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Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present Hardcover – April 25, 2006

4.5 out of 5 stars 162 customer reviews

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Hessler, who first wrote about China in his 2001 bestseller, River Town, a portrait of his Peace Corps years in Fuling, continues his conflicted affair with that complex country in a second book that reflects the maturity of time and experience. Having lived in China for a decade now, fluent in Mandarin and working as a correspondent in Beijing, Hessler displays impressive knowledge, research and personal encounters as he brings the country's peoples, foibles and history into sharp focus. He frames his narrative with short chapters about Chinese artifacts: the underground city being excavated at Anyang; the oracle bones of the title ("inscriptions on shell and bone" considered the earliest known writing in East Asia); and he pays particular attention to how language affects culture, often using Chinese characters and symbols to make a point.A talented writer and journalist, Hessler has courage—he's undercover at the Falun Gong demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and in the middle of anti-American protests in Nanjing after the Chinese embassy bombings in Belgrade—and a sense of humor (the Nanjing rioters attack a statue of Ronald McDonald since Nanjing has no embassies). The tales of his Fuling students' adventures in the new China's boom towns; the Uighur trader, an ethnic minority from China's western border, who gets asylum after entering the U.S. with jiade (false) documents; the oracle bones scholar Chen Mengjia, who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution—all add a seductive element of human interest.There's little information available in China, we learn, but Hessler gets the stories that no one talks about and delivers them in a personal study that informs, entertains and mesmerizes. Everyone in the Western world should read this book. (May)
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From Bookmarks Magazine

Hessler, Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker, freelance journalist, and the author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2001), a memoir of his experiences as an English teacher for the Peace Corps in China's Sichuan Province, describes a world closed to most Westerners. The writing is smart and engaging, and Hessler uses an archaeological framework (chapters on the past, for instance, are deemed "Artifacts") to organize his narrative, a hook that reminds the reader always of the past's influence on the present. The reconciliation between old and new will likely never be absolute. Critics agree, however, that Hessler skillfully interweaves the two temporal threads to create a portrait of a China struggling to define itself in the global community.<BR>Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1St Edition edition (April 25, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060826584
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060826581
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (162 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #816,770 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Gayla K. Fitzpatrick on August 6, 2007
Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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