Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

Oracle BonesA Journey Between China’s Past and Present. Oracle Bones

491 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $26.95.  (2006)

Peter Hessler is an American who joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to China in 1996. After his rotation there is decided to live in China for awhile and took a position teaching English.  He has mastered the Chinese language himself and was able to speak  quite well. He developed good relationships with his students and he continued to communicate with them over the next several years, often visiting them as they made their way exploring various jobs and careers. Hessler then began to travel around China himself working as a free lance journalist and eventually taking a position as the Beijing correspondent of New Yorker magazine . This book covers a time period of of 1999 to 2002. I read this book in 2010 just prior to visiting China. I get the impression from this book and others that I have recently read , that China is in such rapid transition that some of the depictions even in this book must be viewed as historical .

The title of this book comes from the fact that the earliest Chinese writings were on the shells and bones of ancient tortoises. Hesler does focus on archeology for much of the book as the story of China does seem to be that of a vast country which has been searching to understand it’s complicated history and to understand where it has fit Into the scheme of the world in the past and what will the role of China be in the future. The migration pattern within the country in the past as well as in the present as illustrated by the lives of his young students with whom he tries to keep track. Their stories and the stories of their families are ones of seeking opportunity escape from poverty It should be clear to people who understand China and it certainly emerges from this book, that there are quite diverse ethnic groups in China. Hessler’s friendship with Polat a Uighur from what was East Turkestan is one such illustration. Polat’s success as a currency trader especially with the Russians is very interesting as is his decision to do a little deception ( as everyone seems to do ) and arrange to move to the United States.

American readers such as this reviewer have been interested in trying to understand the Chinese political system which on one hand encourages private business  but is an repressive dictatorial regime at least some of the time. Some of the times are illustrated what happened in Tiammenan Square and what happens periodically when various dissident groups try to demonstrate or speak out against the government. One case in point is the life and death of Chen Mangjia,  apparently a brilliant archeologist who end up killing himself. Hessler becomes very interested in understanding this man and what happened to him. While he never quite figures everything out, his quest to understand Mangjia’s life leads to him to meet and speak with many people . His writing about this man  is revealing about China. For example Mangjia apparently thought that China should stick with it’s traditional writing characters at a time that the government was considering a change to a more western style of writing ( which was never instituted ).  Nevertheless, Mangjia was labeled a “rightest” by the government and was actually sent away for several years to be “educated“ He may not have been the same again and apparently committed suicide.

The book ends prior to the 2008 Olympics which ended up being held in Beijing. The efforts of the country to get the Olympics to China were monumental as was the preparation for it. This book touches on the journey that China underwent and the potential impact expected form having the games.

I wish that I had thought to have a map of China handy as I read this book. Unless you are fairly familiar with the geography of this gigantic country and know where the various cities and regions are located, it can be a little confusing . Howeve this should be easy to remedy with a good map nearby.

Peter Hellser has made it very easy to share the several years of his life which he devoted to exploring and trying to understand China..The process of doing this allows the reader to begin to appreciate this vast dynamic land.

Category: HI - History, P - Political | Tags: , , Comment »

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