that finally inspired me to get a Chinese driver’s license.”

The conversation discussed the three different themes of the book: the Road, the Village, and the Factory. But the focus never strayed far from the locals Hessler encountered, who provide the core of each section. On the whole, Hessler expressed his admiration for the Chinese in the face of change, saying “People are trying to figure things out. It is impressive how flexible and resourceful they can be.

Development is a real issue and a popular conception about China, according to Hessler, who thinks that such rapid pace of change and sense of disorientation affects people. When he lived in a local village, Hessler became close to a family who became successful entrepreneurs, but came under immense stress from their speedy success. The author professes that his non-political inclinations led him to focus on the lives of the Chinese people instead of writing about the larger scheme of things. “The transition from the countryside is amazing,” said Hessler, “and worth figuring out ways to tell the story.”

When asked what the main misconceptions about China, Hessler stated that mobility and opportunity are the big issues in China. “People are not pulled out of villages because of starvation; they are pulled out by opportunity,” he said.

What began as a car journey, led to Hessler tracking the development of a village, and finally to the factory towns, which signified where the country is headed. In Hessler’s opinion, the phase of development China is in encourages resourcefulness and risk-taking, but does not encourage long-term planning. “People are conditioned to do what they can now,” he said.

Although he states that big steps need to be made to add value-added products to be created and the ability to innovate, Hessler acknowledges that the system, large population which induces cheap labour, and political structure makes it difficult to do so. But overall, Hessler is optimistic about China’s future, saying that the Chinese are going to weather better than people expect.

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factoryby Peter Hessler is available at the AsiaStore.

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