Country Driving; A Chinese Road Trip, by Peter Hessler

Country Driving;

A Chinese Road Trip,

by Peter Hessler

(Published by Canongate)

Due to a number of family matters we had to cancel our trip to China this summer. Instead, we’ve had to content ourselves with reading books about travelling in China. Country Driving; A Chinese Road trip, was one of the best. Hopefully we’ll be able to head to the Harbin Ice Festival this winter as compensation for missing out this summer. We still have loads of travel material to upload.

What’s it like to drive a car around China? As neither Margie nor I drive, we’ll probably never know. However, Peter Hessler’s fascinating, and often hilarious book, gives you a wonderful insight into what it might be like. Hessler’s observations on the quirkiness of driving in China, which include the amazing opportunity he had of taking part in the test driving of the Chinese Chery, are unlike anything you may have read before.

Road signs can be different
Road signs can be different

And yet, Country Driving is much more than just another travel book; Hessler’s fluency in Mandarin allows him to connect with the Chinese in a way few westerners are able to do. In fact, his encounters with the people he meets on the road, and the relationships he develops with them, are the real highlights of the book. I particularly enjoyed the incredibly relaxed and open relationship Hessler cultivates with some of the characters, such as the people from the car hire company, or the family in Sancha village.
Country Driving is divided into three parts.

Driving isn't always safe in China
Driving isn’t always safe in China

Part 1

This part focuses on his first trip into remote areas of the northern provinces of Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, where he traces the crumbling remains of the Great Wall. Along the way, he picks up hitch-hikers and passes through time- forgotten villages, whose names hark back to their glory days when they were at the fore-front of the defense of the Empire.

Names like Slaughter the Hu, or Smash the Hu (the Hu being the Barbarian tribes from the North) are not too dissimilar to the names of villages we still have here in Spain, like Matamoros (or, kill the Moors).

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China Road: Route 312 The Chinese Route 66

China Road

Route 312 The Chinese Route 66

A Book Review


China Road By Rob Gifford
China Road By Rob Gifford

China Road

China Road: Route 312 The Chinese Route 66: It’s getting to that time of year again when we start planning our next trip to China. What better way to get back into the swing of things than by reading a couple of great travel books?

And China Road by Rob Gifford definitely fits the bill. Gifford follows route 312 – the Chinese equivalent to America’s famous route 66 – as it crosses the country from East to West. All in all, he covers 4824 km from Shanghai to the border with Kazakhstan, passing through an amazing variety of landscapes, from the sub-tropical areas of the Yangtze Basin to the harsh deserts of Western China.

Western China Loess Plain
Western China Loess Plain

Hitch-Hiking in China

For most of his epic journey, Gifford travels as a hitchhiker, which brings him into contact with people from all walks of life: from rich urbanite Sunday drivers on a day’s outing from Shanghai, to rough truckers heading across Gansu Province and into Xinjiang, or even a mobile phone wielding hermit monk on Hua Shan.

Along the way he gets involved in some unusual situations. Some are tragic, like the time when he sneaks into the slowly dying aids villages in Henan Province to talk to the victims of the blood-selling scam. Others are just completely bizarre; at one time he has to officiate as a priest in a small Christian Church in a forgotten corner of Gansu because the waiting congregation’s real priest couldn’t make it.

Scenes From Gansu Western China
Scenes From Gansu Western China

Why I Enjoyed China Road

I enjoyed the fact that the book follows a route from beginning to end; something that we like doing too (see our maps). Moreover, it is evident that Gifford knows his China. He speaks fluent Mandarin and he worked as a China correspondent for the US network Public Radio for many years. One of the most interesting parts of the book is his observation that route 312 is a reflection of an entire country on the move, as people leave their villages ‘en masse’ and hit the road, in search of a better life in the burgeoning cities. Throughout the book, Gifford draws comparisons with Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath which describes how almost 75 years earlier the rural population of the United States of America did the same.

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Mo Yan 莫言 wins the Nobel Prize in Literature 2012

Author: Pen name: Mo Yan 莫言.  Real name:  Guǎn Móyè 管谟业

Anyone who has read our Chinese book review section will know that I’m a great fan of the Chinese author Mo Yan. So I would just like so say how happy I am that he has been recognized for his great works.  Hopefully, I’ll now be able to find a copy of his ‘Republic of Wine’ a little more easily.

Below are the reviews of two of Mo Yan’s books that are on our blog:

Big Breasts and Wide Hips丰乳肥臀

The Garlic Ballads /天堂蒜薹之歌 by Mo Yan莫言

Dream of Ding village by Yan Lianke

Dream of Ding village 丁庄梦

A Novel by Yan Lianke阎连科

Published by Corsair and translated by

Cindy Carter

Dream of Ding village by Yan Lianke
Dream of Ding village by Yan Lianke

Setting the Scene

Dream of Ding village by Yan Lianke: The book is set in Henan province, central China, around the city of Kaifeng, during the early to mid-1990s.

