Peter Hessler on Country Driving, revisiting River Town, and moving on

Travel | by Ric Stockfis
Posted: March 6th, 2011 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Peter Hessler, Country Driving Less than a decade after his first book, River Town, was published, Peter Hessler's name has become shorthand for honest, insightful commentary on the charms and contradictions of contemporary China. (If the word "Hessleresque" hasn't yet been defined, consider it now done.) Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sichuan, a clipper at the Wall Street Journal, and the China correspondent for the New Yorker (he drew on for his work for both publications in his second book, Oracle Bones), Hessler and his wife (Factory Girls author Leslie Chang) now live in Colorado, where he does as much running as he does writing. His latest book, Country Driving, describes his adventures behind the wheel in China over the last ten years, as well as accounts of the time he spent in the rural village of Sancha and the factory town of Lishui. Ever the gent, Hessler was kind enough to answer questions about his continuing relationship with China ahead of appearances at various literary festivals around China. He also shared some photos from his travels (you can see more of them, and read about how they helped him write the book, at The China Beat). Here's what he had to say about the culture of the open road, the trouble with journalism, and what he thinks he might be doing 50 years from now. You were on the road a lot for this new book, yet the idea of the car as a vehicle for individual expression and exploration is new to China. Did you meet anyone else who was doing more than drive from A to B? And do you think the new network of highways has the potential to do anything more profound than just cut freight delivery times? Country Driving was researched over a period of many years, basically from 2001, when I got my driver's license, to 2008, with some phone updates through 2009. And the car culture changed during that period. On my first long drive I saw very few people who were on the road for fun. I met a group of motorcycle hobbyists in Ningxia, city folk from Yinchuan who liked to go out on weekends. But that was pretty much it -- for most people, it was pretty pragmatic. I met a lot of migrants going to and from city jobs, and I talked with farmers in villages. I'd talk with truckers when I stayed in the roadside dorms. These were all people who were driving or riding in vehicles because of their jobs. Now it's quite different, and you see these city guys in their SUVs with all the stickers, driving in western Sichuan or wherever. People travel for pleasure. And in particular you see a lot of city drivers in the rural regions around big cities like Beijing or Shanghai. This is what I wrote about in the second part of my book, "The Village." In 2001, when I first started renting a home in Sancha, a village about two hours north of Beijing, it was unusual for city people to go to such regions. By 2003 it had already started to change, and now these areas are quite well explored. Peter Hessler, Country Driving, Sancha The Chinese car and road model will never be the same as the US. I know a lot of Chinese people who have bought cars, but I don't know anybody who never uses public transport. In the States there are huge numbers of people who never use a public bus or train -- including myself; it's impossible in this part of Colorado. And although Chinese cities are expanding, they don't have the same incredibly spacious suburbs that you see in America. It's still remarkable how quickly you can leave the urban congestion of Beijing. You can't do that in a place like Los Angeles. My sense is that the Chinese will continue to buy cars, but they won't depend on them in the same way that Americans do. Public transport will continue to be critical to the Chinese. And their car-buying disturbs me less than it does many foreigners. People like to throw up their hands and say, "The Chinese are making the same mistakes we did!" But it's not true. The Chinese are making plenty of mistakes, but they aren't structuring their lives narrowly around the car in the way that Americans do. The American model is still the most troubling, and the one that seems harder to deal with long-term.
Peter Hessler, Country Driving, Chinese highway
You've also spent a fair amount of time in China's second- and third-tier cities. We often hear it said that these places are essential to our understanding of the "real" China, but what was it that drew you to them?
I suppose there isn't any "real" China -- it's such a big country, and so many parts of it matter deeply. Places like Shanghai and Beijing are really important, obviously, and they do say a great deal about China. But they tend to be better understood than the interior.
