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 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.