Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip

Published on Author demere

Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip. I am responsible for reporting on the first half of Book 1: The Wall, in which Hessler delivers an unique engaging perspective on China culture along his road trip. [tighten prose – “unique” merely says he didn’t plagiarize, and “road trip” is redundant.]

Each of his encounters provides a different insight into Chinese culture. Zhang Baolong tells of the fung shui profession and its cultural importance. Mr. Wang educates Hessler on the practical knowledge necessary to operate a vehicle in urban areas. Old Chen provides ancient lore on obscure ruins in a small village. Gao Lingfeng, garbed sophisticatedly and carrying a sack of meat, catches a ride along Hessler’s trek. Each person is a piece of a puzzle that provides a broader picture of the Chinese community.

Two sentences in particular resonated with me after completed this section of the book, the first being: “One of the basic truths is that forgiveness comes easier than permission.” The reason why this struck me is because it is seemingly the inverse of the United States and perhaps western culture at large.

The second sentence that stood out is as follows: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” This expression is a colloquialism in rural China, and it represents the disconnect between the proletariat and the politician, the poor and the rich. It gets at the inefficiency of the government’s micromanagement. The exemplar story is the story of the Dingjia village laborers. The villagers dig holes for food, five bowls of noodles daily to be precise; yet, the holes they dig are not put to any use. Local officials are supposed to plant trees in the holes, but they supposedly embezzle the money instead. While the endeavor is fairly sound, the execution is not.

So far on Hessler’s journey, the remote areas of China along the Wall suggests that the rural life of a Chinese layman is not easy and not always fair.

Categories F13

2 Responses to Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip

  1. The quote “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away,” referenced by Demere, provides valuable insight into the Chinese culture as well as its political and economic foundations. Hessler’s depiction of the inefficiencies generated as a consequence of the schism between the rural Chinese and the government in “Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip” reiterates the ingrained issues that have historically plagued China. The difficulty of governing China is highlighted by Hessler’s example of the workers digging holes for shrubbery that local authorities have no intention of ever planting, an example of the economy’s misallocation of resources. This issue between the central government and local authorities misallocating resources was a significant problem during Mao’s rule. In order to demonstrate China’s advancement, the communist party intended on producing more iron than Great Britain. In the process, Mao generated a material misallocation of resources resulting in famine and a decline in living standards across China. The miscommunication between the “far away” emperor and the rural population proved detrimental.

  2. As noted in class, the Chinese aphorism is echoed by similar ones in other empires. In the US we’ve turned that into provisions in the US and state constitutions.

    So it’s better to (i) rephrase it in terms of a disjuncture between policy and capabilities and (ii) to serve as an antidote to the (false!) presumption that somehow the non-electoral nature of China’s government renders it more powerful, that if only Beijing weren’t being duplicitous copyrights would be enforced, land grabs from peasants would vanish, and pollution and food adulteration would be non-issues.