I gravitated to smaller cities partly for this reason. But it was also an issue of personal instinct, probably from my Peace Corps days. Fuling [the setting for River Town] was a small city on the edges of the countryside, and I learned to feel very comfortable there. Later, when I became a writer, I tended to gravitate toward places of that size. When I first went to Lishui, the city that I wrote about in the third section of Country Driving, I immediately felt at home there. It was surrounded by mountains and something about the landscape and the size of the place reminded me of Fuling. Another reason I spent a lot of time in second- and third-tier cities is that they are often initial points of migration. Most migrants don't end up in places like Beijing and Shanghai. This was something I realized after the Peace Corps -- a lot of my former students left Sichuan, but almost none of them went to these big cities. They tended to go further south, and mostly they ended up in smaller places, xiancheng [provincial towns]. As somebody interested in migration, it made sense for me to spend time in similar cities, and that's mostly what I did. Peter Hessler, Country Driving As a writer, the other appeal of smaller cities is simply that they are easier to describe. In the second part of Country Driving, there's a two or three-page set piece describing Huairou, a small city north of Beijing. I describe Huairou's history with the International Women's Conference, and the way people look in the city, how they respond to being away from the countryside, and how much they like places like Da Shijie, the only big department store in Huairou. I think it would be very difficult to describe Beijing in such a way; it's just too big and sprawling. There aren't the same focal points that you can easily pick out.I guess the main thing for a writer to do is to think carefully about what interests him, and also where his strengths lie, and try to research accordingly. The thing about China is that no single part of the country tells the whole story. And different writers can do different things. My wife could spend time with the factory girls in the south and develop a level of intimacy that simply wouldn't be possible for me as a white male. But it was easier for me to wander around Lishui, meeting factory owners, technicians, and construction crews. So each of us produced the book that was appropriate to what we could do. My background in the Peace Corps prepared me for writing about smaller cities, so it made sense for me to use this knowledge. Did you have any sense of a distinct identity emerging in places like Lishui, or are these places that are destined to always play second (or third) fiddle to their bigger neighbors? Lishui was in search of an identity, and basically still is. They were at risk of becoming known as a town that makes pige, synthetic leather (pleather) -- a dirty product with a bad reputation among workers. The officials were aware of this and they were trying to encourage other issues. But it's hard when you come to the development game so late. And the Chinese development pattern tends to depend heavily on imitation, on following models slavishly, which makes it even harder to carve out your own niche. Sometimes you get a place where a local official or group of people have real vision -- this happened in Wuhu, where they started Chery, the car manufacturer. That's a small city that did something unusual. But history played a role; Wuhu was a treaty port and there was a long tradition of thinking creatively about business. Peter Hessler, Country Driving, Lishui, ribbon-cutting How has your own understanding of China evolved since you started out? Is there anything in, say, River Town, that you think doesn't quite ring true, or that you'd now write differently? To be honest, I haven't re-read River Town, at least not cover to cover, since it was published. I probably should. But I reached a point where I had edited the thing so many times, and thought so much about it, and I had to move on. I suspect I'll re-read it, and the other books, whenever I decide to return to China, a number of years from now. Still, I have re-read various sections of River Town, usually when working on another project. I don't regret anything about that book. I think it was emotionally as honest as it could have been -- it helped that I was writing constantly during my time in Fuling, and when I wrote the actual book, I did so immediately after leaving the city. I feel like I was able to capture the way I felt about the place, and the way it came into focus for me. [Hessler also filed a story for Time about returning to Fuling several years later.] There are lots of little errors that I should probably fix. Like I translate Zhongshan Road as "Mid-Mountain Road," when it should have been "Sun Yat-sen Road." This is because I had not traveled widely in China at that point and I didn't realize that every place has a Zhongshan Road. In Fuling I didn't understand how to fact-check the way I do now. With Country Driving, I hired researchers to go back and double-check facts, and talk to people I wrote about. I didn't have the presence of mind to do that with River Town. But I think the basic instincts I had in River Town still feel accurate to me. I was impressed with people's resourcefulness and willingness to work hard, the same way I am now. I sensed some of the environmental issues that confronted the country, and I also sensed the incredible transitions that were going on, as people became educated and moved to the cities. But I also had a lot of frustrations with the education system -- something I continue to feel today. Peter Hessler, River Town I'm a better writer now, and there are sections of River Town that I would have written differently. Sometimes when I go through a section I see repetitions or bad rhythms that