182 of 188 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't miss this book.
Having read and enjoyed Hessler's first book, and because I am an ESOL teacher, I looked forward to receiving this one. Since I am not a history buff, the book provided me a good overview of the past of an emerging world power without ever becoming tedious with names and dates. The ancient past is covered, and the major eras of the twentieth century are presented from...
Published on August 6, 2007 by Gayla K. Fitzpatrick
108 of 122 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Lacks the Empathy and Intimacy of River Town
In 2001, Peter Hessler introduced us to the Yangtze River town of Fuling. Hessler had traveled there in the mid-1990's as one of the first Peace Corps volunteers admitted to China, and he arrived naive, wide-eyed, uneducated about Chinese language and culture, and generally lost. In his first book, RIVER TOWN, he recounted his two years teaching English at a small college...
Published on May 5, 2006 by Steve Koss
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182 of 188 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't miss this book.,
Having read and enjoyed Hessler's first book, and because I am an ESOL teacher, I looked forward to receiving this one. Since I am not a history buff, the book provided me a good overview of the past of an emerging world power without ever becoming tedious with names and dates. The ancient past is covered, and the major eras of the twentieth century are presented from different points of view, so that a feel for the lives of modern Chinese people emerges without "studying" the main events which shaped their lives. The description (above, by the publisher) of the book is totally apt; it weaves past and present with stories of interesting, ordinary people, including one who emigrates to the U.S. I read many books and have a high literary standard. Hessler meets it. He is an informed, well-researched story-teller with a true artist's eye and ear. His attention to detail delights. While he does not aim for poetry, he writes with a graceful precision that is almost poetic. I found every part of this book fascinating. One caveat: nothing here is wasted, so pay attention to each character; the reappearances of many characters give the book rare depth and fullness. You may be disappointed only if you have already studied China extensively; I am fairly well-informed in general but wanted to learn more about this country. Oracle Bones provided both information and insight. I found it to be one of the most satisfying books I have ever read in any category.
64 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant commentary on modern China,
Nothing particular in Peter Hessler's middle-American Missouri background particularly fits him to be a brilliant commentator on modern China. In college at Princeton and later at Oxford he studied English and creative writing, focusing largely on fiction. His first contact with China was a trans-Siberian train trip in 1994, which ignited an interest in travel writing. When he arrived in the Yangtze River town of Fuling two years later as a volunteer English teacher for the Peace Corps, he spoke no Chinese. By the time Oracle Bones was published in 2006, Hessler, who has lived in Beijing since leaving the Peace Corps, had become an accomplished Chinese speaker with a wide-ranging knowledge of both traditional and modern Chinese society. And yes, he is a brilliant commentator on modern China. This book picks up where his first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), leaves off.
Oracle Bones is loosely built around a trio of narrative themes that spin out independently: the lives of several of his students after they leave school and enter the Chinese workforce; the struggle of his Uighur friend Polat, a Muslim dissident, to succeed first in Beijing and then in the United States; and his research into the life of Chen Mengjia, an oracle bone scholar who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution.
Hessler's life in China is organized loosely around clipping articles for the Wall Street Journal, writing news and features for the Boston Globe, and writing articles for the New Yorker, in all three cases about China. The cost of living is so low in Beijing compared to the US that he has plenty of money to travel around the country visiting former students, camping out at the Great Wall (and getting arrested in the process), journeying in Xinjiang, the home territory of the Uighur Muslim minority, flying to Taiwan to visit a retired professor who studied oracle bones with Chen Mengjia during the Kuomintang period, and even visiting the set of a Chinese Western movie on the north rim of the Tarim Basin, at the edge of the Flaming Mountains. Periodically Hessler flies back to the States to visit family and later his Uighur friend Polat who is living in Washington, DC after receiving asylum from the US government.