“They dug me up so they could take me to Kaifeng and bury me next to my dead wife. “ (Page 310).

Kaifeng Outside Jiaozi Guan 开封饺子馆

Kaifeng, situated  in China’s Henan province

Kaifeng, situated  in China’s Henan province on the banks of the Yellow river, once served as the Song dynasty capital (then known as Bianjing (汴京). It may have been the world’s biggest city between 1013 and 1127. Much of its imperial splendor has been lost to the ravages of war, floods and rebellion. However, it still retains one of the few remaining landmarks from that time, the magnificent Iron Pagoda (铁塔), built in 1049.

Iron Pagaoda 开封的铁塔

the incredible Qingming Scroll

Another of its treasures is the incredible Qingming Scroll, painted by Song dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 – 1145), which captures the daily life of people from the epoch at the ancient capital, Bianjing; today’s Kaifeng.

Qing Ming Scroll

Modern day Kaifeng is a pleasant city

Modern day Kaifeng is a pleasant city to visit, with lively night markets, interesting temples and pagodas and the added lure of finding traces of China’s tiny Jewish community. Huge skyscrapers, ubiquitous in most Chinese cities, are conspicuous by their absence: due to the wealth of ancient ruins and relics still buried under the ground, the digging of deep foundations is prohibited.

Kaifeng 开封

Strolling around sleepy Kaifeng, it is hard to believe that the villages and surrounding counties hide a dark secret that very few visitors will see, or even know about. In fact, any attempt by a foreigner to visit these places will immediately arouse the suspicions of local police and the security bureau. What are they hiding?

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Chronicle of a Blood Merchant

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant: a novel by Yu Hua (Book Review).

The Book

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, a novel by Yu Hua.
Published by Anchor Books. Translation by Andrew F. Jones.
Among other works, Yu Hua is the author of To Live (turned into an acclaimed film directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li) and Brothers.

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant
Chronicle of a Blood Merchant

The Story

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant
Chronicle of a Blood Merchant

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant: The main character is Xu Sanguan, a cart-pusher in a silk factory in a small rural town. Xu is persuaded by two peasants, residents from the village of Xu Sanguan’s favourite uncle, that he can sell his own blood for a handsome sum, and thus supplement his meager income. Reluctantly, dragging his feet, Xu Sanguan accompanies them to the hospital for his first blood sale. We soon learn that the main reason for his reluctance is not cowardice, but the fact that selling your own blood is traditionally taboo in China; which is also why the hospitals pay such a high price.

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant

Xu Yulan (Xu Sanguan’s wife) on finding out that he has just sold blood:

“My dad used to tell me when I was little that your blood is passed down from your ancestors. You can sell fried dough, sell a house, sell off your land, but you can never sell your blood. Better to sell your body than sell your blood! At least your body belongs to you. But selling your blood is like selling your ancestors. Xu Sanguan, you’ve sold your ancestors!”

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant

Xu Sanguan uses the money from this first sale to get married and pay for the wedding. After the initial happy years of married life, he discovers that his first son was born as a result of his wife’s relation with a previous lover. For Xu Sanguan this is the ultimate humiliation. He becomes the laughing stock of the village and is openly pointed out as a ‘cuckold 戴绿帽子’, while his poor, hapless wife is publicly denounced as a prostitute.

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant
Chronicle of a Blood Merchant

In the aftermath of this discovery

In the aftermath of this discovery, Xu Sanguan will have to take many heart wrenching decisions as he struggles with himself over the correct way to fulfill his obligations as a father and husband, and ponders the importance of blood ties versus other relationships.

In order to keep his family afloat in adverse times, Xu Sanguan is forced to sell more and more of his blood, knowing full he is damaging his health. As the family’s situation becomes ever more desperate, his visits to the hospital become dangerously frequent, building up to a tense and gripping finale.

The setting for the novel is a small town in rural China

The setting for the novel is a small town in rural China during some of the most tumultuous episodes of Mao Zidong’s communist rule, such as the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent famine, or the Cultural Revolution with its ensuing chaos and disruption of family life. All these events take their toll on Xu Sanguan and his family.

The story ends with the economic opening of China and the different aspirations of parents and children this freer society brings with it, distancing Xu Sanguan once more from his sons.

The characters

The characters are what I liked most about the book, in particular the protagonist Xu Sanguan and his changing and evolving relationships with his wife and eldest son. While at the beginning of the novel Xu Sanguan’s – and his wife Xu Yulan’s – behaviour and motives often seemed incomprehensible to my Western mind, towards the end of the story I found that I had matured with them and come to understand them.

