I’ve been finding more time to read in the last few weeks, namely Peter Hessler’s ‘Country Driving‘, Zhang Lijia’s ‘Socialism is Great‘, and I am currently working on Leslie Chang’s ‘Factory Girls‘. I know I’ve said it before, at some point I will write a summary on each, but at the moment time (and interest) are putting some constraints on my ability to do this. I will say, however, that reading these three books in conjunction with one another has proven to be a very nice combination, one which I recommend to anyone interested in gaining some insight into the workings of a large portion of current China. If you want a better summary than I will probably write, go here for Hessler. I couldn’t find anything that I felt really conveyed the concepts behind Zhangs work, so for an average review, check this out.
I have said it in the past, I will say it again, but Mr. Hessler is perhaps the most astute of any of the multitude of writers in the current China field. His works tend to ramble over a wide array of thoughts, usually following a main story line while simultaneously adding background history and finer details. It is almost a novelized history, but he keeps the facts relevant and is very good at presenting things in a straightforward manner. The end result is a very compelling read that allows the audience to draw many of their own interpretations in addition to those presented by the author. ‘Country Driving’ is certainly not in the same league as his first work, ‘River Town’, but is amazing nonetheless. The book is broken up into three major sections, each of which hold their own distinct story. It would be entirely possible to read one of the sections separate from the others and still have the section hold its value. Of these three divisions, I found the last to be my favorite. The final section focuses on China’s Zhejiang province, the epicenter of industry and private manufacturing within China. Hessler follows the life of a particular factory, starting at its inception and examining important points over the course of about half a year. As he shows, half a year in the life of a Chinese factory is on par with a decade anywhere else.
Keeping the factories in mind, I jumped to Zhang Lijia’s work, ‘Socialism is Great’. A memoir of the author’s experience as a young factory worker during the period following opening and reform, this work presents great insight into the difficulty experienced by a young, ambitious Chinese coming of age during the 80s. It builds very well on the work of Hessler, placing more emphasis directly on life within a factory, as well as showing how the power of the work unit extended far beyond factory walls. While the events of ‘Country Driving’ take place nearly two decades after the time which Zhang recounts, ‘Socialism is Great’ helps to develop a backdrop for the atmosphere of frantic development that Hessler observes in Zhejiang years later.
‘Factory Girls’, what can I say? It’s good, but I feel like it was written too closely to ‘Country Driving’ (Leslie Chang is married to Peter Hessler). I haven’t completely finished it, though, so I will refrain from fully commenting on it just yet. I like it, but it doesn’t have the edge that I thought it would, at least not yet. It does, however, add a new perspective to the lives of China’s migrants. Of the many groupings that exist within China, the migrants have received huge amounts of attention. The backbone of every construction job within the PRC, migrant labor is an essential factor in the explosion of China’s economy. In opposition to the theme of repression and mistreatment that many authors exemplify when portraying this group, Chang focuses on migrants from a different direction, putting emphasis on their interest in being away from home and the opportunity that a factory can afford. She does not deny the hardships, but rather takes a very different viewpoint in addressing these difficulties. In relation to the above readings, ’Factory Girls’ adds a nice touch in giving greater detail and personality to the migrants, showing them not just as a large group, but as a culture unto their own.
If you were to pick just one of the above books, pick ‘Country Driving’. It is the most well rounded of the three, and by far the most readable. After that, read the other two. They are all good, they all have nicely framed narratives and for the most part give good insight into important elements of Chinese culture. Go out and buy them. Do it.