oracle bones

April 15, 2008

Oracle Bones is Peter Hessler’s second book on China. His first, the wonderful River Town, won the 2001 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for non-fiction, and was an unassuming poignant account of the two years he spent teaching English at the Fuling Teacher Training College in Sichuan. By the end of his stay he had gotten a good taste of local life and language, down to the worst names you can call a person, bafflingly in Fuling, yashua, or a toothbrush.

His new book is a curious hybrid of casual academic and anecdotal writing. The former addresses the tenuous idea of China as a single unified historical and cultural entity, as seen from the apparent linear development of Chinese character writing from its origins to today. The interviews and events he conducts and describes are scattered throughout the book in sections he calls ‘artefacts’, a device I found a little affected.

Hessler’s new life as a freelance reported in Beijing forms the chronological backbone of this book. Evenings spent drinking beer with his Uighur mate, hiking in the countryside and corresponding with and meeting his former students are all innocuous enough pastimes, but these grant him a direct line to the personal side of the big issues of China’s political landscape such as (local) democracy, religion and the Falun Gong movement, and the social paradoxes of the booming Chinese economy.

A more challenging but ultimately more rewarding second book that tackles the big issues such as Chinese identity without losing sight of the little person living in China today.

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4 Responses to “oracle bones”

  1. Notablogger Says:

    Super review… sounds like a good book, too!

  2. sunburn Says:

    glad you liked it. river town is amazing though, if you have not yet read it. my entire family has!

  3. salik Says:

    i just got the book… but sounds nice… would also like to read his first book…

  4. sunburn Says:

    his two books are quite different from each other. the second was more in depth but the first read like a love letter to the town he lived in and his students. lovely.

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