The book follows several recurrent themes related to the study of modern China, notably, the changes in Chinese society since Deng Xiaoping's Reform and Opening, particularly the migration of young people from the countryside to overnight factory cities such as Shenzhen (in the Pearl River area) and the growing gap between the perspectives of the young and the old. In Hessler's narrative we see educated young people abandoning families and traditional lifestyles for the more lucrative, faster-paced life of the new cities. Among middle-aged people Hessler finds the ghosts of the Rightist denunciations of the 50s and the Cultural Revolution of the 60s lurking just beneath the surface. The very old recall traditional China in the unstable years under the Kuomintang.
It's my hope that Peter Hessler will continue his Chinese narrative in another, yet-unwritten book. The Chinese story is changing yearly now, and Hessler's perceptive eyes and ears are recording all of it. I eagerly await his next installment.
57 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another instant classic from a masterful author,
You've read my review of his first book. (Or not...) Six years later, here's another, and he remains one of my role models as an author and as a person. He's back in China, as a freelance journalist rather than a teacher this time, and that's every bit as illegal as it sounds. The man was born to write, and would be doing so no matter where he lived or what he did there. Yet again, he's met some extremely interesting people and told their stories well. He was able to travel among cities and villages, rich and poor, Han and minority. The book spans three years, plus two additional years of research, and you'll see just as much technological and infrastructure progress in the book as I did in my time in China. Two more years for publication, and that's just fine. I'm a recent NaNoWriMo winner -- my first time trying -- but I know that truly great literature takes a bit longer. Like me, Hessler is drawn to Uyghurs, outsiders, small towns, and Muslim food in China. But again, that doesn't matter. You'll care about anything he writes, because that's part of his gift. Humor, insight, intelligence, honesty, and that rare ability to touch both your heart and your mind. Some fascinating tales from China's past, many of which were new to me, give it a timeless quality as well. I don't want him to write faster, because that can't be done. I want more authors to aspire to this level of quality, because I read them much faster than Hessler writes them. Five stars out of five, another keeper, and all the other superlatives I roll out on rare and special occasions. I'm glad I didn't wait for the paperback. I'm not so glad it sat on my bookshelf unread for so long, because this could've been my second or third reading instead of my first.
108 of 122 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Lacks the Empathy and Intimacy of River Town,
In 2001, Peter Hessler introduced us to the Yangtze River town of Fuling. Hessler had traveled there in the mid-1990's as one of the first Peace Corps volunteers admitted to China, and he arrived naive, wide-eyed, uneducated about Chinese language and culture, and generally lost. In his first book, RIVER TOWN, he recounted his two years teaching English at a small college to young people studying to be English teachers in China. Hessler led us through his cultural awakening to Chinese life, academic bureaucracy and the constant infusion of Communist Party ideology, and the awakening of his students' lives to adulthood and the possibilities of the outside world. As Hessler jogs around the countryside (only foreigners jog in China) and gradually learns to read and speak Chinese language, he opens the world of interior China to his readers. By all accounts, RIVER TOWN is a master work, a personal and intimate account of both the author's education as well as that of his students, made all the more poignant by the fact that most of Hessler's Fuling is now underwater thanks to the enormous reservoir that rose behind the gates of the Three Gorges Dam.
Now comes ORACLE BONES. No longer the starry-eyed China neophyte, Hessler has graduated to the grimy world of journalism. Whether serving as an aricle clipper in Beijing for the New York Times, freelancing for the Boston Globe or Wall Street Journal or National Geographic, or penning feature stories for The New Yorker, Hessler is now on the endless prowl for "the sellable angle." As he travels the country looking for stories about the Rape of Nanking, the entrepreneurial success of Wenzhou businessmen, the money-trading Uighurs of Xinjiang Province, or the death of Beijing hutongs, he accumulates contacts and disparate story lines, bits and pieces of the old and new China. Along the way, external events impinge on his life and on China - the accidental American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, 9/11, the airplane incident over Hainan Island -- but they pass like snowfalls, leaving only a general impression of a winter.
