Country Driving: Biased or Impartial

Ancient, oriental, rapidly changing: China is a country that remains largely veiled to most of the western world From the Opium War to the civil wars and then to the Cultural Revolution, China went through nearly a century and a half of chaos. Not until recent decades, with the new era of Opening and Reform, has China achieved political and economic stability. The Opening and Reform has not only given China the opportunity to present itself to the world but it has also changed China, as a result of the skyrocketing economy, the collision with western culture and traditions, the urban migration, etc. Peter Hessler keenly captures this changing China in his book Country Driving. What’s more, Hessler has been praised for his so-called objectivity. He claims that “[his] responsibility is to write true things” (Johnson 4). I contend, however, that Hessler’s work includes many instances of bias of which he may not even be aware.

Hessler recounts many stories from his point of view as an American living in China. During multiple trips along the Great Wall, he discovered many small and remote villages. He would often pick up hitchhikers and have conversations that lasted for hours. He also found serenity in a small village called Sancha outside of the fast-paced Beijing. There he met the Wei family and became close friends with them. He was fortunate to observe China’s societal change through the lens of this small village and its local politics. On his trip to Zhejiang, Hessler found a newly industrialized area, where he met Boss Wang, who had been planning to start a brassiere factory and made it possible for him to live among the workers and document different aspects of work and family life.

Hessler is often praised for his humor, authentic descriptions, and claims of impartiality; however, his biased depiction of the Chinese healthcare system suggests otherwise.  He denounces the health care system in China after Wei Jia, the son of the Weis, was hospitalized for possible leukemia and needed a blood transfusion. In the hospital, when the nurse did not allow Wei Jia’s father to stay and take care of him and suggested that a female friend, Mimi, stay instead due to hospital regulations, Hessler automatically ascribes this to the hospital discriminating against the people from the countryside without pondering the hospital’s intention. He writes: “ Chinese hospitals have a reputation for mistreating people from the countryside”(Hessler 166).  Moreover, Hessler raises concern about the reliability of the source of Wei Jia’s blood transfusion, given that “more than one million Chinese had been infected with H.I.V” (167).  He adds that, “The epidemic was particularly severe in Henan Province, just south of Beijing, because of unsanitary donor practices”(168).  Hessler notes that when he went to the doctor’s office to question the blood supply and the treatment, the doctor “didn’t see [him] as a person who cared for the sick child; in her eyes, [he] was simply a foreigner who distrusted her competence” and was “clearly annoyed by Wei Ziqi’s faith in [his] judgment” (169).  He also writes that “together [he and Wei Ziqi] brought out the city woman’s worst instincts, from both sides of the spectrum: she responded to the peasant with arrogance and the foreigner with insecurity” (Hessler 169). Hessler believes that “the root of that respect is insecurity; deep down, many Chinese, especially the educated people, are slightly ashamed of the way their country might appear to an outsider”(169). In other words, Hessler argues that Chinese hospitality is in fact a cover for deep seated insecurities about their country, and by revealing their insecurities, Hessler also thinks he reveals the real attitude of Chinese people towards foreigners.

Although I agree that Chinese respect and hospitality toward foreigners do stem from the insecurities of the Chinese up to a point, I cannot accept his blunt assumption that insecurity is the sole reason. Traditional Chinese values have always emphasized hospitality. However, Chinese hospitality is more than just welcoming; the hosts think it’s an honor for guests to visit their house and regard the well-being of the guests as the hosts’ primary responsibility. When Hessler was transporting Cao to the hospital, they had a short conversation that illustrates this approach to hospitality. Hessler fist asked her: “ Do you have everything you need?” In response, Cao said: “I’m fine. Have you eaten yet” (Hessler 167 )? Cao was still concerned about the well-being of the guest even though her main worry was her child’s well-being.  Also, just as Hessler mentions in the book, the face culture is also really influential. Knowing that the western media are overwhelmed with misunderstandings and negative news, the Chinese people hope to use their hospitalities to mitigate the misunderstandings and influence more people to respect China. According to Hessler himself, “they’re inclined to grant a sort of exaggerated respect to any foreigners who speak the language”(Hessler 169),  even they are crooked because Chinese feel their culture and country are appreciated and want to encourage more foreigners to understand them and respect them. In the book, Hessler was possessed by his preconceptions about China as a foreigner. He shows no respect for the doctor, questioning Dr. Zhao’s treatment, and ascribes her impatience and anger to her insecurities.  He also pulled out his “foreigner card” to threaten Dr. Zhao and showed a condescending attitude Dr. Zhao. How could Hessler expect respect and a patient response from Dr. Zhao while he is being disrespectful Dr. Zhao?

Does Hessler have an argument in the Country Driving? Yes. He thinks the Chinese hospitality derives from their insecurities about their nation. He does not try to cover up his disdain towards to Chinese healthcare system. Hessler, instead of reflecting on his own disrespectful action, shirks the blame of the conflict between him and Dr.Zhao to her insecurities. Hessler tends to show his authority on describing China, but the description of the conflict shows nothing but prejudice and arrogance. It makes us question the authenticity of the China he is describing.


Hessler, Peter. Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip. HarperCollins, 2010.

Johnson, Ian. “An American Hero in China.” The New York Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, 7 May 2015,