Throughout the book, the author vividly brings to life what it must have been like to live in a small rural town in China during those turbulent times, and how people’s relationships were affected; sometimes pushing people to incredibly cruel and callous deeds, while at other times bringing out their generosity and solidarity.

The Translation

One unusual trait of the translation was the way in which the translator used Chinese Idioms and allegorical sayings. Rather than translate them in a way that shows their meaning, he just translates them literally, word for word.

Chinese Idioms

For example: “to jump into the Yellow river, can’t get clean (跳进黄河 – 洗不清). This means “whatever I say or do no one believes me”.
Or:  “Pull your pants down to fart(脱了裤子放屁 – 多费一道手续). This means “a waste of time or effort”.

While the above idiom and allegorical saying are quite easy to understand from context, even if you don’t speak Chinese, the final line of the book is also a Chinese saying and its meaning is far from clear: “That’s why people say pubic hair doesn’t come out till after your eyebrows do, but gets even longer in the end.”
If anyone knows this Chinese saying and its meaning, please leave a comment.

End Note

The selling of blood during the time the “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” is set was dangerous to one’s health if you overdid it. However, there is an air of innocence in the actions of the protagonists, even the blood collector, Blood Chief Li, at the hospital was concerned about people donating too much blood.

Fast forward a few decades and we come to the great blood donation scandal in Henan province and the HIV aids epidemic it produced. The next book we will review, Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, is a harrowing tale of death, corruption and the true horror that affected hundreds of thousands of people in the villages near Kaifeng. Yan Lianke’s book is set in an era where all innocence was lost.

The Photos

All the photos except one were taken in Anshun 安顺 and Rongjiang榕江, Guizhou Province in 2003.

Beijing Coma Mǎ Jiàn A Book Review

Beijing Coma (北京植物人) Mǎ Jiàn (马建) A Book Review

Beijing Coma Mǎ Jiàn A Book Review. This book should come with a health warning: unsuitable for first-time visitors to China, for they may well decide to cancel their trip. Even old-time China-lovers, such as myself, should proceed with caution, as some of the things you’re about to read may put you off going back there forever!

“ ‘They aren’t evil, they’re just products of an evil system.’ ”

Having suffered through some graphic descriptions of the unspeakable suffering, and the cruelties Chinese people inflicted upon each other during the Cultural Revolution; having shuddered at the inhumane way the death penalty is carried out and gasped at its utterly immoral connection to organ transplants, I found I had to keep repeating the words Dai Wei, the protagonist, says to his girlfriend, Tian Yi, as if they were a kind of mantra: “ ‘They aren’t evil, they’re just products of an evil system.’ ” (p. 504).


Dai Wei is in a coma; unable to move a muscle, though aware of his surroundings and with his memory intact. Through his memories, he relives his life, from his early childhood, when his father returns from a 22-year stint in a series of reform-through-labour camps, to the fatal denouement at Tiananmen Square, during which he is shot in the head.  At regular intervals, Dai Wei’s attempts to return to his past are interrupted by his awareness of present events – the visits of his girlfriend or friends, his mother’s comments – or interspersed with clinical observations on the deterioration of his own body, as he is after all a Biologist.

a traumatic first arrest for ‘immoral behaviour’

From his family history, childhood and adolescence, with a traumatic first arrest for ‘immoral behaviour’, we move gradually to his university days, first in Guangzhou and later in Beijing. At university, Dai Wei’s political awareness, a vague feeling of anger and frustration that until then had lain dormant, is shaken when he starts reading his father’s journals from his camp days.

children of parents who suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution

Over time, he becomes increasingly keen to shake off the ‘stigma’ of being the son of a ‘rightist’ and to make a success of his life in a better society. Dai Wei and his fellow students, all children of parents who suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution, vaguely imagine this society as a place with freedom of speech and thought, freedom from corruption and oppression and justice for all.

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Big Breasts and Wide Hips 丰乳肥臀

Big Breasts and Wide Hips


Author: Pen name: Mo Yan 莫言.  Real name:  Guǎn Móyè 管谟业

(First published in 1996 in Chinese; 2005 in English)

Big Breasts and Wide Hips 丰乳肥臀 is the second novel I’ve read by Mo Yan, the first being The Garlic Ballads天堂蒜薹之歌”. Both novels are set in Mo Yan’s native Shandong Province, in the village of Gaomi, but any similarities end there. The Garlic Ballads is a depiction of corruption in rural China in the early 1980s, a period when the old certainties of communism fade and unbridled market forces are unleashed.

long journey through the tumultuous history of 20th century China

Big Breasts and Wide Hips is a long journey through the tumultuous history of 20th century China: it’s a saga of endless wars, revolutions and violent political persecutions; a desperate time when bayoneting Japanese soldiers, marauding Communist and Nationalist troops, famine, starvation, murderous family infighting, corruption and a whole cast of vile characters all play their part in wreaking havoc on Gaomi village.

