Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

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9780060826598: Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China
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A century ago, outsiders saw China as a place where nothing ever changes. Today the country has become one of the most dynamic regions on earth. In Oracle Bones, Peter Hessler explores the human side of China's transformation, viewing modern-day China and its growing links to the Western world through the lives of a handful of ordinary people. In a narrative that gracefully moves between the ancient and the present, the East and the West, Hessler captures the soul of a country that is undergoing a momentous change before our eyes.

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About the Author:

Peter Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as the Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007, and is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He is the author of River Town, which won the Kiriyama Prize; Oracle Bones, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and, most recently, Country Driving. He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting, and he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011. He lives in Cairo.

From The Washington Post:

Near the beginning of Peter Hessler's new book about China, Oracle Bones, an archaeology team drills small holes in a field in Anyang, looking for the walls of an ancient settlement. Every core sample they remove is examined for signs of buried structures or artifacts that will help the archaeologists understand what's beneath the surface. "The dirt plugs reflect the meaning of what lies below," Hessler writes. "They are like words that can be recognized at a glance."

Hessler's book is like a collection of those core samples. He starts at the boundaries -- a trader from China's far west, a worker in the southern city of Shenzhen, a visit to the northeast border with North Korea -- and works his way in. Like artifacts discovered by an archaeologist, Hessler's tales are fragments that acquire meaning when taken together: a migrant worker, a dynamic teacher from an illiterate family, a black-market money trader from the Uighur ethnic minority, an aging man who fights a losing legal battle to save his historic courtyard house, a movie star on location in a remote part of Xinjiang province. Only gradually does the reader gain an understanding of the people trying to find their way in this vast country at a time of almost unfathomable change.

Hessler is the New Yorker's first accredited correspondent in China since before the communist revolution. He went to China to work in the Peace Corps and published a book about that experience called River Town. Some of his former students appear again in Oracle Bones, offering unusual insights into the yearnings and frustrations of the country's young adults.

One of the book's main pleasures is its language; Hessler writes clearly and sympathetically. Of the English teacher who broke the spines of dictionaries with heavy use, he says: "He still kept the old books lined up on his shelf, the way a good infielder never throws away a worn-out glove." Of the view from a tower on the Great Wall, where he camped overnight during one of China's notorious dust storms, Hessler writes: "From the tower, I watched it come in. Clouds of brown hung low to the ground, like the tendrils of a living thing that crept into the valley."

Unfortunately, like any excavation, the book sometimes lacks direction. At one point, he takes a gratuitous shot at Beijing-based newspaper journalists. (His disparaging description of foreign correspondents bears little resemblance to what I saw when I worked there and even less to what I've read about since.)

But for the most part, Hessler moves engagingly back and forth between narratives and characters, including a Uighur money-changer in Beijing who eventually receives political asylum in the United States and winds up delivering food for a D.C. Asian restaurant. His former students also prove invaluable in explaining today's China. One takes a job in a factory in Shenzhen, a one-time agricultural area that has been exploding with industrial growth since the early 1990s. Through her, he describes the underside of China's economic miracle: lecherous managers, late-night radio advice chats and petty rivalries among workers.

Perhaps Hessler's most compelling character is one who has been dead for 40 years. Born in 1911, Chen Mengjia was publishing popular poetry by age 18 under the name Wanderer. "I crushed my chest and pulled out a string of songs," he wrote. During the Japanese occupation, he joined the resistance. Later he became a professor, and a Rockefeller Foundation grant took him to America, accompanied by his brilliant wife, an expert on Henry James. In America, Chen studied Chinese bronzes in U.S. collections. He and his wife returned to China just as the communists took over. Soon, his erudite book on Chinese bronzes was published under the title Our Country's Shang and Zhou Bronzes Looted by American Imperialists. Communist China turned out to be an inhospitable place for a person so attached to the past. In 1957, Chen was labeled a rightist for opposing government attempts to simplify the Chinese language's gloriously rococo characters. In 1966, he committed suicide.

One of Chen's interests was oracle bones, which come to fascinate Hessler too. Made of cattle shoulder blades or turtle undershells, the oracle bones were heated until they cracked, making a sound that supposedly captured voices from departed ancestors. The cracks were then interpreted by diviners or the king himself.

Tracing Chen's story takes Hessler to the United States, Taiwan, Anyang, Shanghai and Beijing. He interviews aging archaeologists and the small fraternity of oracle-bone experts. In doing so, he unearths moving stories of the betrayal and pain that China's intellectuals endured from the communist victory through Mao's vicious Cultural Revolution. The intellectuals who survived are defined by this past, unlike most of the other characters in the book, who seem unmoored from China's history.

The oracle bones, of course, are metaphors for the loosely connected tales Hessler himself has assembled here; read together, they help us divine something essential about the nature of China today.

Reviewed by Steven Mufson
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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