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