Peter Hessler interview
Peter Hessler, former Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker and acclaimed writer on China, drove the length of the country in a beat-up Jeep. Along the way, he found a wealth of oddities and a nation that’s changing with more speed than the reckless drivers on its new roads. He spoke to Patrick Brzeski about his resultant new book, Country Driving
In the Autumn of 2001, Peter Hessler set out from Beijing on an epic 11,000km solo road trip across northern China. Seeking a richer understanding of the impact of the country’s breakneck economic development on the lives of rural farmers, Hessler – longtime Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker and bestselling author of three non-fiction books on China – attempted to follow the entire expanse of the Great Wall, from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea. As a westerner on the road alone, he didn’t know what to expect, and as an experienced foreign journalist, he worried about encounters with the police.
“When I started, I had no idea how long it would last,” Hessler says on the phone from Colorado, where he now lives with his wife Leslie Chang, author of Factory Girls, a book that explores the plight of two young factory workers in contemporary China. “As a journalist, you’re registered as such with the government and they traditionally control journalists very carefully,” he explains. “A few years before I did this, the New York Times correspondent, Patrick Tyler, had an idea that he was going to try to drive to Tibet.” Tyler had the New York Times bureau car driven to Lanzhuo, flew there to pick it up and hit the road heading west. “He got detained almost immediately,” Hessler says, laughing at the recollection. “So I wouldn’t have been surprised if I got turned back after a week. But it worked out amazingly well.”
Tyler had driven a car with diplomat plates and “The New York Times” emblazoned across its side. Hoping to keep a lower profile, Hessler rented a Jeep with civilian plates and packed a tent so he could sleep alongside remote dirt roads and avoid the trucker hotels that require foreigners to register their names and visa numbers on government forms.
Yet once he got away from the cities, Hessler found there were so few police patrolling the highways that the government had installed life-size statues of officers standing at attention alongside the roadways – the hope, presumably, was that the stern-looking statuary would have a scarecrow effect on passing motorists.
What he did regularly bump into, however, was a proliferation of cultural curios and oddities to rival any zany road movie ever made. Ever sympathetic and quick to laugh, when asked of these experiences Hessler says, “Yeah, I mean, it’s a weird place. It’s also a very funny place.” He once stayed in a hotel that had a bowling alley as its lobby. He watched a camel pull a plow. He observed farm workers leave their crops on the road so the wheels of passing cars would do their threshing. Late in his journey, during a traffic jam in the far north, he saw truck drivers huddled in the snow beneath their stalled vehicles attempting to thaw frozen gas lines with flaming road flares. He kept his distance.
The people he encountered were often equally unsure of what to make of him. With his fluent Putonghua and nuanced grasp of Chinese customs, Hessler, originally from Missouri, blended in so well that several hitchhikers he picked up along the way assumed he was Mongolian, or a member of the taller, more western-looking Uighur ethnic group of Xinjiang. “You’re not from our China?” a young girl pensively asked after a few minutes in the car. A few of the more worldly Chinese youths grew excited and giggly, guessing he was an international spy.
All those experiences and more are collected in Hessler’s latest book, Country Driving – A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. “To drive across China was to find yourself in the middle of the largest migration in human history,” he writes in the book’s opening section. As Hessler reports, at the time of his drive, nearly one-tenth of China’s billion-plus population was on the move, seeking
new lives and new opportunities far from home in the factory boomtowns of the south. The heart of Country Driving, as with all of Hessler’s work, comes from his commitment to understanding and conveying the experiences of normal Chinese people as they work, struggle and dream through the current phase of vertiginous nationwide development. The book’s first section recounts his Great Wall road trip, during which he passed through ancient farming villages one generation away from extinction. The remaining indigent residents of the towns are all middle-aged or elderly, as nearly every young person has left in search of work in the south. Redolent of the region’s deep history, the village names resound with northern China’s ancient warring past – ‘Slaughter the Hu’, Suppress the Barbarians’ – and they leave little to the imagination. “Basically, the name of our village means ‘Kill the Foreigners,” explained an old man from the town of ‘Pacify the Hu’ who Hessler met on his way to ‘Smash the Hu’ (‘Hu’ in ancient China referred to the nomadic people of the north).
