Monday, September 17, 2007

Oracle Bones: Blending China’s Past and Present

As deftly as is possible with modern China, Peter Hessler's book takes a clear snapshot of a changing nation even as all his subjects are moving.

To read Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones is to appreciate the power of combining literary knowledge and journalistic skill in China, a land ripe with stories for the telling. In four trips to China over the past three years, I’ve witnessed a small glimpse of the country’s dynamic nature, but I’ve only spent a little more than two months there in all my travels combined. Hessler spent two years teaching in rural Sichuan province before working in Beijing as a clipper for the Wall Street Journal’s makeshift news bureau and eventually branching out as a freelancer. Throughout Oracle Bones, it’s easy to see how living in Beijing has helped Hessler, a waiguoren (literally “outside the country person”), gain as much of an insider’s perspective as is possible in China, a highly ethnocentric society. And as he recounts portions of Chinese history, it’s interesting to watch him struggle with the gravity of being an outside insider. It’s also fascinating to follow him as he weaves past and present, a skill as difficult as it is necessary when talking about a country with China’s long history.

The title of the book emerges out of its consistent theme: the irony of how China’s surge toward future development is fueling the rediscovery of its past, and how this theme embodies the country’s current state, where the only thing constant is change. Oracle bones are where archaeologists find the origins of Chinese writing. According to Hessler’s research, these inscribed turtles’ breastplates contain divination texts dating back to the Shang Dynasty. Through a series chapters titled “Artifact A” and so on, he addresses the oracle bones and other archaeological topics like ancient city walls and bronze horses, overlaying them on the framework of the life of scholar Chen Mengjia, who wrote the definitive book on Shang-era bronze sculptures. In the end, Chen’s story somewhat fits together, making limited sense of a chaotic collage of characters and eras that Hessler brings together with a unity that’s uncanny (1) considering the range of topics covered—both geographically and editorially.

But where Hessler really makes his money, as far as I’m concerned, is in the art of the profile. He uses people to tell explain societal shifts, trends, and modes of thought. Emily, one of his former English students, represents both the massive rural-to-urban migration and the uniquely outspoken Chinese female. William Jefferson Foster and Nancy Drew embody the young Chinese couple pushing toward middle class. Old Mr. Zhao, whose his historic home was demolished to pave the way for new developments in Beijing, is the stalwart preserving history for posterity. And Polat, Hessler’s Uighur (2) friend, is strength forged of China’s multiculturalism, Uighur pragmatism and American idealism all wrapped into one.

At first glance, Oracle Bones might look like work of disjointed stories, soldered together by a broad thematic adhesive: China. But with Hessler’s attention to detail and literary mind, it turns out to be much deeper than that. Yes, the stories all have to do with China, but they’re cohesive even within their singularity, because they work toward producing a whole image of China. As deftly as is possible with modern China, Hessler takes a clear snapshot even as all his subjects are moving.

I have to warn you. In the first few chapters of Oracle Bones, Hessler makes as if he’s a lowly copy boy in the Wall Street Journal bureau. If this book is your first Hessler book, you might be fooled into thinking that he somehow learned to write by clipping news stories from foreign papers. Be advised: Hessler is Princeton and Oxford educated, and his literary knowledge shows through as he undertakes his second work of what he calls “narrative nonfiction.” I’m currently reading his first book, River Town. I wouldn’t recommend reading Oracle Bones without some prior knowledge of China, but if you have any interest in the Middle Kingdom, it will do you well to read both of his books. He’s informative without being dogmatic, and his stories, though true, read like a fiction bestseller that you won’t be able to put down.


1 I have a ravenous interest in China, so if my praise for Hessler’s books seems outlandish or exaggerated, attribute it my thirst for knowledge on the subject.

2 The Muslim Uighurs are the predominate ethnic group in Xinjiang province, which occupies the northwest quarter of China’s landmass. Xinjiang is called a “Uighur Autonomous Region,” not because it’s truly autonomous, but because most of the some 9 million Uighurs live there.

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