Saturday, March 11, 2006

A Review of Oracle Bones

William Wheeler
March 10, 2002

A Review of Oracle Bones

Peter Hessler’s new book about China provides a bit of history, a street level account and perhaps some inspiration for readers and young writers. “Oracle Bones,“ is not an adventure but it is filled with the spirit of youthful exploration, risky ventures and the exploration of China’s mysterious history.
The book is narrative non fiction.
Most of the people described in "Oracle Bones," are migrants-- people who moved to another city for work.
I imagine that this book would appeal to Americans in a similar position.

Hessler, a native of studied English literature at Princeton and Oxford before going to China as a Peace Corps volunteer.
His two year experience as a teacher allowed him to make lasting friendships with students who provided him with some of the most important source material for the book. He also worked as freelance journalist for the New Yorker and the Boston Globe, as well as National Geographic, giving him opportunity to travel and cover different aspects of Chinese life.

The book veers between a youthful narrative, a group of interviews and a document of culture.
The youthful tone works well for Hessler when he describes his own experience changing money with a gray market dealer, or describing a women’s dormitory in a factory in ShenZhen. It is also interesting to read his efforts to stay in China by exploiting his credentials with innovation. In a way, his fakery improves his credibility. He makes a point about .jiade, an aspect of Chinese culture entrenched by centuries of tradition and imitation of tradition.
In one particularly touching passage, Hessler describes attending a class taught by a former student. During the lesson, the teacher drops in subtle references to public events and aludes to private jokes he shares with his American friend, all the while drilling his pupils in simple English. Hessler is clearly proud of his former students mastery of English, but also showing us how Chinese people talk about things without discussing them directly.
Another angle of this book is Hessler’s efforts to disclose the story of Chen Mengjia. Mengjia was a scholar, censured during the Cultural Revolution. His important scholarship did not get published. Mengjia committed suicide during this period.
Mengjia is the author of a study of Shang period artifacts. These Inscribed bones are the earliest known examples of Chinese writing. But the meaning of their inscriptions is obscure. Hessler tries to these artifacts with other writings about China.
One of the authors strategies in to interview people who knew Mengjia, and revisiting sites of interest. This quest ads to the historical content in the book which is also well supplemented by the bibliographical notes.
Hessler also contrasts Mengia's failure against the struggle of his younger subjects who try to find their way in a rapidly changing culture.
While there are some rough points, for example the casual use of Chinese characters in the text, the book is informative and entertaining. It also goes a good way towards establishing Hessler as an authority on the vast and rapidly changing culture of China.

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