By the book’s second section, Hessler has finished his country-wide peregrinations and has rented a traditional home (a shack, really) in the small farming village of Sancha, about two hours’ drive from Beijing. He used his rural hovel as a writer’s retreat and weekend escape away from the frenetic street rhythms of life in Beijing. Like most agrarian villages, Sancha’s population had recently plummeted. When Hessler arrived, only 150 middle-aged and elderly residents remained, and just one child lived in the village, the son of the sole remaining young-ish brood: the Wei family. Hessler’s growing attachment to Sancha and close friendship with the Weis makes up the bulk of Country Driving and forms a touching portrait of the effects of China’s new roadways on traditional Chinese life.
“One of the main factors for any rural region of China is the road,” he says, “and in areas where a new road is built in a way that puts them in reach of market centres and urban centres, living standards tend to respond quickly.”
A year after Hessler’s arrival, the dirt road connecting Sancha to the highways of Beijing was paved. Soon, new weekend drivers from Beijing were rolling into town bearing city customs and city cash. Local villagers were quick to open restaurants and guest houses to cater to the weekend tourists’ appetites for a “traditional rural experience”. Within five years in the village, Hessler saw annual household incomes in Sancha balloon from US$250 to more than US$800.
The survivors of famines and innumerable hardships, the villagers apparently harbour no nostalgia for their pastoral past. Hessler agrees the material improvements are a good thing for Chinese farmers, but he also notices some negative aspects to development.
“As they became a little more prosperous, each member of the Wei family became less healthy,” he explains. The head of the household, Wei Ziqi, soon became a heavy drinker and smoker, an occupational requirement for any aspiring Chinese businessman; the son went from being a somewhat malnourished but active little boy to a chubby kid who watches hours of television every day and gorges himself on processed snack foods. The mother, meanwhile, began to feel a growing sense of emptiness as the family became increasingly preoccupied with their home restaurant business and cut off from more communal aspects of village life. Says Hessler: “She becomes interested in Buddhism and she builds a shrine, but it doesn’t take her anywhere – it doesn’t take her to a group of people, a group who makes her feel connected and at peace. It’s pretty lonely.”
In total, before his return to the US in 2006, Hessler spent ten years living side-by-side with average Chinese families. All that experience has naturally given him an acute perspective on the ways in which western media occasionally indulge in nationalistic hubris or miss the deeper human story of China today. “I think as westerners, we’re often obsessed with this idea of unrest in China, particularly political unrest. You’re always reading about big protests and is this going to cause the downfall of the political system and all that,” he says. “And the longer I lived there, the less impressed I was by that. I really feel like it’s basically a pretty stable place, politically, and quite functional. The real unrest that I noticed, and that I think is really significant, is much more internal: people trying to find their bearings, and in particular within families and within groups, as communities and villages are broken up. People are dealing with a lot of change, and it’s hard on them.”
Ultimately, Hessler says he’s an optimist on China. “I certainly have a lot of admiration for the resourcefulness and drive of the people, and that’s one of the reasons that there’s a lot of humour in my work. I think in the end, it’s not a dark, dismal place, but there is this element that remains to be sorted out.” As years pass, he has started to feel that this sense of emptiness – “the sense that there should be something else” – will play a major role in the country’s development in the coming years.
For now, Hessler is eager to turn his attention elsewhere. Asked about upcoming projects, he says he plans to spend a few years away from the country where he’s built his career and spent nearly all of his adulthood. “I’m sure I’ll go back to China eventually, but I’d like to have a period of five or six years where I’m doing something different.”
Next on the radar? “My wife and I would like to go to the Middle East, possibly Syria, to study Arabic and write about that part of the world,” he says. “I think it would be interesting to write about another place that’s in the news a lot, but where you don’t have a lot of stories about living there and life on the ground. I think that would be valuable.”
Country Driving is published by Harper Collins.
Read the full transcript here.