Without much to connect these stories, Hessler zeroes in on the discovery and study of oracle bones, bits of turtle shell discovered in Anyang that represent some of China's earliest written language and may also provide insight into one of China's early but little understood dynasties, the Shang. A series of interludes that Hessler labels "Artifacts" tell the story of the oracle bones: their discovery, their removal to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, and their study and analysis by (mostly) Chinese scholars, many of whom suffered unfortunate and even tragic repercussions during the Cultural Revolution as a result of their work and their positions with respect to Chinese history and language.
Unfortunately, the end result simply doesn't work very well. ORACLE BONES alternates between personal stories of four of his former Fuling students' young adult lives (including a married couple with the remarkable adopted English names William Jefferson Foster and Nancy Drew), featurettes about a Uighur emigrant to America named Polat, the Chinese movie star Jiang Wen, and the Changchun Corn Industry Development Zone, brief riffs on external and political events, and, of course, the archaeological and socio-anthropological story of the oracle bones. At its best, the book traces the lives of Hessler's former students as they struggle to find their place in the Chinese economy. Their stories are touching and informative, but regrettably underdrawn. At the other end of the scale, the discourses on Chinese language structures and the politics of traditional versus simplified Chinese characters are likely to be a tedious slog for all but the most die-hard Sinophiles. In between, bits and pieces of the story are intriguing and even colorful; Hessler's story of Jiang Wen, for example, is fascinating and well told.
Still, the whole is less than the sum of its 458 pages of parts. ORACLE BONES feels as scattered as a field of artifacts; Hessler's own insecurities about this may have been inadvertently revealed in the Index, where names like Emily and Nancy Drew are followed by the explanatory note "(author's former student)." Remarkably, the author's own name is not only included in the Index (a first in my experience), but it is actually followed by "(author)," as if we (or he) might not be sure. Worse, like all artifacts and human remains, almost everything feels distant and cold and dead. It is hardly surprising that the New York Times chose the famed China historian Jonathan Spence to review this book - it is as much a history book as a contemporary description of China.
Hessler's writing is professionally reportorial but (with the exception of his former students' voices) detached, lacking the warmth and intimacy that Hessler so beautifully demonstrated in RIVER TOWN. Perhaps it is a consequence of Hessler's own experiences - no longer the China neophyte fascinated by everything he sees and learns, now it's all just business. One would hope that Mr. Hessler will return to his "China roots" in Fuling, tracing the arc of his former students's lives and the new Fuling that had to be rebuilt on higher ground. That story, and the web of wanderings and travels and experiences that would go with it, would tell a far warmer and more evocative story of where China is going today and tomorrow.
61 of 68 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully drawn,
This is a deeply engaging book about China. The title refers to the objects, animal shell and bone, that bear tiny inscriptions that count as the oldest record of writing in Asia, and as China's most ancient history.They are shards, really, offering small clues to what life was like more than 3,000 years ago. They are all that remain, the only artifacts that did not disintegrate over time, as bamboo, wood and paper inevitably did.
Listening attentively to archaeologists who weigh these oracle bones, Peter Hessler then conveys their sense of wonder and lets it inform his own exploration of contemporary China. In fact, Hessler uses archaeology as scaffolding for this adroit narrative. The search for clues, the buried nature of history, the attempts by rulers to instill order, the chaos that actually reigns are the dynamics of life in China today, just as they have been for centuries.
Hessler quotes a historian who wrote that although China has "a far longer past than the West ... the past and history are not the same thing. Here in China's past there was no narrative but only stories." Hessler clearly agrees. And he goes beyond the usual ways of evaluating so complex a culture. Instead, his focus wanders intelligently and settles into corners of China that we don't ordinarily read about. He writes with quiet power, which glues stories into a coherent whole. He sifts the morass of China's society and winnows it to the stories that resonate.
If "River Town" was a compelling account of his experience teaching English in a small city in central Sichuan province, in "Oracle Bones," he expands his horizon, mulling China's past as he examines its present. He hangs out with a money changer from Xinjiang, and his portrayal of their friendship is a gutsy way to open the book. He travels the country as a freelance writer, visiting archaeological sites for National Geographic. He keeps in touch with former students, whose tales are starkly revealing. He works for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, clipping news stories about China from other newspapers and living in a back alley where Westerners usually cannot stay legally. Residency rules, like so much else in China, are in flux.
