Oracle Bones: A Journey Through China

Hessler, who has lived in China for the past nine years and is the Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker, has written a fascinating and frequently moving account of life in modern China as seen through the eyes of an eclectic group of people, including a minority Uighur, who operates on the fringe of legality, a factory worker, a teacher, a film director, and a scholar who was destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. All of them seem to function as outsiders as they struggle to cope with a nation that is undergoing monumental change. Hessler seamlessly interweaves their stories with the broader context of Chinese contemporary events, and he ties those events effectively with examinations of history, archaeological excavations, and the Chinese struggle to redefine national identity. This is an important and informative work offering a unique perspective on where China may be headed. Jay Freeman Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Harper Perennial
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Average: 5 (1 vote)


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Oracle Bones: a Journey Between Past and Present

Field of Interest/Specialty: asian studies
Posted On: 06/01/2011

"Oracle Bones" reads like a novel. The protagonist, author Peter Hessert, uses a variety of ordinary Chinese people to show China's present day growing pains. He portrays the new "modern" China growing from the old "never-changing" China through his eyes and the stories, interviews, letters, and conversations he has with several people he has met and befriended while working there.
The plot follows a young migrant worker who moves from her rural town to a "new city" to find a job in a sweat shop, a young teacher who was a former student who is duped ino a low-paying teaching job in a town far from his home, a Uighur "minority" named Polat, who decides to emigrate to America in search of a better life, and Chen Mengia, a noted Chinese scholar of the oracle bones, who committed suicide in the 1950's after being decounced by the Chinese government in the Cultural Revolution. Hessert deftly weaves his tale between past and present, using the history of the oracle bones and their enigmatic sayings as metaphors for the search for meaning in his characters' lives. The oracle bones were created from the backs of dead tortises, upon which were inscribed China's first written language forms. The inscriptions were then burned until the tortise bodies cracked. The resulting cracks were then used to predict the future. The bones have been subject to much interpretation, and continue to be artifacts that, as Hessert says, "reflect a deeper sense of time-the way in which people make sense of history after it has receded farther into the past."
Hessert is a keen observer with a sharp tongue, tinged with a sense of humor. His wry use of language contributes to the readability of the story, making it feel more novel-like than work of non-fiction. I would highly recommend this book as a way for any reader to begin to break away from the stereotypes held about life in China and begin to see the unique human side of this country as it grows and changes in the modern world.