In the first 122 pages of Country Driving, Peter Hessler sets out to drive the entire length of the Great Wall in a rented Chinese made Jeep Cherokee and he achieves his goal. In this section, I learned that the Wall was successful most of the time and not the failure historians claim it was. Yes, in several thousand years, the wall failed a few times but it served its purpose and did protect China’s heartland for centuries. Hessler says that there is no archaeologist in the world that has studied the history of the Great Wall but wrote there are amateur experts (we meet a few in this section along with a unique view of rural China) that have proven through historical research that the wall did work.
In Part II, Hessler takes us into a small village a few hours drive outside Beijing where he rents a house and becomes accepted by the insular-rural village community making friends and becoming involved personally with local families. The man that becomes his closest contact and friend in the village eventually joins the CCP (there are only about 80 million members in China) and then uses this to his advantage as he continues to improve the quality of his family’s lifestyle.
In Part III, Hessler travels to the city of Winzhou in Southern China where he spends time developing relationships with factory bosses and workers. In this section, the Chinese people he meets are open and friendly. Hessler sees a side of China that few witness and it is obvious that the factory workers are not victims because of low pay and long hours of work but see this new life as an opportunity.
Peter Hessler discussing his novel “Oracle Bones”
When I finished Hessler’s memoir, I walked away feeling as if I had experienced an in-depth taste of the dramatic changes that have taken place in China since Mao’s death in 1976. Since China’s critics mostly focus on the negative, which is the corruption and/or authoritarian one-party system, and never admit the good that the CCP has accomplished, most people would not understand what I discovered. To understand what I mean, one must compare China before 1949 with today by reading such books as those written by Hessler and his wife.
Before 1949, more than 90% of the people in China lived in severe poverty, more than 80% were illiterate, the average lifespan was 35, few people owned land, and the risk of death from famine had been an annual threat for more than two thousand years. In fact, most rural Chinese were treated as if they were beasts of burden and not human.
Today, about 13% live in severe poverty and those people mostly live in remote, rugged, difficult to reach areas of China. The lifespan is now about 73 years and Helen H. Wang writing for Forbes.com (February 2011) reported that China’s middle class is already larger than the entire population of the United States and is expected to reach 800 million in fifteen years (2026). In addition, no one has died of famine since 1959-1961.
I highly recommend Country Living for anyone that wants to learn more about today’s dramatically changing China from an unbiased perspective.
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.
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