BCA Month Beauty altText This Week in Books Hallo nav_sap_plcc_ascpsc Ultimate Hits by Garth Brooks PCB for Musical Instruments $69.99 Handmade Tote Bags hgg17 Book a house cleaner for 2 or more hours on Amazon curbpremiere curbpremiere curbpremiere  Three new members of the Echo family All-New Fire HD 8, starting at $79.99 All-New Kindle Oasis GNO Shop Now HTL17_gno

on August 27, 2016
Who might it be for?

1. People who are going to China for the first time and want an introduction to some aspects of the place and a taste of the history.
2. People who have already lived there before (like the present reviewer-- for 11 years) and experienced it as a great time in life and want to keep the memories of that time alive.

There are a number of other books in this genre that I have read (i.Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China; ii. The Chinese; iii. Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China; iv. China Cuckoo: How I Lost a Fortune and Found a Life in China; v. Iron and Silk), and this book distinguishes itself from among those other books in several ways:

1. The person who wrote this book actually had something on the ball-- a journalism career that he was getting off the ground instead of someone who washed out of their career in whatever Western country they were from or just never got one started to begin with;

2. The book is organized (loosely) around historical artifacts recovered from excavations;

3. There is discussion (sympathetic) of several groups of people, and the author shows us these groups of people as they see themselves and also through the eyes of other:
i. Uighurs. Very few Western people even know about them, and they are often portrayed as thieves of Muslim terrorists. This author describes them as people who make a living on the margins and as middlemen-- and who have been that for a very long time (p. 28);
ii. Migrant workers-- especially from Sichuan. He describes the scorn with which these Han Chinese people are viewed by other people because they have the misfortune to be born in a poor, rural part of China.

4. The tone of the author:
i. The observations of the people that he met were perceptive;
ii. Said observations were also objective and non judgmental;
iii. The author had verbal dexterity that made him a delight to read.

There are a couple of things that could have been fixed:

1. The titles of the Chinese characters were often nowhere near the same thing as the topic of the chapter. One chapter was titled "Stalin" in Chinese characters, and if I had not been able to read Chinese, that joke (is that what it was?) would have flown right over my head. Ditto with almost all of the other titles in Chinese.

2. There is one person that he spent a lot of time worrying about, and that is/ was Chen Mengjia. The author accidentally ends up writing a book about existentialist musings. Hessler goes to many places trying to find out about the man who knew more than anyone about Oracle bones (which very few people know anything about today) and finds that even just a few decades after his death, there is no one who can clearly say what happened to him and all the people who do remember are at the very end of their lives and want to forget. One person invested a whole lot of time trying to recover a forgotten society and then he dies and he is forgotten in the same way that they were/ are.

Verdict: Worth the time and worth the secondhand purchase price.
0Comment| 3 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on December 26, 2012
This is Hessler's second China book but I read his books out of order so it was my third. I was thinking this would be the book that I finally get an understanding of China . . . after all "Oracle Bones" sounds like maybe you're gonna get the answers to the big questions . . . . Yes and no. Mostly no. I must say the book really doesn't have a plot. It meanders along with the author through China, following leads . . . excavations . . . old folks who have lived through the hell of China past and young folks who are turning the wheels of China future . . .

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.
0Comment| 4 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on December 15, 2011
This is a difficult book to review because it's remarkably uneven. The author lived as a reporter in Beijing and first came to China as an English teacher with the Peace Corps. Here he relates modern-day episodes from China interspersed with chapters on the so-called "oracle bones," which are 3000+ year-old relics from the Shang Dynasty. It seems the ambition was to juxtapose these things - the current with the ancient, individual lives with broad-brush history - in order to give the reader a more complete view of today's China. The book fails in that goal, first because the method seems more and more dubious as you read through, and also because the author didn't organize the text in any coherent way. This is a shame, because he appears to enjoy a good grasp of Mandarin and has a keen eye in observing the details of everyday life in China.

The problem is, there seems to be too much observation at the expense of reflection. Everything reads as if it's set up like an exercise for a creative writing workshop, where the priority is for style to pull reality up to its level. For example, a chapter on a visit to a starch factory is, as you might imagine, objectively uneventful, but has to be spiced up with tales of an enormous pile of corn and a company executive who punctuates his interview with giggles. The descriptions ring false in a way that never really goes away; the author can't let insignificance just be. Later, the author quotes one of his own press dispatches he wrote when covering Beijing's Olympics bid; his report on a meaningless meeting, which was then distributed to other journalists for their own articles, ends with "It was a fine day with clear blue skies and the wind came hard from the north." It's a funny line until you concede that he probably wasn't being ironic. What is ironic is, the author repeatedly derides a speaking style called "Special English," a streamlined grammar that he encountered with the Peace Corps, but himself writes things like, "One patch led to an abandoned village. It stood at the edge of the steep slopes; the trees were spindly and stunted. A pebbled creek lay as dry as a bone." Mostly, though, the writing workshop is in session, and we get lines like this: "[The Olympic Committee tour guide's] spoken English was poor but he handled that phrase perfectly, lingering on the last word like a weightlifter with the bar raised above his head." Not bad for a journalist's notebook dump. Grade: A-.