I would catch nowadays. But I'm happy with the book's form. It's a book you only write once. I think it connects with readers in a certain way because the narrator is totally clueless at the beginning -- he's like the reader. But for Oracle Bones and Country Driving, the perspective is necessarily different. I knew more when I started each of those books, and I wasn't going to pretend to be otherwise. I dislike the pose that a lot of travel books take, where the author emphasizes his cluelessness, his incompetence, his pratfalls. It seems cheap to me -- a type of false modesty calculated to make the reader feel more comfortable (I'm just like you!) With River Town I didn't need to worry about a pose, because I really was clueless at the start. But the next two books have a very different starting point. And my focus is more on Chinese people, the other characters I write about. My own character is less important. By the time I researched Country Driving, I had a much better understanding of how things function in China. I was able to research local politics in a village, and development strategies for a small city, in a way that I never could have in Fuling. So in that sense there's a different depth. To me, that was always the main thing. I didn't want to write repetitive books, and I wanted these projects to reflect my own growth and change in perspective. Peter Hessler, Country Driving, Wei Ziqi How do you think writing in general about China has changed over the last decade? Have you noticed a change (for better or worse) in books and media coverage?I think the books about China have gotten much better. Some of this is the market. Back in 1999, when I found an agent and he sent out River Town, it was rejected by most publishers. A couple of them said, "You know, this is good, but we don't think anybody wants to read a book about China." They were reading a finished manuscript, not a proposal -- they could see the full book. But they couldn't see the market. Nowadays it's totally different; publishers know that there are American readers willing to sit down with a book about China. The other big change is simply that China is much more open. It's a lot easier for a journalist or a writer to go out there, learn about something, and write deeply about the place. All of the subjects I write about in Country Driving -- a long solo road trip, living in a Peter Hessler, Country Driving village, spending months and months inside a factory in the south -- none of this would have been possible ten years earlier, even five years earlier. This is one reason why you see many more China books with real characters. In the old days, the books revolved around subjects -- you'd have a chapter about "Agriculture," one about "Politics," etc. Now the good books have their themes, but you remember specific individuals. This is also because the writers are often able to speak Chinese, and they're spending more time in China -- they make more of a commitment to the place. On the other hand, I don't see much of a change in newspaper and magazine stories about China. They still tend to be heavily political, very issue-based, and there's little interest in character. Reporters generally don't spend a lot of time with their subjects, and they continue to rely heavily on fixers to find their characters and stories. They don't do many long-term projects. This has a lot to do with editors, who demand efficiency and generally prefer quantity over quality. And they have certain fixed ideas about what should be the subject of a "China story." Peter Hessler, Country Driving Journalism is an incredibly conservative profession. We often don't realize this; we think of it as "liberal," but that's just in the shallow political sense. In terms of routines and mindsets, journalism is deeply conservative. This is probably true of any profession that depends heavily on routine and repetition. Newspapers have set formats, ranging from the layout of their front page to the traditions of writing, like the inverted pyramid. They have standard story types -- the human rights piece, the China threat story, the "Chinese are just like us" story. Reporters are so pressed for time that they have to follow other people's stories, re-reporting the same thing and coming to basically the same conclusions. Any time you do the same thing over and over again, it's hard to see something different. It's the same with sports -- this is why coaches and players are instinctively conservative and slow to innovate. They depend on repetition and over time it shapes their mindset.I first realized this when I returned from the Peace Corps and tried to find a job in journalism. I couldn't even get an interview. I had published fairly widely, including in the NY Times and the Atlantic, and I had written a book that just got accepted for publication. I had good college degrees and I spoke Chinese well, and I could write. But I was coming from the outside -- instead of doing the standard internships and entry-level jobs, I had done a graduate degree at Oxford, and I had been in the Peace Corps and China. It didn't fit into a familiar pattern, so all the newspapers and magazines rejected me. For me, it was just a personal issue, and in the long run it didn't matter; I was forced to return to China independently and freelance, which led me to better work. But it reflects a problem with the industry. If you require everybody to go to the same journalism schools, do the same internships, and follow the same general path, you're probably going to end up with a lot of folks who have the same opinions, routines, and instincts. It helps to have folks who are different. As I mentioned earlier, my background in Fuling gave me a different perspective on China, one that shaped my writing for a decade. But there wasn't a single newspaper or magazine that was capable of seeing the