Observations Of China, From Behind The Wheel In summer 2001, New Yorker Beijing correspondent Peter Hessler got his Chinese driver's license. For the next seven years, he traveled thousands of miles through China, reporting on how the car is transforming the country.
NPR logo

Observations Of China, From Behind The Wheel

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/123499063/123502243" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Observations Of China, From Behind The Wheel

Observations Of China, From Behind The Wheel

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/123499063/123502243" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


When New Yorker writer Peter Hessler applied for a Chinese driver's license, he entered a world where, as he puts it, nothing could be taken for granted.

For example, here's one question from a Chinese written driver's exam. If another motorist stops to ask you directions, you should...

Mr. PETER HESSLER (Writer, New Yorker Magazine; Author, "Country Driving"): A, not tell him; B, reply patiently and accurately; or C, tell him the wrong way.

BLOCK: Peter Hessler got his license in 2001, in the early stages of China's auto boom. An average of a thousand new drivers were registering each day in Beijing alone. Hessler spent seven years driving himself around China to see how the car was transforming the country.

His new book, "Country Driving," starts with his 7,000-mile trip, following the Great Wall across rural northern China.

Mr. HESSLER: And along the way, I would stop in villages, and I mean, it was really, you know, sort of sad because so many of these places are losing population to the south. I mean, this is basically the story of today's China is that you have an estimated 140 million people who have left the countryside to work in factory towns, work on construction crews. And you really notice this when you drive through these little villages.

I mean, often the only people you see, you know, are very old people who can no longer work, or the children, you know, the youngest people who are still too young to go out to find jobs.

BLOCK: You end up renting a house in a small village, a village called Sancha, which is just a couple of hours from Beijing by car. This is back in 2002. A couple of hours from Beijing but light-years away, really, in what it was like when you started living there.

Mr. HESSLER: Yeah, I mean, that was one of the reasons I got a license, was that I sort of - Beijing could be a little overwhelming. I mean, it's a city of 13 million people and really intense to live in the downtown area. And I wanted to have a way to escape periodically. And also, I always have liked rural China and smaller parts of China, so I wanted to find a place to rent on the outskirts.

And so, with a friend, I was just driving around and we happened to come to a village at the end of a road. And I mean, it really was a world away. I mean, the road was a dirt road that went to the village, population was about 150 people. I guess when I moved in, there were still two old women in the village who had bound feet. So, you know, there are ways in which it was, you know, it's like going back in time.

BLOCK: But then very quickly, things changed. There's a paved road that comes to Sancha. And what happens then?

Mr. HESSLER: This is really sort of the story of so many places in China. I mean, you know, we have a huge automobile boom in China but a big part of that is the improvement in infrastructure and roads. And when I moved to Sancha, the village, in 2001, it had that dirt road and it felt very sleepy and very isolated from the city. And they paved the road the next year, and the changes were really immediate and quite sweeping in a sense that suddenly people from Beijing could make it out here pretty easily.

They're exploring the countryside. They're visiting sections of the Great Wall. And this village is right on the Great Wall and so people would show up. And a number of villagers began to engage in business. They'd open up, you know, small restaurant or guest house. And, you know, in a period of a few years, you had just massive changes in that place.

BLOCK: You know, we may look at that and think that something has been lost. I'm not sure that the people in Sancha would have any great nostalgia for the way things were before, though.

Mr. HESSLER: Certainly not. And you don't see that much in China. I mean, I don't think that people have this sort of yearning for the past, because - and especially in places like that. I mean, these are people that knew poverty. I mean, when I moved in there, the average income in 2001 was about $250. And within a span of five years, that had increased to about $800, more than $800.

So it's a big change for them. And for them, this is a 100 percent a positive thing. They don't have nostalgia for the old days.

BLOCK: Did you see a downside, though?

Mr. HESSLER: I did. You know, I think as a foreigner, your perspective is different. And, you know, I guess one thing that I really noticed is that I think when there is this rapid pace of change that we've seen in China, it puts a lot of pressure on people. They're continually having to adjust to new opportunities, new situations, new challenges.

You know, and actually there's a family that I became very close with. Their name is Wei. And the Wei family, they were some of the most successful people in the village. Their income eventually went to, you know, to over $8,000 a year, which is really a huge amount in rural China, and they became the most successful people in the village.

But one thing I noticed was that it actually - it didn't make them any healthier. That was one of the most striking things.

For example, the father, he became a very heavy smoker because in China that's what middle-class people do. He had never smoked when he was just a farmer. But now that he was doing business in China, you smoke if you're doing business because you give cigarettes to, you know, to clients and to guests and to people that you're doing business with.

And their son, you know, sort of changed in a span of two years from being a very, you know, scrawny, active peasant kid, basically, to a child who had 75 channels on cable television because the village got cable television, and he gained weight rapidly.

It's sort of you could sort of see what happens in America over generations happening within a span of five years there.

BLOCK: You end your book in the industrial south of China, in a factory city that basically springs up before your eyes. It's Lishui, and there's an expressway that stitches together these cities that are all built around one industry. There's one city that makes buttons, there's one that makes playground equipment. You find a factory with my favorite product; I think the Jane Eyre electrical outlet covers. But you ultimately focus on two men who are trying to get a factory up and running, and you can't at first figure out what it is that they're trying to make. What does it end up being?

Mr.�HESSLER: Yeah, I mean, and this is an area where people are just they make things in incredible scale. I mean, you mentioned that button town. I mean, that's a you know, it's a town that only has about 60,000 people in it, but they have 380 different factories, and they make 70 percent of the buttons that are used in China for clothes made in China.

And, you know, there's another town I went through where they make playing cards, and they make about a billion decks of playing cards every year in this one town, and that's, you know, half of China's market.

You know, there's a place in China that makes one-third of the socks on Earth. So, you know, everybody's manufacturing in this part of the south, and I got to know these guys while they were designing a factory, and they weren't very clear on what they made, and you sort of see all this energy going into the creation of this factory.

I saw them design, and they're installing machinery, and then we finally start to talk about the product, and I realize that it's a little ring, nylon-covered, steel ring that connects to the strap of a brassiere, and this is what these guys are making.

You know, it weighs less than half a gram. It's 1.2 millimeters thick. But this is you know, this is their product, and this is all they're going to be making in this factory, and it's, you know, you sort of realize all of this energy. This is a huge amount of investment from these two people. They have all these workers, they've got a big space, they're getting all this equipment, and it's all going to create something that we would take for granted.

The thing I took away from that is that, you know, pretty much every little thing that we're buying, even the pieces of things, to somebody in China, that is an entire world of ambition and competition, of risk and opportunity. You know, it became sort of an epic struggle for them to, you know, to stay afloat. They ended up making it. You know, they became successful. But over the two years that I followed them, I mean, it was a really hard road for them.

BLOCK: Peter Hessler's book is titled "Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory."

Peter Hessler, thanks very much.

Mr.�HESSLER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)


You're listening to NPR.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.