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ChatChat - Claudia Cragg

Jan 20, 2022

In view of the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics (officially the XXIV Olympic Winter Games and commonly known as Beijing 2022) this interview is a repost. 

In the summer of 2001, Peter Hessler, the longtime Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, acquired his Chinese driver's license. For the next seven years, he traveled the country, tracking how the automobile and improved roads were transforming China. Hessler writes movingly of the average people—farmers, migrant workers, entrepreneurs—who have reshaped the nation during one of the most critical periods in its modern history.

Country Driving begins with Hessler's 7,000-mile trip across northern China, following the Great Wall, from the East China Sea to the Tibetan plateau. He investigates a historically important rural region being abandoned, as young people migrate to jobs in the southeast. Next Hessler spends six years in Sancha, a small farming village in the mountains north of Beijing, which changes dramatically after the local road is paved and the capital's auto boom brings new tourism. Finally, he turns his attention to urban China, researching development over a period of more than two years in Lishui, a small southeastern city where officials hope that a new government-built expressway will transform a farm region into a major industrial center.

Peter Hessler, whom The Wall Street Journal calls "one of the Western world's most thoughtful writers on modern China," deftly illuminates the vast, shifting landscape of a traditionally rural nation that, having once built walls against foreigners, is now building roads and factory towns that look to the outside world.

Hessler, a native of Columbia, Missouri, studied English literature at Princeton and Oxford before going to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996. His two-year experience of teaching English in Fuling, a town on the Yangtze, inspired River Town, his critically acclaimed first book. After finishing his Peace Corps stint, Hessler wrote freelance pieces for Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times before returning to China in 1999 as a Beijing-based freelance writer. There he wrote for newspapers like the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and the South China Morning Post before moving on to magazine work for National Geographic and the New Yorker.