value of such a perspective when I applied for jobs. Like I said, it worked out fine for me, as I was able to start the freelance routines that led me to Oracle Bones and Country Driving. I was lucky -- with books I could write about anything I wanted to. If I wanted to write a book that combined the Shang dynasty with Shenzhen, nobody was going to stop me. But if I had been working for a newspaper, I would have been seriously limited. And this is one reason why we've seen a real growth and change in the kind of books that are coming out of China, whereas the newspaper and magazine stories have not developed at a similar rate. It's really too bad, because so many journalists are hard-working and curious, and nowadays they really have first-rate language and cultural skills. But the traditions and conservatism of the industry make it hard for people to develop in individual ways. The principal attraction of China for many young male expats nowadays seems to be cheap drinks and seedy KTV sessions. Your experience was rather different. Did that kind of behavior bother you at all while you were living here? [The absence of that kind of behavior from the books] probably disappoints some people. The New York Times recently reviewed Country Driving, and the reviewer said "There isn't much libido in Mr. Hessler's writing." I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I think it has to do with certain expectations that people have whenever a white guy is writing about yellow people. All I can say is my basic character didn't change much when I moved from the US to China. I probably became more patient and better-humored, because otherwise I wouldn't have lasted in China. But I never saw it as an opportunity to indulge myself in ways that I wouldn't at home. But you have to remember that I was 27 when I joined the Peace Corps, and 29 when I moved to Beijing. I wasn't a kid. And I think the Peace Corps experience limited the exoticism. There was a fair amount of pressure on me in a place like Fuling, because I was so different, and in many ways it was a hard job, especially in the first year. Very early on I recognized that a complicated and stressful situation was going to become a lot more complicated and stressful if I were to spend my free time chasing karaoke xiaojies in town. I guess I wrote River Town instead. I didn't have a huge expat life in Beijing, so I guess it didn't affect me much. But I admit I was never crazy about the whole routine of the geeky white guy who goes to China, finds a pretty girl, and becomes very proud of himself. Or the routine of the foreigner who gets praised constantly for his Chinese skills and lets it go to his head. But you know, as a writer it was different. My focus was really on my articles and books. And there are a hell of a lot of good books out there; I always felt like I had a long way to go, and I still do. Peter Hessler, Country Driving, camping in the Chinese desert You've said that you don't want to be exclusively a "China writer." How do you think your time in China may have shaped your other writing? I'm not sure -- we'll see. It's true that basically my entire professional life was in China, and that's one reason I decided to leave. I wanted to make sure that I know how to write about other subjects. I'm currently doing some research in southwestern Colorado, near where I live. It's a deeply conservative, unusual part of the country, and I've really enjoyed the research. I like spending time with people from a different background, people who have very different ideas than me or most of my friends. That reminds me of China, and it's probably something I picked up overseas. In China I was rarely frustrated by how different the place was; that aspect of life interested and engaged me. I suspect it will be the same wherever I go. I do think that I've become very comfortable as an outsider, partly because of China. I started to feel this way even in college, because I was a kid from mid-Missouri at Princeton, and then the sensation deepened at Oxford. But Fuling was the first place where I really felt comfortable as an outsider and realized that it gave me a valuable perspective. I think that's something I'll carry with me wherever I go. Because from here on out, I'm pretty sure that I'll always be different from the people around me. What do you imagine your own engagement with China might be in the coming years? Do you see yourself with your feet up on the porch in somewhere like Sancha in your old age? I think I'll be away from China for a number of years, and then I'll return. I'd like to go back someday to Tibet, where I went in 1999 to write a Xinjiang, a place where I've only been twice, and both times on fairly standard routes. Leslie and I are both very comfortable in China, and we like living there and writing about it, so I'm sure we'll be back to live there eventually. I've even thought about living in Sichuan again at some point. I suspect I'll live there at different times in my life. It was great to write about China as a young person, and I think there would be new insights when I'm older. Regardless, I'm sure I won't retire. I don't think it's possible; I'll keep writing wherever I am, and I hope to stay active. My father still runs about ten miles every day, at the age of 68, and his mother just renewed her driver's license at the age of 94. That's the goal -- another China driving book in 54 years. They have to change the laws, though. Right now you can't get an automobile license if you're older than 70. You have to trade down to one of those motorized carts with the canjiren [disabled person] plates, the guys who honk at bikes and are even more aggressive than the cadres in the A6s. I don't want to get stuck driving a motorized cart across the Gobi. Peter Hessler, Country Driving
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