The road-trip portrait of China is becoming a minor genre, writes Paul Mozur. Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip Peter Hessler Canongate Dh86 Just three decades ago, 80 per cent of China's population lived in rural villages. Today the country is well on its way to becoming a modern, urban superpower - but charting its breakneck progress along that route has been notoriously difficult. Ancient fields abut skyscrapers, businesses rise and fall before they can sell a product, and suave real-estate magnates go from Audi A4s to prison in less than a year. As migrants flow from the countryside to cities and factories churn out products to be exported across the world, China has surged forward to the irregular beat of slapdash industry.
In this bewilderingly fluid environment, the open road has offered a certain clarity to those faced with the daunting task of describing what kind of place China is becoming. Much as in the American interstate boom of the 1950s, automobile sales and highway construction have soared on the back of China's astonishing economic growth. And so a number of foreign writers have set out with rented autos to follow China's newly paved roads across its vast landscape; Peter Hessler's Country Driving and Rob Gifford's travelogue China Road are the most recent fruits of those efforts.
Hessler's work - this book is his third on China - has become the touchstone by which the horde of explanatory China books of the past 10 years should be judged. For the sinophile who has followed Hessler's writing in the New Yorker, parts of Country Driving will sound familiar, as much of it consists of expanded, previously published articles; but for the novice, the book provides a lucid account of the country. Through the stories of two road trips from Beijing to the west, a village's development as a paved road to Beijing is built, and the linking of a new development zone to the regional economic hub of Wenzhou by expressway, his richly descriptive prose offers a varied and thorough image of this China in transit.
On the most basic level, China's new highways have been built to aid the country's burgeoning industrial capacity. Most often, expressways connect regional economic centres to smaller towns seeking to start their own development zones. Migrant labourers then make their way to these development zones by rural road and rail from ancestral towns, most travelling from central and western China toward the east coast. Amid the undeniable harshness of this migrant existence, a whole new generation of young Chinese are experiencing freedom from the strictures of their families and the peasant class for the first time. As they flirt between working hours, become experts in the arcana of production and work out how to spend their precious little free time, a new culture is emerging around them.
In this new peripatetic China, roadside traditions old and new are sandwiched next to each other in daunting contrast; American-style "exit-here" tourist traps and travelling vaudevilian shows both have their peculiar Chinese analogues. On one road trip, after many kilometres of signs directing him to a shop that sells "strange stones," Hessler and a friend wander into a store in northwestern Hebei province and walk out 50 yuan poorer, the victims of a "break it, buy it" scam.
Later, while researching the new economic development zone in the southern Zhejiang boomtown of Lishui, Hessler encounters the strange economy of migrant entertainment. Choked by the noxious exhaust of leather factories, the southern Zhejiang boomtown of Lishui might seem an unlikely stop for a travelling roadshow. But because of its large population of young migrant workers earning disposable income for the first time, vaudevillian shows compete with each other and free corporate-sponsored concerts to relieve these workers of their freshly earned cash.
Befriending one troupe, Hessler gives the reader a look at what's on offer: a lame progression of patriotic songs, deficient breakdancing, a man who pops his shoulder in and out of its socket, and five seconds of female nudity. The chain-smoking audience does not grumble, but even the show's scrawny ringmaster is aware of how drab it all is, admitting: "after people see the show, they're probably not going to pay to see it again". And so the troupe moves on to the next town.
While the road does represent a certain form of freedom for young migrant workers, their journeys are mainly undertaken out of pure economic necessity. Moving about the country for leisure is a different story. As the country's wealth expands, Chinese middle and upper classes are increasingly travelling in their own cars, exploring the countryside or acquiring country homes. Hessler visits the village of Sancha, nestled beneath the Great Wall north of Beijing, which has transformed from a community of farms to one of guesthouses and restaurants in a mere three years, as party cadres and local elites have fled there for respite from the maddening pace of life in the capital.
It remains to be seen whether Chinese will take to the open road quite as enthusiastically as its expatriate writers have. Reading books like Country Driving and China Road, it is hard to escape the sense that they are built on a particularly western trope, that artefact of 1950s America known as the road trip. The concept of such excursions, let alone having the luxury to take them, is still practically unknown in China.
But in some ways China is rather comparable to the United States of the 1950s; as economic success has become the story of more and more people, the conformity of an increasingly materialistic culture has left many searching for meaning. As Hessler writes: "In China, rapid change has left many people with a hollow feeling: they no longer believe in the Communist ideology of old, and the forces of migration and urbanisation have radically transformed society. The new pursuit of wealth can seem empty and exhausting."
Right now the story of two men who hitchhiked from Beijing to Berlin to visit one's girlfriend is spreading across the Chinese internet. Roadtrips are always good medicine for the doldrums of modern life, and soon other Chinese may well set out to discover their country in the manner that Hessler has.
Paul Mozur is a freelance writer based in Taipei, Taiwan.