China's emerging economic power has prompted many Western writers to employ fantastical or alarmist views of the country as a gold mine or a fire-breathing dragon, neither of them realistic. Hessler's writing is refreshingly free of breathless superlatives. He admits being a lousy deadline journalist, preferring to look past the daily trivia that makes headlines for the deeper phenomena and to make note of the accidental nature of history."The past is under construction," Hessler writes. "It lies under houses, beneath highways, below building sites. Usually it reappears by chance - somebody digs, something turns up. In the end, luck discovers most artifacts in China."
His narrative is littered with intriguing observations and answers to his incisive questions. Tea drinking, for instance, is often assumed to be as old as China itself. Yet Hessler discovers that Chinese people thought of tea as a drink for barbarians until the Tang Dynasty. Hessler reveals little about himself. He seems to thrive on what he calls the "floating life" of a writer, observing contemporary China with detachment. The power of his storytelling would be even stronger if his own personality emerged in it. Yet Hessler has achieved something quite special in "Oracle Bones," conveying the idiosyncrasies of China in a way that makes its people palpably human and distinctly memorable.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Endearing portrait of the impact of China's changes on her people,
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China is undergoing an unprecedented (in scale), historic, monumental transformation as the country sloughs off the shackles of communism and various failed political ideological witch hunts, and focuses instead on modernizing and industrializing, to raise hundreds of millions of people out of the poverty of subsistence farming. Reading the newspapers in the United States, one catches only the briefest glimpses of what is really happening and what it means to people inside and outside China. And if one pays attention to the words of the top politicians of the U.S. and China, and the key political issues that the two countries tussle over, one is likely to completely miss the true nature of China's transformation.
In "Oracle Bones", Peter Hessler has done a remarkable job capturing and communicating the impact of China's changes on her people, in an endearing, highly readable narrative. Hessler focuses on a few individuals from "the masses", rather than "the elites": a money changer/trader, a few teachers, factory workers, a taxi driver, plus some archeologists and others working to understand and preserve China's past. The stories of what these people experience as China undergoes its latest transformation (as well as prior ones) put China's changes into a human context, and explain in emotional and personal terms what could never be adequately captured by a list of statistics. Occasionally the words or actions of the political leaders intrude into the stories, and one gets a strong sense of just how disconnected the leaders are from day-to-day life. China's latest transformation, while initiated by a few key actions from the top leaders, is truly an all-encompassing grass roots change in behavior, attitudes and values.
Hessler has a great vantage point to bring these stories of average Chinese folks to English readers. He speaks Chinese, and taught English in China for two years (an experience captured in his previous book, "River Town"). For the years that Oracle Bones covers, he was primarily a free-lance writer based in Beijing and traveling throughout the country. With few attachments to other people or institutions, he is free to pursue his stories wherever they take him. He practices longitudinal narrative fiction, meaning that he follows the storyline of various people over a multi-year period. Interwoven with the present day stories are stories about various historical artifacts, sites and the people exploring them, which convey the high degree of importance the Chinese place on their history and culture.
I highly recommend "Oracle Bones" to anyone interested in learning about the impact that China's present-day changes are having on the people of that country.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A terrific view of China from a point of view of a yanguezhi,
It is a bit disconcerting for a person of Chinese descent to learn about himself and his culture from a yanguezhi (foreign devil). Yet this is exactly what happened when I read Oracle Bones.
This is an extremely fine book, full of subtle observations and exquisite narratives of matters great and small. Like Pankaj Mishra's An End to Suffering, Peter Hessler attempts many things in this moveable feast. This is a travel journal, a small peek at how Hessler was able to parlay a stint in the Peace Corp teaching English in China to a freelance gig writing for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and The New Yorker. Mostly this is a expansive look and humanistic rumination on how the globalization of the free market has touched the lives of common people of China, as exemplified by a number of Hessler's English students. Hessler used the story of his Uighur friend Polat to give us a view of every day street life in Beijing as well as the life of an oppressed asylum seeker in the US.
