Review: Oracle Bones

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins 2006)

Review by Craig Dietrich from September 2006 CAFAM Newsletter

Hessler is a talented observer, researcher, and writer, whose first book, River Town, documented his two years as an English teacher in Sichuan province. (It is very much worth reading.) While teaching, Hessler learned Chinese and began his work as a reporter. His approach is simple. He lives in China and pursues interesting stories wherever they lead. He freelances these writings to various publications, while is also writing books.

Hessler gives a view of China not found in most journalism or academic writing. Oracle Bones deals with a surprising range of subjects. One of them is Chinese archaeology, especially the “oracle bones,” those excavated cow scapula and tortoise plastrons which contain the earliest surviving examples of Chinese writing. Not merely do the bones themselves interest him, but also the fascinating and sometimes tragic lives of the scholars who work on the past in an era of revolutionary upheaval.

Another story line involves some of Hessler’s former students as they make their way in China’s rapidly changing society. One couple migrates from the economic backwaters of Sichuan province to teach in the go-go coastal province of Zhejiang. Lured there by fake promises, they thrive nevertheless. Another student has moved to the booming region between Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton) where she works in one of the innumerable small factories that churn out China’s flood of exports. Because of his relationship with these people, Hessler gains insights into the daily lives of Chinese coping with rising affluence, deracination, loneliness, and exploitation, and survival.

Also prominent in the book is a Uighur man. The Uighurs (also spelled Uygurs) are one of China’s Muslim minorities most of whom live in the far western “Autonomous Region” of Xinjiang (known to tourists as the Silk Road province). The twists and turns in the life of this man who views his homeland as colonized by Han Chinese, who has lost his teaching career and spent time in prison for separatist activities, who thrives as a money changer and then decides to emigrate to the US is endlessly fascinating. Living in Washington D.C., where Hessler visits him, he also provides an interesting vantage point for observing life in America.

As these paragraphs might suggest, the book is immensely rich in its geographical, cultural, and historical scope. From the Chinese film industry, to a cornstarch factory in the northeast called the Jilin Petrochemical Design and Research Institute, to the old hutong neighborhoods of Beijing being razed to make way for high rises, to the border with North Korea, to the Cultural Revolution suicides of scholars, to the academic institutes on Taiwan, to the Falun Gong, etc., etc., Hessler lays out a rich narrative.

What he reports is not always flattering, to China or to America. For example, any American who blithely imagines (as our leaders tell us) that the US is universally admired in the world should consider Hessler’s account of the reaction of the Chinese person on the street to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Peter Hessler is a major talent, this second book is an education to anyone who reads it.

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