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Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler (2010)

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Country Driving is a compilation of three long narratives written by an American journalist who lived and traveled around rural China between 2000-2007. His observations relate to the massive migration of Chinese from outlying villages into factory towns for work.

The first narrative is a humorous account of driving in China when he embarks on a road trip to see the Great Wall. Most Chinese drivers were rookies at the time, and laws for traffic order and safety seemed to be open to creative interpretation. Hessler observes:  “They don’t mind if you tailgate, or pass on the right or drive on the sidewalk. You can back down a highway entrance ramp without anybody batting an eyelash.”

He navigates using a dubious set of maps and frequently finds himself “sino-mapped” down riverbeds or straight into dead-ends. He meets hitchhikers, grandparents left tending small children in remote villages, and the occasional authority who questions his legal presence in restricted areas. The characters add color to his story and highlight the notable absence of young working age people in rural China as they have been swallowed up by the job market in faraway factories.

In the second narrative, Hessler recounts his experience living in a small village a few hours north of Beijing. His living standard is on par with the villagers, which means a tiny living space with mud walls covered with newspapers, an outhouse, and rats. He becomes friends with a local family and observes their child’s elementary education, their navigation of the medical system during a health crisis, and their entrepreneurial strategies in a culture where connections can make the difference between success and failure.

Relationship networks, called guanxi, are an integral part of life in Chinese society and are key for success in business and personal arenas. Connections through one’s guanxi can make government roadblocks in business disappear, help children gain admission to preferred schools, and obtain a higher level of medical care. These favors and little payoffs are blatant signs of corruption, but in China it’s a way of life, if not critical for survival.

In the third narrative, Hessler explores the factory town phenomenon where entire communities exist around the business of manufacturing one thing. The product possibilities are endless. It could be shoes, handbags, car stereo knobs, or molded plastic toys. Employers look for young “plain” female workers “who can eat bitterness,” because hours are long, conditions can be uncomfortable, and assembly work is tedious.

The factory segment of Country Driving lacks the intimate connection and character development that Hessler accomplishes in the rural village segment; the frenetic pace in the factory world doesn’t allow time for such intimacy. For example, he describes a factory that makes tiny wire loops for bra fasteners. Money to start up came from family and friends, not from a bank loan; hiring practices were blatantly discriminatory; applicants lied about their age to get their foot in the door and wanted jobs with the least amount of time off; and paychecks were delayed or withheld to manipulate workers into staying.

Hessler observes a demolition crew level a mountain so the land could bear more factories and he observes that factory towns were sprouting up so fast the main highway lacked off-ramps to access them. It makes you wonder how the landscape and factory culture in China have changed over the past decade since this book was published.

China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (1995)

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China Wakes is co-authored by husband and wife American journalists who lived and reported on social and political topics in Beijing between 1988-1994. They witnessed the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 where thousands of peaceful student protestors were mowed down by government gunfire. This event sets the theme for the rest of the book, which documents a series of accounts of brutality under communist rule. As a Chinese-American, fluent in Mandarin, WuDunn blends into society and becomes a trusted confidant for the sources of their interviews.

Kristof and WuDunn draw parallels between the communist party and dynastic rule where corruption runs rampant and personal rights don’t exist. The long arm of the communist party controls where residents live, limits families to one child, influences the success of businesses, and severely punishes citizens for breaking their rules.

Most striking were the stories of how dissidents were punished. Brutal beatings, harsh prison sentences, withheld medical care, destruction of homes, confiscation of food supplies, and threats to the lives of their extended family were common.

Though China Wakes paints an ugly picture of Chinese lives under communist rule, the authors admit that the standard of living, especially of the poorest peasants, has improved over the past few decades. They assert that humanitarian efforts to force the communist party to change their ways will be unsuccessful. However, China is sensitive to criticism from the west and small positive steps may happen from within to save face on the international front.

As a Westerner accustomed to personal rights and free speech, I was enraged by the stories in China Wakes. But, emotions aside, the depth of historical and political background in the book was helpful for me to achieve a better understanding of China.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: Stories by Yiyun Li (2007)

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A Thousand Years is a collection of short stories written in English by a Chinese author who touches on sensitive topics of marriage, aging, parenthood, gender issues in Chinese lives in modern and revolutionary times.

Li’s writing is simple and poignant. After having read a few books about Chinese lives through the eyes of American reporters, I found the native voice of Li refreshing. A Thousand Years is rife with emotion that is typically buried in a culture where individual suffering doesn’t matter because everybody else has suffered too.

In a story where a Chinese father comes to America to visit his recently divorced daughter, he is disappointed to find their relationship has become awkward and strained. Li writes: “Her voice, too sharp, too loud, too immodest, is so unpleasant to his ears that for a moment he feels as if he had accidentally caught a glimpse of her naked body, a total stranger, not the daughter he knows.”

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang (2009)

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Factory Girls follows the rapid twists and turns of the lives of two young Chinese women, Min and Chunming, who left their home villages to seek life experience and work in the factories. Chang, a Chinese-American journalist, documents every spontaneous career move these women take as they maneuver through a business culture where lying, manipulation and risk-taking are what it takes to succeed in the factory world. She also covers their social lives from dating to dealing with family pressures.

There are hundreds of thousands of factory-workers who work in assembly line jobs 18 hour days, six days or more per week, sleeping onsite, sending most of their money home and never moving up in the ranks. But Chang’s subjects are on the ambitious end of the spectrum, always jumping on better job opportunities, improving and learning new job skills, dedicating themselves to learning a second language, and doing whatever else it takes to get ahead in a corrupt, and often unjust, business environment.

The freedom these women experience once they “go out” (to work), and the opportunity to reinvent themselves changes the way they feel about life in their home village. They grapple with conflict between their individual life goals and their family’s expectation that they will return, with savings, and marry a local boy. Parental pressure to come home is eased by the cash flowing in from the girls, which enables families to upgrade their homes, purchase appliances, and pay school tuition for younger siblings.

On a sidetrack, Chang delves into her own genealogical background referencing her grandfather’s diary and interviewing extended family members. Significant events in her family story take place during the communist party’s rise in power. Her family research leads to personal revelations about Chinese culture that helps explain the drive and determination of the factory girls. She writes: “There was a lot to dislike about the migrant world of Min and Chunming: the materialism, the corruption, the coarseness of daily existence. But now there was an opportunity to leave your village and change your fate . . .”

Despite the hardships Min and Chunming experience while trying to advance their careers, their strength and resolve never falters. In a letter to Chang, Min writes: “A person cannot grow up through happiness. Happiness makes a person shallow. It is only through suffering that we grow up, transform, and come to a better understanding of life!”

The women in Factory Girls were wise beyond their years.

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