Shanguan Lű

The heroine is Shanguan Lű. From her birth, in the middle of a massacre during the Boxer Rebellion, her life is an incredible story of survival and the irrepressible will to live on, through some of the most desperate situations a human being may have to endure.

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The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan/莫言

The Garlic Ballads /天堂蒜薹之歌 by Mo Yan莫言 (A Book Review)

Mo Yan/莫言


A close Call

Shit!’, I thought and my heart sank as the Chinese border police picked up the book and looked at it. Having just rigorously gone through all the photos on my digital camera, he was now holding a book that was still banned in China, as far as I knew. In normal times I wouldn’t have cared too much; the book would have been confiscated, the officers would have smiled apologetically, and we would have been allowed to continue… But these were not normal times: it was July 2008 and the Beijing Olympics were still in full swing.  Immigration Officers were under strict orders to give any stray foreigner entering China during that time a real grilling, looking out for undercover journalists, or just anybody who might disturb those perfectly orchestrated Games. We were neither, but we were the only foreigners on the boat from Thailand to Jinghong.

the only foreigners on the boat from Thailand to Jinghong

The young but diligent border guard stared at the book’s black cover: the picture of the garlic bulb seemed to be throbbing and Mo Yan’s name to be glowing. I waited. Was our trip to China about to end right here in the docks of Guanlei, without even setting foot on dry land?

a Hobbesian tale of rural China

The Garlic Ballads is a Hobbesian tale of rural China, where life does indeed seem short, violent and brutal. Set in the 1980s in Northern China, in the aftermath of Deng Xiaoping’s famous statement, ‘Getting Rich is glorious’, the Garlic Ballads highlights the breakdown in the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the peasants. The latter, still clinging to the ideals of the revolution and age- old Chinese concepts of fair and honest leadership from officials, find themselves cheated, betrayed and even murdered by a new class of CCP leaders who scandalously grab every opportunity available to enrich themselves. Mo Yan spares no niceties in his vilification of this new China and its rulers.

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The Uninvited 不速之客

The Uninvited’ – a novel by Geling Yan (A Book Review)



The Uninvited 不速之客; Scratching beneath the surface of Beijing’s modern façade, Geling Yan reveals a world of inequality, corruption and sycophantic banality. The main character, Dan, is an unemployed factory worker who lives with his wife, Little Plum, in their old factory’s run-down accommodation on the outskirts of Beijing. By accident, Dan realizes he can earn a nice living and enjoy the pleasures of China’s finest cuisine by pretending to be a journalist.

In modern-day China, journalists are often invited to functions in order to write positive reviews about whatever corporation or society is holding the event. They are wined and dined in lavish style and then, to top it all, they are paid “money for your trouble” to reward them for their attendance and encourage the publication of favourable articles. The banquets are bizarre and farcical; for instance, the bird watchers’ society culminates its event by serving up one of China’s most endangered birds.

The Dark side of Beijing

Dan’s life becomes more complicated when he meets the famous painter, Ocean Chen, and the determined and ambitious journalist, Happy Gao. From this point onwards, Dan is taken on journey of discovery that will immerse him in the bowels of Beijing’s less savoury side. Quickly, the thin veneer of a stable, dynamic and modern city is peeled away and its rotten core revealed. Exploited prostitutes, money-grabbing constructors, crooked policemen and judges, as well as vain and self-centred artists are all woven into a web of corruption.

Irony and humour

Despite the biting irony of the book, ‘The Uninvited’, is often humorous and consistently down to earth. The main characters are likable and real and the plot unravels unexpectedly. Definitely a good read.

Chinese Whispers

Chinese Whispers: by Hsiao-Hung Pai (Review)

The True Story behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour



Chinese Whispers; The last time you sat down to a Chinese meal in one of those grand and bustling Chinese restaurants in London’s Chinatown, did you by any chance think about who your waiter was, what had led him to Britain, or what his working conditions might be like?

Have you ever wondered who separated and sorted those impeccable lettuce leaves in your designer bag of mixed fresh salad, or who picked and trimmed those perfect spring onions that you bought from a supposedly respectable high street supermarket? And what about that side salad you got from a world famous fast food outlet?

What has made those pretty faces that appear in local newspapers offering massages and other services, of a more sexual nature, to British ‘gentlemen’, do this kind of work?

These are the questions we don’t like to ask ourselves, we prefer to take it for granted that we can get these products and services at a cheap price.

Hsiao-Hung Pai’s book, ‘Chinese Whispers’, reveals exactly how we get all the above and at what price. The stories of the people involved, which she masterly brings to light, make for uncomfortable reading. Hers is a tale designed to stir our consciousness and provoke anger and indignation. For ‘Chinese Whispers’ is a story of exploitation, shattered dreams and

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