This style can easily become clumsy and ponderous, but Hessler does a masterful job of keeping the narrative interesting and colorful enough to lead the reader along through the turbulence of the serial form without losing each of the intricate interweaving threads.
The key to Hessler's success with this form is his usage of the archeological history of the Oracle Bones in China as the rhythm section to his narrative. Much like a steady drum beat in a good song, the rhythm soon overtakes much of the decorative accompaniment and dominates the song. The story of the archeology serves as a solid counterpoint for Hessler's riffing on globalization, on the ever-changing business environment in China, and on the peculiar yet inscrutable reactions of the Chinese government to all these changes. As the story evolves, the story of the Oracle Bones and the scholar who deciphered them comes around to dominate the narrative. The story wends itself around all the previous threads and makes the juxtaposing lines of inquiry reasonable. The story of the scholar, his wife, his family, and his wife's family, and his various colleagues - friends or foe- is transcendental in its universality. The latter part of the book, majority of which is devoted to the story of the Oracle Bone scholar has the impact of a fine mystery novel and it gives the reader the punch in the gut that one rarely gets when reading a travelogue or a book of history, or an autobiographical portrait.
This book was thoroughly enjoyable; it was concomitantly informative and soothing to the soul. The writing was superb, rhythmic, and transformational in its structure and meaning.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent take on history,
Oracle Bones is an exciting and interesting narrative approach to history.
Instead of dragging us through centuries of kings, emperors, and battles, the author tells us stories of individual people, their struggles and triumphs. We know what kinds of food they eat, beer they drink, languages they speak, and what kinds of jobs they might have. From within the context of their city and circumstances, we are then shown the greater sweep of history - the deeper history of their region. From their individual circumstance, we then move out to the long and complex Chinese history backdrop from which they emerge.
Unlike some other Chinese scholars that I have read whose work is weighted down by unreadable academic writing, this author can tell a story with informed authority. He is a terrific writer that has the rare ability to weave history and story within the same narrative.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in world history and contemporary world culture.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Warp & Weft of Chinese and Uighur Lives,
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It's refreshing to find a book on China by a journalist with some knowledge of and, even better, an interest in really learning about sinological matters. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, Western journalists have written their books on China: at first largely from the perspective of being the rare Westerner in a newly opened up China, and then over time with increasing emphasis on his or her observations of China's political and economic situation--invariably in the context of the reporter's personal experiences in China.
ORACLE BONES, too, is personal, not that we get to know Peter Hessler very well (though a "Postscript" titled "Meet Peter Hessler" presents a short autobiographical sketch), but in the sense that we experience China through his "I"s. Unlike many earlier books by journalists, though, there isn't much focus on leadership politics here; instead the warp of the fabric of this book is perspectives on Chinese (and Uighur) culture and history.
If that is the warp, the weft principally follows the story of Chen Mengjia, a renowned scholar of "oracle bones" (scapulae and tortoise shells inscribed with writing and used in divination practices a few thousand years ago). Chen Mengjia was branded a rightist in the late 1950s, and he subsequently committed suicide at the onset of the Cultural Revolution. In the course of Hessler's journeys--not all related to Chen--the writer learns pieces of Chen's story (only a little of which is consistent) and a whole lot more about 20th century Chinese and Western sinological history. It's refreshing to find Hessler's views so well informed; you'll find nothing here, for instance, about the so-called Chinese "ideograph" that sullies so many books that refer to the Chinese writing system.
Hessler, now a Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker magazine, was once a Peace Corps volunteer English teacher in China, an experience that he describes in his earlier book, RIVER TOWN. He devotes a good part of this book weaving in descriptions of his encounters with his former students and of their post-education lives. Hessler also discusses the life of a Uighur that he befriends in China, and who subsequently travels to the U.S. and successfully seeks asylum. In these stories, Hessler doesn't flinch from the terrible realities of Communist China, and they are often brutal; at the same time, though, the U.S. (specifically, Washington, D.C.) doesn't get off easily in the depiction of the everyday difficulties that confront Hessler's Uighur friend, including racism and robbery.
