Oracle bones : a journey between China's past and present

by Peter Hessler

Hardcover, 2006




New York : HarperCollins, c2006.


Telling a story through the lives of ordinary people, the text tracks the author's story along with that of Polat, a trader and member of a forgotten ethnic minority; William Jefferson Foster, who grew up in an illiterate village; migrant factory worker & a scholar of oracle-bone inscriptions.

User reviews

LibraryThing member pw0327
It is a bit disconcerting for a person of Chinese descent to learn about himself and his culture from a yanguezhi (foreign devil). Yet this is exactly what happened when I read Oracle Bones.

This is an extremely fine book, full of subtle observations and exquisite narratives of matters great and small. Like Pankaj Mishra's An End to Suffering, Peter Hessler attempts many things in this moveable feast. This is a travel journal, a small peek at how Hessler was able to parlay a stint in the Peace Corp teaching English in China to a freelance gig writing for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and The New Yorker. Mostly this is a expansive look and humanistic rumination on how the globalization of the free market has touched the lives of common people of China, as exemplified by a number of Hessler's English students. Hessler used the story of his Uighur friend Polat to give us a view of every day street life in Beijing as well as the life of an oppressed asylum seeker in the US.

This style can easily become clumsy and ponderous, but Hessler does a masterful job of keeping the narrative interesting and colorful enough to lead the reader along through the turbulence of the serial form without losing each of the intricate interweaving threads.

The key to Hessler's success with this form is his usage of the archeological history of the Oracle Bones in China as the rhythm section to his narrative. Much like a steady drum beat in a good song, the rhythm soon overtakes much of the decorative accompaniment and dominates the song. The story of the archeology serves as a solid counterpoint for Hessler's riffing on globalization, on the ever-changing business environment in China, and on the peculiar yet inscrutable reactions of the Chinese government to all these changes. As the story evolves, the story of the Oracle Bones and the scholar who deciphered them comes around to dominate the narrative. The story wends itself around all the previous threads and makes the juxtaposing lines of inquiry reasonable. The story of the scholar, his wife, his family, and his wife's family, and his various colleagues - friends or foe- is transcendental in its universality. The latter part of the book, majority of which is devoted to the story of the Oracle Bone scholar has the impact of a fine mystery novel and it gives the reader the punch in the gut that one rarely gets when reading a travelogue or a book of history, or an autobiographical portrait.

This book was thoroughly enjoyable; it was concomitantly informative and soothing to the soul. The writing was superb, rhythmic, and transformational in its structure and meaning.
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LibraryThing member breic2
I picked up this book after reading Hessler's articles for the New Yorker. It starts out strong, but seems to get more pointless towards the end. This part isn't particularly well written, there are no special insights, and it seems like he is trying to fill space.
LibraryThing member bonneyandrews
Much better than River Town, for anyone interested in everyday life in current China
LibraryThing member aradosh
A good writer and storyteller. Often when I read books in this genre, they assume the reader doesn't know a lot about Chinese history or culture, so they bore me with the retelling of information that I've heard many times. Hessler doesn't do that, or he conveys the information in a way that gives it a new and interesting slant. Then he goes on to show me things or take me places that I've never seen before. Both this book and "River Town" are excellent.… (more)
LibraryThing member dgbdgb
Fantastic book - written in very easy to understand style, literary non-fiction. Author brings China to life, bringing everyday people forward as heros.
LibraryThing member co_coyote
I don't know much about China, but I have found Peter Hessler to be an excellent guide. His books are not profound or deep, but they demonstrate how interesting a book can be when written by an author with curiosity and a willingness to explore in unlikely places. Hessler is a freelance journalist and traveler in China since an earlier stay as a Peace Corp volunteer, which he wrote about in an earlier book. This book juggles several themes back and forth through time, but the result is a fresh look at China's past and where it might be going in the future. My youngest son will be traveling in China this summer. This book makes me wish I could go with him.… (more)
LibraryThing member RedMaple
Oracle Bones is an excellent look at life in daily China. Written by a former English teacher, the book tells the story of the author's students living through their twenties: William Jefferson, an English teacher, and Emily, a secretary, are particularly memorable. He accents the story with a look at a Uighur's (Polack was his name) trading life in Beijing and his subsequent emigration to the United States. Every few chapters we're taken back to the story of Chen Menjia and the oracle bones of Anyang.

