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Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present Hardcover – April 25, 2006
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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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You get a feel for the oppression and the freedom . . . the astonishing history and the astonishing disregard of history . . . you get free lessons in Chinese language, history and sociology . . . and you get no easy answers. No easy answers about economics, no obvious bad guys or good guys. What you get is like letters home from one of your family . . . total believability and realism. I would also say Hessler's rare reflection of his own original thoughts on the similarities of the U.S. and China on page 439-440 are pretty darn profound.
Have just finished reading Oracle Bones after reading River Town in succession I decided to record my impression before Peter Hesslerfs third book of his trilogy of China Journey, and I must congratulate him for a task very well done. Having been a Chinese immigrant for almost 60 years, Peter Hessler would not be surprised that I still consider myself a Chinese and, like so many other first generation Chinese immigrants, I too, would frequently identify him as wai guo ren iO`lj, a foreigner in my conversation with other Chinese immigrants. My comments in this article will be marked, however, a review of the Oracle Bones only.
My copy of Oracle Bones was a 2006 paperback edition, and Hessler, already becoming an excellent China observer in his few years in China since 1996 when he arrived at Fuling, Sichuan province, to teach as a Peace Corp volunteer. His view point expressed in River Town was quite clearly that of a foreigner but he is a China expert in this later book.
It is through several people discussed in this book one gets a good idea about China from his visits and friendship with them, including couple of his former students, several Chinese and American scholars and Polat, an Uighure ethnic minority from Xinjiang province, we get some aspects of a very complex country not to forget a movie actor, Jiang Wen, and one excellent movie of his.
One former student of his, Emily, who had gone to the Overnight City Shenzhen to work after her graduation from college had experienced such dark mental picture of that city few of us can imagine but when she, after a few years, finally got accepted by a university in Chongqing doing graduate work to teach handicapped or perhaps retarded students, her life outlook seemed to have totally reversed from hopelessness to a brighter and meaningful future. This reader was caught by surprise not so much by the switch of Emilyfs life, but rather, by the fact that there are concerns for people of that sort of misfortune in China. It was not the China I had lived before 1951. The young people, most of them are young women, going to find work in Shenzhen are facing a life few of us in America can imagine. The Shenzhen I had been to in 1951 was a village of few thousand aboriginals; it is now a megacity of more than 13 million as of 2006.
Chen Mengjia, the archeological scholar whose monumental research on oracle bones was so severely damaged mentally by political persecution, during the late 50s and early 60s, and committed suicide is the backbone of this book. What Hessler had gone through in order to get as much truth to the life of Chen Mengjia is nothing unique in trying to find out any reliable history of just about any event in anywhere around the world but particularly in China where so much deliberate efforts are placed in blocks trying to obscure the real picture. Hesslerfs effort in this regard is simply commendable. He had gone to Seattle, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley to interview various scholars for their expertise on ancient writing and language, but I respect his own analysis on the significance of Chinese writing, calligraphy in particular, to the Chinese culture and mostly their mind. This reader had to endure the education system during his early schools in China trying to carry out the rigid school regulation practicing the intricacy of calligraphy with both large and small brush pens. The irony is the art form did not become meaningful until after arriving as an immigrant to the U.S. as a college student. I realized the great abstract quality of calligraphy but never thought that calligraphy is taken by Chinese in China actually as ART in the purest sense. And this very nature of Chinese calligraphy plays an important role in the Chinese mind not only in Chinese education but social and civilization aspects. I had so opposed to Dr. Hu Shihfs suggestion and urge to Chinese-American parents not to send their kids to Chinese school in Chinatowns to study Chinese but spending more time on English and mathematics during the late 1950s. I came to understand and appreciate Dr. Hufs idea only in 1998 when I was struggling to learn the Chinese pinyin system in order to use the computer Chinese writing software. And, of course, this leads to Hesslerfs discussion on the highly controversial issue of Chinese writing reform. Again, Hessler brought numerous issues in this regard into this book and I sincerely hope that is will once again ignite a lively discussion among more Chinese scholars. I myself now firmly think that language is principally a communication tool, and as art, only a secondary consideration.
It is also a key point in the book when Hessler presents a very good anthropological discussion on the ancient evolving process of Chinese written language, the words, that it did not develop into an alphabetical system over thousands of years. This is a topic of immense difficulty beyond mere speculation. His effort commands respect.
The young ethnic Uighure Polat hates the Han Chinese and from what I have read about him I wish I can someday meet with him in Washington, D.C. and I think we can establish friendly dialogue and letting him realize that meaningful understanding with the Han Chinese is possible.
At the end of the book Hessler brought in Mr. Wu who had attended Manchester College in 1948 and I too went there in 1951.
Thank you, Mr. Hessler, for Jiang Wenfs movie, Devils on the Doorstep, a rare, far reaching film of Shakespearian drama.
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.
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This will illuminate your trip. I would redo my whole visit to the Shanghai Museum.