If all this seems harsh, it's because Oracle Bones was a missed opportunity. The sections covering the author's former students are genuinely moving, because he gathers up a good deal of detail on their lives. But there's too little effort to connect these particular stories to any broader reflection on where China's headed, what opportunities remain to be seized, what might go right/wrong, what that means for the world. Each person that passes through the book - maybe even China itself - ultimately comes to feel like an assignment, raw materials to be transformed by A Real Writer. There are hints of insight here and there, but somehow the whole actually amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

For better works that take somewhat similar, but more effective approaches to understanding China, I'd go instead with Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China or Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China (Vintage). Both of these books are by people who also spent a good amount of time in the country and have a reporter's eye. These authors are invested more in understanding China than in constantly proving themselves. Both are eager to grapple with China's future in a way that I'd hoped Oracle Bones would as well, but didn't.
0Comment| 6 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on May 14, 2017
Being an overseas born Chinese who doesn't know the Chinese language well, Mr Hessler's narratives of the Chinese people, past and present, the multitude of other characters he introduced in the book, they are all very real people with each their human stories to tell. There are so many sad and touching stories as well as many silently hilarious ones. I fall in love with so many of the characters, including "Willy", Lucy, the old scholars staying in the dormitory in Beijing, Chen Mengjia and many more.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on May 26, 2010
Oracle Bones Book Review

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 iŠO`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.
0Comment| 7 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
VINE VOICEon April 7, 2008
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.
0Comment| 12 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on January 10, 2009
This second volume of Hessler's China reportage is superior to River Town--in part, Hessler knows China much better now and, as a result, his gaze has broadened and deepened, no longer hemmed in by the realities of second-English teaching in a somewhat backwater town and by the limitations of interaction with a series of hyper-driven, consumer-mad students and rather quirky and sometimes sinister administrators. In Oracle Bones, he is more confident; he knows China and the Chinese better, and he touches on a wide and satisfying range of topics, including the "new economy," Chinese archaeology, and the highly politicized history of the language itself, particularly in the Communist era and beyond. At the same time, twin shadows - on the one hand, that of the Cultural Revolution and the disturbing legacy of the Mao years and, on the other, the proto-capitalist displacements and abuses of the current epoch - hang over the book in ways that are both fascinating and depressing.

Having read Hessler's two books, however, I'm still not sure I could explain what draws him to China--enough to become fluent in the language and to spend year after year living, working, teaching, and reporting there or to nurture the affection he so obviously feels for the Chinese. Indeed, the China that emerges, especially in this second book, strikes one as inhumane, rigid, and jingoistic, as phobic as it is isolated and isolationist, as critical of the West as it is acquisitive and unprincipled. What appears to pervade the country is capitalism without democracy, surely no less dangerous than Communism without democracy.

In any case, Oracle Bones is a fine book that meanders rather than narrates, touches on rather than deeply explores. It is much more than a travelogue and something less than scholarship. More than anything, the reader is ferried pleasantly about by the author's personal curiosities, though Hessler's opinions about what he sees sometimes remain veiled. Hessler's attempt to track down the "truth" of the fate of oracle-bone scholar Chen Mengjia is touching and absorbing; in the end, Hessler's conclusion that such a truth can never be known seems both very post-modern and very Chinese.
0Comment| 8 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on January 20, 2016
I started reading this book while visiting China two years ago. Just finished it, and am ready to start again from the beginning. And ready to head back to China for another visit as well! So informative, weaving the people of today with the past and history. Can't even narrow down a favorite part, as he touched on so many issues our guide brought up during our 3 week tour. Easy style to read. [I just took a long time to read, as I was savoring it and reading a variety of other stuff at the same time.]
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on January 21, 2014
Great account of daily life in China, written by someone who actually lives there by choice and is not a passing through Westerner, as is the case for most other authors I have read on the subject. I enjoyed the discovery of modern China, or not so modern, reading "River Town" first, as it follows the author and his first total immersion. With "Oracle Bones"
I feel the author has evolved in loving this country, has caught up with its transformation, its language, and his understanding of the people. Acute observations, tons of information, great research of the country's culture, values, history and still easy to read. An eye opener for Westerners. Could not put it down. A must read before opening one's mouth on China.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on January 11, 2017
This is the one with more focus on politics. Author said in the book that for outsiders, what author wrote has great impact on their opinions towards the subject. That's same with Uighurs and how government treat them. Elites always intend to look down on everyone, either the poor or the governor. There should be a more holistic view on the Uighurs as a whole.
0Comment|Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse