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Book Review

Motoring through a new, driven China

By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / February 12, 2010

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It was harvest season in Hebei Province, west of Beijing, and Peter Hessler was driving on a country road, following the track of the Great Wall.

Ahead, he could see farmers tossing stalks of grain onto the roadway. He stopped, but the farmers waved him on, shouting “Go! Go!’’

After that, Hessler writes in “Country Driving,’’ his third account of travels around China, he would accelerate whenever he saw such a pile, realizing that “threshing is easiest when somebody else’s tires do the work.’’

Hessler, a writer for The New Yorker magazine who first went to China in 1996, is a keen observer of such mind-catching details and an engaging storyteller. Broken into three sections, “Country Driving’’ offers a ground-level mosaic of life amid the nation’s transition into a modern economic and political powerhouse.

The first section finds Hessler following the Great Wall across the north, metaphorically at the intersection of new and old China.

In Ninglu Bu, the site of one of the Great Wall’s fortress towers, he meets “Old Chen,’’ a farmer and former local Communist Party secretary, who has been researching the wall’s history in the region. Hessler asks why. “If nobody studies it,’’ Old Chen replies, “then nobody’s going to know the past.’’

The construction of the wall over a period of several hundred years, Hessler notes, led to the environmental degradation of the land along its route, as its builders and the soldiers who manned its fortress towers cut down trees for building materials and cooking fires.

In the brave new world order, Chinese officials have grown more sensitive to environmental concerns. One day near a Ming Dynasty tower Hessler spotted a group digging holes in the dusty soil. They have been digging these holes, their leader explains, as part of a reforestation project. “You don’t see any trees here,’’ he says. “Why not? Because our labor is free, but they’d have to pay money for the trees. It doesn’t cost anything to have us dig.’’ He explains that when government bureaucrats drive by they see the holes and believe that work is moving apace, but instead of buying trees, local officials pocket the money.

Another drive takes Hessler through former agricultural lands being transformed into an industrial belt in southeastern Zhejiang Province. “Whenever Highway 330 led me to a place of decent size,’’ he writes, “I pulled over and asked a bystander, ‘What do people make here?’ ’’ In Wuyi, a man responded by pulling playing cards from out of his pocket, and Hessler learned that the town produces a billion decks a year, enough to supply half of China’s domestic market.

In a third section of the book, Hessler observes the impact on a hillside village of China’s push to build roads.

When he first arrived in Sancha, across a valley from the Great Wall, its 150 villagers harvested walnuts in the fall, and relied on the visits of a peddler for whatever food they could not raise themselves and for simple household goods.

After its dirt road is paved, one entrepreneurial villager begins serving meals at his house. As the road brings in more outsiders, he turns his business into a restaurant and guesthouse. Weekends become busy with visitors and “city investors began to notice.’’

“Inevitably,’’ Hessler writes, “some city folk had started to settle there,’’ building second homes. One nearby village was demolished and its houses replaced with concrete-and-glass mansions. In Sancha, “villagers hustled to sell long-term contracts on any empty residence.’’ Full of exotic detail, solid reporting, and ironic observation, “Country Driving’’ offers a personal snapshot of the world’s second superpower hurtling through the 21st century.

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer based in Cambridge.

COUNTRY DRIVING: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory By Peter Hessler

Harper, 438 pp., illustrated, $27.99