Traveling Modern China with Peter Hessler: Part 2 of 2

February 24, 2016

In the first 122 pages of Country DrivingPeter 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 he wrote that there are amateur experts, and we meet a few in this section along with a unique view of rural China.

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. Along the way, he makes friends and becomes involved personally with local families. The man that becomes his closest contact and friend in the village eventually joins the Chinese Communist Party (there are about 80 million CCP members in China) and 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 work hours. Instead, they 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, by reading such books like 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 humans.

Today, according to the CIA Factbook, about 6.1% of Chinese live in severe poverty (living on $400 or less annually), and they mostly live in remote, rugged, and difficult to reach areas of China.  The average  lifespan is now 75.4 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 by 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 and honest perspective.

Return to or start with Part 1

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

#1 - Joanna Daneman review posted June 19 2014

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China’s Holistic Historical Timeline


Traveling Modern China with Peter Hessler: Part 1 of 2

February 23, 2016

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.

Maybe the reason why he continues to return to China in his writing is because of this infatuation with a culture that values family more than most Western cultures do.  In fact, in the memoir’s acknowledgements, I discovered that Hessler was married to Leslie T. Chang.

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.


Leslie Chang discussing her novel “Factory Girls”

Both Peter and Leslie have published work that went on to be honored as New York Times Notable Books.

Much of Hessler’s book 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, that’s 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 lifestyles.

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 between them.

Continued on February 24, 2016 in Part 2

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

IMAGE with Blurbs and Awards to use on Twitter

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Country Driving in China with Peter Hessler – Part 1/2

May 28, 2012

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.

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Working Conditions in China

June 17, 2010

The Editors in Room for Debate express varied opinions about “What Do China’s Workers Want?”

Worker strikes at Honda plants and suicides at a PRC Foxconn facility, a Taiwan owned company, have made splashes in the global media lately. I read what the five editors had to say and sided with Leslie T. Chang, author of Factory Girls. Her experience speaks for itself and lends weight to her opinion. Chang spent three years following the successes, hardships and heartbreaks of two teenage girls, Min and Chunming, migrants working the assembly lines in Dongguan, one of the new factory cities that have sprung up all over China.

Chang says, “It is important not to interpret the recent spate of worker suicides as protests against factory conditions. In my experience, the greatest pressure on workers comes from interpersonal and emotional concerns rather than conditions inside the factory, which workers tend to take for granted.” 

I recommend clicking on the link for “Room for Debate” and reading what Chang and the others editors say. I agree with Chang’s assessment because of the importance of family in a culture heavily influenced by Confucianism.

See Middle Kingdom Wages Rising

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the author of the award winning My Splendid Concubine and writes The Soulful Veteran and Crazy Normal.

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