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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best description of contemporary China I have read, Oct. 4 2010
This review is from: Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory (Hardcover)
I am a Sinophile (three visits starting in 2007; studying Chinese, etc.), so I've read dozens of books about contemporary China in the last three years. This is the best. And there are some great books out there: Susan Shirk's book on Chinese politics (China: Fragile Superpower); Fuchsia Dunlap's amusing and insightful view of China from a culinary perspective (Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper); Nicole Mones' excellent Chinese fiction (especially Lost in Translation); the Inspector Chen mystery series by Qiu Xiaolong; and Sam Goodman's book on doing business in China (Where East Eats West). But no book I've read better captures the contradictions and complexities of contemporary reality in China.

Don't let the title fool you. Only the first part uses Hessler's driving experiences throughout China as a focus. The first part is wildly amusing as he recounts China's adaptation to the automobile, from roadside statutes of traffic policeman (in lieu of actual police), to his car rental's agency requirement that the gas tank be brought back in exactly the same condition as it left (if you get 3/8 of a tank, that's what they want back), to the habit of settling traffic accidents through on the spot financial settlements between drivers.

The second part is the best description of Chinese village life I have yet read. In addition to living in Beijing, Hessler rented a second home in a completely undeveloped village around 100 miles outside of China. He is completely fluent in Chinese and over time became intimate with the villagers and the rhythms of country life. What makes this part of the book fascinating is that the village he lived in, Sancha, became integrated with greater Beijing to some degree over the course of the book, so the book actually recounts the process by which a completely rural town began to adopt the customs of larger cities, capturing the inevitable gains and losses in the process.

The third part of the book is set in Zhejiang province and captures what life is like in a Chinese factory, viewed from the microcosm of a small factory making part of the wiring for brassieres (Hessler's ability to capture details like this is amazing). He uses this setting to capture the aspirations of peasants moving from the farm to factory life, the relations of business to government, the politics and mechanics of redevelopment, the entrepeneurial process in China, and a host of other issues that are brillantly translated into practical (and humorous) terms in this last part.

I can't overpraise the book. This is essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of China.

Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm To Factory
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good listener to roadside locals, Jan. 5 2011
By 
Brian Griffith (Toronto, Canada) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory (Hardcover)
I think Hessler is the best kind of journalist, and the opposite of a sensationalist. He just hangs out with local people and conveys their struggles to completely change things. He must be a friendly guy to be allowed such access to people's family and business lives. They let him listen in as they conduct job interviews, discipline kids, handle tax inspectors, plan factories from the ground up, or have dinner with their families.

Part of the book concerns road trips. But most of it is about getting to know groups of ordinary people. Their intense pragmatism and determination to improvise give Hessler his opening to learn. We see how development areas are funded, how factories are thrown together, how police buy shares in speed traps, and traveling circus shows operate outside the law. Mostly, Hessler shows us common people taking huge risks, flying by the seats of their pants, making mistakes that are both dangerous and hilarious, clawing their way to a slightly better day.

--author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A boook I will read again, Nov. 15 2010
By 
C. J. Thompson "Arctic John" (Pond Inlet, Nunavut Canada) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory (Hardcover)
I have an interest in many things Chinese and I enjoy reading about the experiences of others who have traveled or lived there. Paul Theroux has given me a great glimpse into this enigmatic country as it existed in the 1980's (Riding the Iron Rooster), and Simon Winchester followed up with a look at life along the Yangtze in the 1990's in The River At The Center Of The World. As a matter of fact, Hessler himself also wrote about China in the 1990's in River Town: Two Years On The Yangtze, but he has now given us a great expose on the new and fast-changing China in the new millenium. I cannot help but feel, after reading this book, that Theroux would scarcely be able to recognize the country he wrote about two decades ago. The pictures Hessler paints of Chinese life is colorful and fascinating and I now intend to purchase and read his other 'Chinese' book entitled Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time In China. There were a few parts of the book that I found just slightly uninteresting (the detailed look at the automotive industry, comes to mind), but these parts were more than balanced by sections that were hugely entertaining and often humorous.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Very entertaining reading, June 30 2011
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This review is from: Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory (Hardcover)
Very well written and quite an insight into real china. he has a great sense of humour which makes the reading even more fun
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The new China, Nov. 19 2012
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If you have a passing curiosity on the new rising power, read this book. It offers a rare first-hand account of real people coping with a changing China.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A real Achievement. One of the Greatest Old Hands of our Generation!, Aug. 10 2011
By 
Peter Hessler first visited China in 1996 with World Corps as a Volunteer, helping out in some of the poorest parts of the country. Years later, his experience in the area landed him work as a Journalist with the Wall Street Journal (among other publications), which seemed to keep him in China. When it comes to Zhongguotongs (Foreigners adept at all things China), he is one of the best and most famous. Not only does his rich understanding of China come through in this book, but his Mandarin is impeccable.