Overall an excellent book on everyday China; a fun, insightful read.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member xuesheng
“Oracle Bones” is the latest book from Peter Hessler, Beijing correspondent for “The New Yorker.” In this book, he tells a number of stories that chronicle the changing landscape of China. Interspersed throughout is the story of the archeology and scholars of the Oracle Bones--bones that, in ancient China, were heated, cracked and read for divination.

In addition to the stories on the oracle bones, Hessler writes about some of his past students at Fuling Teachers College where he spent time as a Peace Corps volunteer. He describes their migration from the interior of China to the boom cities along the coast and of their travails and successes in these new locales. These were some of the same students that he wrote about in his previous book, “River Town.”

In these stories as well as the others in the book, Hessler demonstrates how the changes of China are impacting its people. This is a good read and a book that I am glad to have in my library.
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LibraryThing member jeterat
This was an excellent narrative of Peter Hessler's time in China as a correspondent for various American newspapers and magazines. I thought overall it was a worthwhile read and a great audiobook for work. There wasn't anything groundbreaking in the format, but the personal stories (there a three or four "main" Chinese storylines) were interesting and well-framed. Would recommend to anyone interested in China or human-interest stories from China.… (more)
LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Like most "access books" written by journalists written on the promise of purchase on a certain exotic place or world, this is a bit of a clearinghouse of recycled or undeveloped ideas for Hessler's New Yorker pieces, underwritten by a certain amount of time spent establishing bona fides and bound together with two conceits--a series of parallel but mostly unintersecting personal narratives the author checks in with (his own, his Uyghur emigrant friend Polat's, his students Emily and William Jefferson Foster's, the logograph scholar Chen Mengjia's), and a look--through interviews, through personalities--at the development of Chinese writing and particularly the early practice of "oracle bones", animal bones with characters on them thrwon into the fire to crack for divination purposes. It's an embarrassment of scaffolding that never quite congeals to become high-concept, and the book feels haphazard as a result, certainly the kind of thing that would have been better as a series of magazine pieces. But there's also a lot of interesting fragments here if you're willing to comb through the ashes.… (more)
LibraryThing member comixminx
Interesting and unusual; an area I know nothing about. Lots of fascinating stuff - on the oracle bones themselves (amazingly-preserved early writing from the Shang dynasty - 14th and 13th centuries BC!), on the reaction amongst ordinary Chinese people to 9/11 (bootleg videos of the twin towers news footage being sold with dodgy credits and cutting like a disaster movie), on migration to new and growing cities. I keep on failing to put it down at the end of a chapter - lots of stories, lots of human interest, lots to carry on for.

I'm not sure that it has an overall structure but I'm very much enjoying it.


On finishing it - very interesting and readable, but not one to go back to again, I don't think.
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LibraryThing member bostonian71
Enlightening despite being not as cohesive as it could've been. The separate stories Hessler tells are keenly observed and intelligently told, but he's not entirely successful at fitting them into one overarching narrative. (Some of the sections, most notably the one about the factory employees, might've been better suited for his subsequent book, "Country Driving".) I still give this one four stars because of how well Hessler does at capturing a country in transition and the individuals trying to make their way through that process.… (more)
LibraryThing member winkids
nice writer/good observer
LibraryThing member mojomomma
A young free-lance journalist and English teacher in China shows the great differences and similarities between China and the U.S. Hessler is especially good at capturing the experience of everyday people, often his former students, as they deal with the complexities of modern China.
LibraryThing member xiaomarlo
Totally one of the best writers about China I've read.
LibraryThing member debnance
Parts of this book I loved and parts I wasn’t interested in at all. Hessler wanders all over the place, talking to people in China, average people, oddball people. Hessler showed me things about China I’d never thought existed, including ethnic minorities and the slow economic changes occurring.



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