Country Driving – A China Book Review

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the conundrum that is driving in China for a number of reasons:

1. A dignitary’s visit to Chengdu this Thursday and Friday for the Western Trade Expo shut down some of the major traffic arteries in the town causing worse-than-normal congestion. The traffic was so bad in fact, and affected areas so key to driving around Chengdu, that almost all schools, local and international, shut down on Friday because it was impossible for school buses to transport kids to school.

2. I’ve been riding on the back of my friend’s motorbike a lot this past week. Suffice to say he’s a little more adventurous in navigating the chaos of Chinese roads than I would ever be. I’ve quickly learned that trying to steer his shoulders doesn’t make it any less scary.

3. This traffic mishap below closed roads and made the start of school incredibly delayed on Tuesday. Nothing like wet cement to ruin the start of your day…or your car.

There’s another reason though that I’ve been thinking a lot about China’s growing and increasingly crowded roadways and I owe that to the reading of Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip.

Hessler, who wrote three volumes on China including River Town and Oracle Bones, was a staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine as well as a contributor to National Geographic. In my humble opinion, not backed up with a whole lot of reading of other books about China (Phil is the expert in this area), Hessler’s depiction of living as a foreigner in China is not only spot on, but highly accessible to those who have never lived in China before (right Grandma?).

In Country Driving (image source here) Hessler takes on China’s growing driving culture. Phil calls China a country of teenage drivers, as most navigating the road have only been doing so for a short time (it is estimated that the driving culture started its boom around 2001).  Because of this there is an air of lawlessness to navigating Chinese roads, anything goes as long as you honk your horn and don’t look into the rearview mirror.

Hessler explores why this culture has evolved the way it has, examining everything from driver education, the development of roads and the towns that spring up near by to getting a license as a foreigner. In an interview with Hessler on the Omnivoracious podcast on, he noted that to see China on the go is just as interesting as to see China standing still. The country is moving at such a quick rate that you don’t have to go anywhere to see rapid development.

Hessler’s book explained a lot about what I see on my daily commute to school, like why it is acceptable to run red lights, reverse on a highway on-ramp, or dry one’s harvest in the right lane of a major highway. While enlightened from the reading I’m not quite sure I’m ready to navigate the roads myself.

For more on Hessler check out his interview with the Asia Society here.

And I leave you with a couple gems from the Chinese driver’s exam, see if you cut it on Chinese roads:

1. When a motorized vehicle leaves a place where it has stopped, the driver should ________ in advance.
A. Continuously honk
B. Turn on the hazard lights
C. Turn on the left-turn signal
D. Make hand signals to other vehicles

2. When a vehicle deviates from the normal direction due to side winds at the end of a tunnel, the driver should firmly hold the steering wheel and make slight adjustment.

A. True
B. False

3. When evading an emergency, the driver should be calm and stick to the principle of ________.
A. Evading people first and objects later
B. Evading vehicles first and objects later
C. Evading vehicles first and people later
D. Evading objects first and people later

4. When a vehicle overturns slowly and jumping out of the vehicle is possible, the driver should jump ______.

A. In the driving direction
B. In the overturning direction
C. In the opposite direction of the overturn
D. To the overturning side

5. The main impact of foggy weather on safe driving is _________.

A. The engine can easily stop
B. The vehicle can easily slide sideways
C. The resistance the vehicle increases
D. The visibility is low and the vision is poor

4 thoughts on “Country Driving – A China Book Review

  1. Pingback: And Then There Was Fog | mala with a fork

  2. Pingback: When a Billion Chinese Jump – A Chinese Book Review | mala with a fork

  3. Pingback: Factory Girls – A Chinese Book Review | mala with a fork

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