The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

May 26, 2010

Two Chinese Road Trips

In 2001, Peter Hessler obtained his Chinese driving licence and began to drive around that great country. An American, he was already a skilled driver, and so he is shaken and shocked and stirred by the terrible abilities of China's drivers. By dint of sheer physical courage and intellectual curiosity, he tames his fears of the Chinese roads, and sets out to discover his adopted country. His latest book, Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip is an account of the people he met who took him into their confidences and their homes, the factories that rose and fell, the villages that emptied, the fields that became urban landscapes, the pollution that killed, the astounding socioeconomic transformation of the world's most populated nation. In turns he is ironic, critical, deeply inquisitive, puzzled, stymied, but he is always affectionate, and the Chinese respond to him. Not just the simple folk but also the cadres open up to him, and he tells their stories.

There have been other books on Chinese roads (e.g., Rob Gifford's China Road: One Man's Journey into the Heart of Modern China, which I talk about below) but there's little overlap here. Hessler might gad about this highway or that, but his book is about the stationary, the necessity of continuity with one's past. And so whether he is living with a peasant family of wannabe entrepreneurs, or talking to impoverished minorities seeking assimilation in a great city, or travelling with an itinerant variety show complete with brief nudity for the titillation of the exhausted proletariat, he wants to understand what it is that prompts these people to make the choices they make, to go the places they go to, to see why they find themselves despised by their neighbours and yet stand tall, to uproot their families and lose their connections to their ancestors, and to seek salvation in new faiths. This is a moving book beautifully written, very well worth your time.

A Briton, Rob Gifford was NPR's correspondent in China for many years, and before he decided to up sticks and return to London, he took a long journey on China's highway 312, the Mother Road. It goes from Shanghai to the Kyrgyz border, and takes in every town of importance along the way - Xi'an, Nanjing, Luzhou, Urumqi. At times it follows the Great Wall (and geographically overlaps a part of Hessler's trips) and at others it winds around mountains, fords great rivers, cuts straight across plateaus. Unlike Hessler, Gifford takes buses and hires drivers for his trip, but both men bring the same quality of engagement with their subjects, the same level of empathy, and similar sense of discrimination.

Like Hessler, the big story in Gifford's book is of the grand migration of peasantry to industry. Often, entire families uproot themselves, but more usually it's the younger generation that travels thousands of miles for a job in a factory, leaving their under-educated and unskilled (and, in China, unwanted (at least in the industry)) parents behind. There are serious social divisions, a lack of adequate health support, underpayment, terrible working conditions, corrupt administrations, and through it all, the migrants manage to find jobs, obtain a semblance of independence for themselves, fall in love, marry, have (one) offspring. As they work themselves up the value chain, they might migrate from Central Chinese cities to the more cut-throat and better-paying cities of the coast, hoping for that pot of gold, that fancy car, that European fashion icon. Sadly, though, for many, economic gain is not forthcoming, and emotionally they cripple themselves. Gifford gives voice to the successful (an agony aunt on Shanghai's most popular TV channel) and the unfortunate (donors of blood for money who end up with AIDS), the chilling (late term abortionists) and the droll (Amway acolytes filled with fervour), the Han (industrious, populous and ignorant of large swathes of their own country) and the minorities (a Tibetan man who admits that for him, independence is pointless, and he can only get ahead in life by learning Mandarin and teaching it to his compatriots). In a country that has gone from the kowtow to the air kiss in less than a century, it is not surprising that there are serious problems and equally spectacular successes. Gifford is evenhanded enough to note both, and is humble enough to state that he doesn't know whether China, as we know it, will survive or fail. Another good book, this.


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