Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of

From the acclaimed author of River Town comes a rare portrait, both intimate and epic, of twenty-first-century China as it opens its doors to the outside world.

A century ago, outsiders saw China as a place where nothing ever changes. Today the country has become one of the most dynamic regions on earth. That sense of time—the contrast between past and present, and the rhythms that emerge in a vast, ever-evolving country—is brilliantly illuminated by Peter Hessler in Oracle Bones, a book that explores the human side of China’s transformation.

Hessler tells the story of modern-day China and its growing links to the Western world as seen through the lives of a handful of ordinary people. In addition to the author, an American writer living in Beijing, the narrative follows Polat, a member of a forgotten ethnic minority, who moves to the United States in searchof freedom; William Jefferson Foster, who grew up in an illiterate family and becomes a teacher; Emily,a migrant factory worker in a city without a past; and Chen Mengjia, a scholar of oracle-bone inscriptions, the earliest known writing in East Asia, and a man whose tragic story has been lost since the Cultural Revolution. All are migrants, emigrants, or wanderers who find themselves far from home, their lives dramatically changed by historical forces they are struggling to understand.

Peter Hessler excavates the past and puts a remarkable human face on the history he uncovers. In a narrative that gracefully moves between the ancient and the present, the East and the West, Hessler captures the soul of a country that is undergoing a momentous change before our eyes.

This was a random pick from the public library. (With hardcover book prices ranging from $20 – $35, I really don’t have the luxury of picking up just any new thing that comes out. I have to make damn sure that I like it to buy it.) I hadn’t read River Town, which, from my understanding, lays the groundwork for Peter Hessler’s writings about China.

Peter Hessler is a journalist and teacher living in China. This book encapsulates the fish-out-of-water experience that Westerners go through upon trying to immerse themselves in a wholly different culture. Having lived in China for several years at the writing of this book, Mr. Hessler is no longer a neophyte, but he still experiences challenges trying to navigate Chinese culture.

Oracle Bones is not written in a straight narrative; rather, it is comprised of seemingly random vignettes without much to connect them to each other. Therein lies the weakness of the book.

There were some characters/people more interesting than others–Polat, the ethnic minority in a country of minorities, and the plight of Cheng Mengjia, whose brilliance was overshadowed and eventually destroyed by the cruelty of politics, are standouts–but there wasn’t much time spent in developing their story or highlighting the greater consequences of their actions on China in the present. Peter Hessler’s sense of humor and humility are evident throughout the book, and it is clear that he holds a lot of respect for his adopted culture. This is the book’s saving grace. Unfortunately, Peter Hessler attempted to fuse human interest vignettes with factual reporting; the result was not quite as smooth as I (or I would imagine he) had hoped.

One thing Oracle Bones made me realize is just how Westernized the Philippines is in comparison to China and other Asian nations. I felt just as much of a Westerner as Peter Hessler did while I was reading this. It was also interesting to read about the (theories on the) origins of Chinese calligraphy and how it shaped China’s society. Peter Hessler pointed out that Chinese society is one that is founded on writing, whereas Western society tends to be more of a visual society, evidenced by the popularity of and respect accorded to celebrities and movies. But, again, instead of exploring that further, Mr. hessler left me frustrated as he flitted on to yet another subject.

Honest opinion about this book? It is solid and well-researched, but ultimately forgettable. Mr. hessler, it seemed, was dwarfed by the force of his own ambition, as it would be best if Oracle Bones were repackaged as a collection of essays; he does not yet possess the narrative skill to make this book cohesive. Sadly, the sum is not greater than its parts.

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Filed under Non-Fiction

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