The road to understanding

The best way to figure out China is to drive around it

The road to understanding

It may surprise you to hear that Chinese motorists used to drive on the left side of the road. Perhaps more surprising, the world’s most populous nation only switched to driving on the right because it was told to by the Americans.

In Peter Hessler’s new book he recounts what happened: “In the early 1940s, when the US army sent jeeps and trucks to southwestern China in support of the Republic, they suffered an inordinate amount of traffic accidents. Vehicles had been designed for the right side of the road, and American drivers had trouble making the adjustment. US Army General Albert C Wedemeyer proposed a simple solution: the whole nation of China should switch over to the American way of driving. Chiang Kai-shek, who had always depended heavily on US support, agreed. The change finally took place on January 31, 1945.”

Nor were these the only occasions that Americans shaped China’s driving habits. For example, Beijing’s drivers didn’t use headlights. But as Hessler explains: “In 1983, Chen Xitong, the mayor of Beijing, made a visit to New York. On the way to and from his meetings with Mayor Ed Koch and other dignitaries, Chen made a crucial road observation: Manhattan drivers turn on their lights at night. When Chen returned to China, he decreed that Beijing motorist do the same. It’s unclear what conclusions he drew from his encounters with American democracy but at least he did his part for traffic safety.”

In fact, even a member of George W Bush’s administration can claim to have been an ‘inspiration’ for China’s massive roadbuilding campaign. “Zhang Chunxian, the Minister of Communications, hosted a press conference and he responded to one question with a story about Condoleezza Rice,” writes Hessler. “Recently, she had visited China, where apparently she told an official that they should follow the example of the US in the 1950s and build more roads. ‘She said when she was young, she took a lot of trips with her family across America,’ Zhang explained. ‘ She said those trips helped her love the United States.’”

All of these anecdotes come from Country Driving, which is Hessler’s third book about China. His debut, River Town, was an unlikely bestseller, describing his time teaching English in a Sichuanese town. But it was more than just a memoir. Thanks to the author’s eye for detail and fine turn of phrase, it helped Western readers better understand Chinese society and the attitudes shaping the country’s development.

His follow-up work, Oracle Bones, was more scholarly, and while it had some excellent sections, it was less coherent and enjoyable than River Town.

Country Driving is a return to early form. Again it’s based on his personal experiencesin China between 2001 and 2007.

His unifying theme is roads and their impact on the country’s growth. “Beginning in 2003,” he writes, “the government embarked on a major two year construction campaign in the countryside, paving 119,000 miles of rural roads. During that two year span the People’s Republic of China built more country roads of asphalt and cement than it had during the previous half century.”

As Hessler is quick to point out, China is a country of new drivers. That makes for challenges, but also for good stories. “It’s hard to imagine a place where people take such joy in driving badly,” he quips.

The book begins with him hiring a car in Beijing – his plan being to drive out to the extremities of the Great Wall. “They never asked where I was taking the Jeep Cherokee. The rental contract strictly forbade drivers from leaving the Beijing region, but I decided to ignore this rule – they wouldn’t figure it out until I returned the Jeep with a loaded odometer. In China, much of life involves skirting regulations, and one of the basic truths is that forgiveness comes easier than permission.”

He’s armed with a road atlas, but it’s not always helpful: “On government published atlases, the expressway’s route hadn’t been marked out yet, but Chinese maps always lag behind construction. Sometimes it seems as if people can build things faster than they can draw them.”

His journey takes him to China’s far west to a town whose name literally translates as ‘Kill the Foreigners’, to the south to an industrial development zone in Lishui, and to the north to the village of Sancha by the Great Wall.

Hessler gives a first hand account of the transformative effects of the new roads – a key one being a rising standard of living: “In 2001, when I moved to Sancha, the per capita income was around two hundred and fifty dollars; in the span of five years it had risen to over eight hundred.” In many ways his tale of living in Sancha is the highlight of the book – with its insights on the fast-changing rural landscape, the health system, the anomalies of Chinese education and even the critical importance of cigarettes in the social hierarchy.

But some of the most entertaining moments occur in Lishui where he befriends a couple of entrepreneurs. He watches the two men map out the design for a bra ring factory in precisely one hour and four minutes and then ask the contractor to deliver a quotation that same afternoon. He meets the former tank driver who now runs the Lishui development zone where the factory will be built. Even Hessler – used to China’s big numbers – stands open-mouthed as the zone’s director describes how he’s levelled 108 mountains to create enough space for bra ring factories and their like.

“China is the kind of country where you constantly discover something new, and revelations occur on a daily basis. One of the most important discoveries is the fact that the Chinese share this sensation. The place changes too fast; nobody can afford to be overconfident in his knowledge, and there’s always some new situation to figure out.”

Hessler has now returned to the US. It’s sad that he’s no longer there to chronicle the rapid pace of change in China. Few others are as capable of putting human colour on the raw data of China’s rise. Like the time a factory girl shares with him her view of the pleather factory she’s employed at. “If it weren’t for the poison it would be a great place to work,” she says.

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