On the road in China with New Yorker staff writer Hessler (Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, 2006, etc.), as he explores the remnants of its dying rural past and its booming, uncertain urban future.
The author received his Chinese driver’s license in 2001 and set off on a 7,000-mile journey following the twists and turns of the Great Wall. In a rented car and armed only with junk food and Chinese road maps of questionable accuracy, he explored the great expanses of China’s north and northwest, areas largely left behind in the country’s surge of economic development. In villages as ancient as the Wall itself, few except the very old and the very young remained, the rest having escaped to the cities and the promise of work. “To drive across China,” he writes, “was to find yourself in the middle of the largest migration in human history—nearly one-tenth of the population was on the road, finding new lives away from home.” One village north of Beijing seemed also bound for extinction, but the appearance of paved roads, a boom in private-car sales and an urban longing for a glimpse of rustic rural life revived the village and the fortunes of Wei Ziqi and his family. Hessler follows Wei’s rise as a village entrepreneur and Party leader and discovers what is possible and what may be lost as poor Chinese villages become tourist hotspots. Finally, the author traveled southern China, where the construction of new roads has enabled the rise of industrial boom towns to which rural migrants continue to flock. He traces the fate of the owners and workers of a factory that makes rings for bras. All of them illiterate peasants, Hessler writes of their dreams and courage in making a better life within a “no-holds-barred version of capitalism.” Though he befriends his subjects, the author never intrudes in their stories, and he follows their lives over a number of years. The result is a remarkably detailed, engrossing account of China today.
The human side of China’s great transformation, told with humor, affection and great insight.