But first, the set up. A few years ago, Hessler decided to get out of Beijing for a while, so he rented a car (as per the rental company, he wasn't allowed to leave city limits). Hours later he was cruising well beyond the borders of Beijing, looking for parts of the Great Wall. On the way he met locals, Great Wall experts, amateur Historians, picks up hitchhikers, and got shaken down my more than a few Government officials (not because of the car, but because as a journalist, he's considered a troublemaker). All of the adventures are detailed here, and that's just the start. Interwoven in his misadventures are rich historical backgrounds on all things China.

After spending extended periods of time outside of Beijing, he decided to rent a house, something small and neat. As a writer, he was looking for someplace peaceful to get his work done. As his stay in the countryside progressed, he met his neighbours and became more and more involved in their daily lives. Armed with his linguistic mastery and astute Chinese sensitivity, he was permitted, even welcomed, into their lives. This book relates to the reader, some of the most intimate records of Mainland Chinese Country life. And since many of the country's people are moving into the city, it allows anyone living in China for the first time, a better understanding at the elusive 'Chinese mind.' That, I believe, is the strongest part about this book.

There are countless books on Chinese history, opinion pieces, books on the Tao, books on how Confucian thought has influenced Chinese society. Mountains of this stuff. This book shows, with incredible detail, the level to which the Chinese family supersedes all, and the oft-cited Guanxi (Chinese for 'Relationships') can lead one to greatness, or corruption.

Now previously I had theorized that Guanxi was how the Chinese 'made up' for not having a strong legal system. I suppose I was half right. There are contracts all over China which are completely worthless. Ultimately Guanxi represents your personal recourse. Backing up those contracts is no one, certainly no court, but rather, the other people in the community who will support you. In a sense, you have to go out and get your jury.

Moreover, guanxi isn't just a form of currency, but a useful re-useable one. Chinese often buy big cartons of cigarettes and pass them to friends and business partners as gifts; you can imagine the cartons of cigarettes getting passed around the city, as one upstart has dinner with a client, who then passes it onto an official, who then passes it on to a good friend, who then tries to start up his own business, and uses it to get favours there. Sometimes, they don't even smoke these gifts, they just pass them around. Sometimes the 'gift' is no gift at all, but a favor, or the patronage of someone's business. As you see, these are favors that everyone benefits from, in many ways.

At this point you must be thinking, it sounds like a madhouse, to be so desensitized to corruption. But don't forget, corruption aside, China can be a very strict and locked down place to live. The Guanxi, or palmgrease, is the wiggle room. It may be that the locals don't feel it the way outsiders do, because locals know how to bend the rules. So Guanxi is not only the legal system, and the system of currency, but the valve that makes life liveable. With connections.

Some of those with connections will rise; in fact, those same officials often started as little fish, growing their network to become big fish. To grow their connections even further, they join The Party, and before they know it, they're on the other team. That's one way to go from nothing, to being super famous in China'to leave your mark. And to some, that's the most important thing of all.

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Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory
Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler (Hardcover - Feb. 1 2010)
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