Hessler's style gives the appearance of effortlessness when you just know how much work must have gone into the book. His keen observations often express subtle truths, such as when he comments, "There is always something sad about furniture in a museum" (p. 384) and his empathy conveys genuineness, e.g., when he confronts a scholar with a personal criticism of Chen Mengjia that the now old man felt forced to write when he was a youth (p. 390). You want to continue hanging out with Hessler and see what more he learns. It's a disappointment then when, even at some 450-plus pages, the book quietly ends.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Snapshots from a Fast Moving Train,
Peter Hessler's second non-fiction book about China attempts to capture the country's current period of rapid and wrenching change. Hessler was a working journalist when he wrote this book, and it often reads like a collection of occasional pieces gathered between two covers. But there are some larger, interesting stories that Hessler pursues across multiple chapters.
One involves Polat, a Uighur from western China who lives in Beijing, where he makes a precarious living as a small- time hustler and money changer. Polat's life is an example of the tenuous status of minorities in modern-day China. In fact, China used George Bush's war on terror as an excuse to get the predominantly Muslim Uighurs branded as terrorists. The US State Department first resisted, then went along with this shameful ploy. Polat flees to the US, where he's granted political asylum. He ends up working his way up the immigrant economic ladder yet again, starting out as a delivery man for an Asian restaurant in Washington, D.C. Hessler gives us a sensitive look at how hard the road gets once Polat leaves his tribe and his language behind.
Another story involves the exhumation and deciphering of oracle bones, which are sayings inscribed on cattle bones or turtle shells. Soothsayers divined the meaning of the bones for rulers who were looking for auspicious signs from their ancestors. Used several centuries before the birth of Christ, these bones were one of the earliest forms of writing discovered in China. Hessler becomes fascinated by the story of Chen Menjia, a former poet and antiquities expert who also studied oracle bones. Hessler tracks down scholars in the US and China to learn more about Chen, whose love of the past didn't jibe with the forward thinking zealots running amok during China's Cultural Revolution. Chen commits suicide rather than undergo the thought reform and reeducation the Red Guard has in mind for him.
Hessler uses Chen's story as a way in to China's attitude about its past. China's cultural narrative speaks of a unchanging land and a country that reveres its past. In fact, the country has systematically gone about erasing its history, either consciously for political reasons under leaders such as Mao, or as a byproduct of economic development. In China today many new archeological preservation projects have been launched. At the same time, historical hutong neighborhoods in the big cities are being systematically destroyed to make way for bold new high rises. Hessler shows a China that seems both proud of its culture, yet secretly afraid that much of it is second rate.
The most affecting parts of the book are the stories of Hessler's former students from Fuling. (Hessler taught English to future teachers as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late nineties.) His most energetic and ambitious students have migrated from their rural villages to find work in the new coastal economic zones. Set up as part of economic "opening and reform" after Mao's death, zone life combines freebooting capitalism, rigidly organized manufacturing operations, and free-floating angst among the young workers. Hessler's young friends like the freedom that comes from leaving the old rural ways behind, but they also experience the spiritual emptiness that can occur out on freedom's far frontiers. The struggles of Emily, Nancy and William have a striking parallel to the Midwestern farm kids who migrated into America's burgeoning new cities at the end of the nineteenth century. China, like America before it, is discovering the dislocation and social anxiety that are byproducts of the capitalist lifestyle.
Hessler is an alert, sensitive reporter. He speaks Mandarin, which gives him access into the society while his American upbringing allows him to maintain an outsider's stance. The main problem with Oracle Bones is that half of it is factual, almost scholarly reporting on matters such as archeology and the history of writing, and half of it is human interest stories. Hessler is writing with both his head and his heart; unfortunately the two parts don't fuse. On the other hand, his grab bag approach might be the best way to capture a country that is literally reinventing itself minute by minute.
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Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present by Peter Hessler (Hardcover - May 1, 2006)
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