Book Review: Oracle Bones

After hearing Peter Hessler interviewed on NPR a few years ago, I picked up his first book, River Town. In it, he chronicles his experience teaching English in 1996 at a teacher’s college in the Chinese town of Fuling, a community on the banks of Yangtze River that no longer exists, or at least not in the same state. The old streets and homes were eventually submerged by the Three Gorges Dam project and the villagers were relocated to new housing developments. Through his travels, discussions with teachers, Chinese language lessons, and perhaps most importantly, by reading his students’ class journals, he begins to understand the complexity of the Chinese culture and find his own  place within it.

I just finished his second book, Oracle Bones: A journey through time in China. Here, Hessler is working in Beijing as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker, among other publications. He shares his thoughts on covering Falun Gong protests in Tiananmen Square, talking with a movie star on set in Xingjiang province, visiting the North Korean border, and attending press conferences for the International Olympic Committee. He also recounts tales from his personal life as he checks in with his former students in the manufacturing boomtowns or “overnight cities” of Wenzhou and Shenzhen and dines with an Uighur money changer (and soon to be political asylum seeker) in a local restaurant. Each anecdote stands on its own and is enjoyable and interesting in its own right. However, when viewed collectively, these stories begin to create a picture of life in China, a country in the midst of radical and rapid development.

Meanwhile, in a second narrative expertly interspered throughout the book, Hessler  researches oracles bones, the earliest examples of Chinese writing. During the time of the Shang dynasty, approximately 3000 years ago, predictions and prophesies were carved on the ventral shell of turtles before being heated and cracked. His interest in these artifacts leads him the site of an underground city and to experts in both China and America, including octagenarian scholars with harrowing personal accounts of the Cultural Revolution. These sections, which Hessler calls “artifacts,” are some of the most compelling tales in the book.

Overall, a great read! I enjoyed it on a number of different levels. As a traveler and international education professional, I appreciated its nuanced look into Chinese society and culture under a period of lightening fast development and growth. As a blogger, I was thrilled to find a captivating book that would tie in with our connecting theme this month (July is Archaeology!). As someone who once dabbled in journalism, I was fascinated by Hessler’s behind-the-scenes look at the life of a foreign correspondant. Finally, as a booklover, I enjoyed the respect and admiration for the power of the written word that runs throughout the book.  The reader encounters ancient writing used to predict the future, scholarly articles that landed their authors in serious political trouble, journalists gathering information for the daily news, and of course, the words of a talented author that, at turns, instruct, shock, and amuse.

-Marta

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