Most books that I’ve read of China cover its history up to Mao’s death and after 1949, it is difficult to trust almost anything one reads in the West or in China, since most of this work is either biased and/or propagandized in the West or propaganda in China since the mass media is owned by the State.
However, I’m glad that I read Peter Hessler’s memoir of China, Country Driving. Rarely does Hessler intrude with his own Western bias (if there is one), which appears to make a slight appearance near the end. I suspect that his editor at Harper Collins suggested that he add it to the story, and he complied, because the few opinions he expresses near the conclusion of his memoir do not match the experiences that he shares with his readers in the rest of the book. In fact, while reading the book, I grew to trust Hessler’s perspective of today’s China.
It is obvious that Hessler honestly loves/respects China and its people and this infatuation runs throughout the memoir. He also carefully or unintentionally avoids mention of what he thinks about his own culture, which made me wonder if there is a lot he doesn’t respect about his homeland.
Maybe the reason why he continues to return to China is because of this infatuation with a culture that values family more than most Americans do. In fact, in the memoir’s acknowledgements, I discovered that Hessler was married to Leslie T. Chang, which even my wife—a Chinese immigrant to the US, whose first book, a memoir of growing up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year—didn’t know.
Leslie Chang discussing her novel “Factory Girls”
Hessler’s wife is the author of Factory Girls, which is also about today’s China. Chang is Chinese-American and a graduate of Harvard. She is also an accomplished journalist and was raised outside New York City by immigrant parents, who forced her to attend Saturday-morning Chinese school, which is so Chinese.
For example, our daughter speaks Mandarin fluently and she was born in Chicago and is a product of the US public schools but with an immigrant mother and an American step father (me), which may explain (in part) why she is completing her second year at Stanford currently majoring in biology instead of trying out for American Idol while waiting tables in a Hollywood coffee shop.
Both Peter and Leslie have published work that went on to be honored as New York Times Notable Books.
Anyway, back to Country Driving. Much of Hessler’s memoir was connected to projects he wrote at The New Yorker or National Geographic. The memoir is divided into three sections: Book I, The Wall; Book II, The Village, and Book III, The Factory.
Throughout the book there is a common theme: the independence and individuality of most Chinese and the failure of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda, which is there but often ignored by most of the people unless they can use the CCP to their own advantage. That doesn’t mean the propaganda has no influence but the people seldom let it get in their way as they work to improve the quality of their lives.
In fact, it becomes clear in Hessler’s memoir that there are three Chinas: there is rural China, urban China and the Chinese Communist Party and many shades of gray among them.
Continued on May 29, 2012 in Country Driving in China with Peter Hessler – Part 2
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
Subscribe to “iLook China”!
Sign up for an E-mail Subscription at the top of this page, or click on the “Following” tab in the WordPress toolbar at the top of the screen.