Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones: a journey through China and the West is a masterfully written account depicting modern China through the connections of history. He tells the stories of the many people he has known in the Middle Kingdom--their struggles with modernization and ways in which they embrace the changes of their country.

The subjects of most of the book are Hessler's students from his days of teaching English in rural Sichuan province (which he wrote about in his previous work, River Town). Others are friends and acquaintances he met while living and working in Beijing--people like his Uighur friend Polat who emigrated to the U.S. All of these people are connected by Hessler's research of the Shang Dynasty oracle bones and the common history of China.

Hessler writes objectively about international events as seen by an American living in China--there is the Chinese embassy bombing and the protests against the U.S. that followed, September 11 and the public reactions, and Olympic preparations. He writes at length about Shenzhen and his trips through the city while visiting a former student. He shows the influence of world events, changing economic situations, and government policies on the common citizens.

There is also an historical perspective of the Chinese language. The origins of writing characters, Mao Zedong's campaign to simplify the written language through Romanization, and even opposition to the simplification of characters. Through the study of language, Hessler discovers Chen Mengjia who opposed Mao's campaigned and suffered because of his opposition. Hessler goes on a long journey to research the man's life and comes up with multiple stories that turn the scholar into an almost mythological character.

Oracle Bones is must read for anyone foreigner who lives in China. It is a brilliant glimpse of the ever-changing Chinese world, complete with Hessler's own moments of wit and unintended humor (most of which is more amusing to readers who have experienced life in China).



Anonymous said...

It's on my shelf just waiting for me to plow through. STill have a few other books to finish first, but hope to struggle through them and get to Oracle Bones within this year ;-)

Alex said...

Who is the publisher? I might like to get a review copy.

Matthew said...

Peter, get to Oracle Bones quickly, it's well worth it.
Alex, I think it's from HarperCollins. But it's a little old at this point to get a review copy. You're probably better off buying it or finding it at the library.