If you seek nuanced armchair immersion into China’s dynamic culture, read New Yorker magazine columnist Peter Hessler’s latest book, Country Driving. With virtually no authorial ego, Peter illuminates the greatest rural-to-urban migration of our times through a narrative loaded with poignant stories of individuals and families and framed with astute economic and cultural insights.
They’ll be watching you. So what’s the deal with the book’s mysterious dust jacket? According to Hessler, who snapped the photo while driving south of Batou, the biggest city in China’s province of Inner Mongolia, available traffic police are no match for vast expanses of highway infrastructure.
Here’s how he depicts the situation in Batu:
. . . in the hopes of managing the new traffic in the way that scarecrows manage birds, the government had erected fiberglass statues of police officers. . .located at major intersections and roundabouts, where they stood at attention atop pedestals. They portrayed officers in full uniform, complete with necktie, visored cap, and white gloves. Each statue wore an ID tag with a number. In Batou, I never saw a live cop.And south of the city while driving through the Ordos Desert:
. . . periodically a policeman statue loomed beside the road. There was something eerie about these figures: they were wind-swept and dust covered, and the surrounding desert emphasized their pointlessness. But their posture remained ramrod straight, arms at attention, with a sort of Ozymandian grandeur—terra-cotta cops.
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An enduring tradition’s New, New Thing? Before you consider this practice completely off the wall, remember that China has a deeply entrenched history of outdoor statuary—complementary with Feng Shui—that is supposed to confer protection through powerful, supernatural authority figures—dragons, Fu dogs, etc.
During my two weeks in China in 2006, I marveled at such security outside factories and homes, palaces and banks. It would be ludicrous, of course, to infer that the government of Inner Mongolia attributes supernatural protective powers to its fiberglass cloned cops. But it’s no stretch to speculate that the polymer police are an exotic new twist in an enduring tradition of sculptural guardians/authority figures.