Peace Corps Writers

Oracle Bones

Oracle Bones
A Journey Between China’s Past and Present

by Peter Hessler (China 1996–98)
HarperCollins Publishers
May 2006
471 pages

Reviewed by Michael McCaskey (Ethiopia 1965-67)

CHINA INTRIGUES ME. While the United States is approaching a population of 300 million people, China already has a billion more peoplePrinter friendly version than that. The government is communist, and yet recent polls show that the Chinese people prize capitalism more than Americans do. As we all know, the Chinese are producing many of the goods that used to be manufactured in America. They also enjoy a huge trade balance, and carry a significant portion of our country’s debt. The energy of her people and the rapid economic growth of the country has inspired respect and, in some quarters, fear.
In 1996 when I first visited Shanghai I was struck by the building explosion then underway. Vast areas of the city were being leveled and skyscrapers being erected as quickly as possible. Building cranes and bamboo scaffolding were everywhere. One commonly heard claim was that two-thirds of the world’s building cranes were then in use in Shanghai. Crossing a major street was a challenge because of the seemingly endless hordes of bicycles. Ten years later there are more cars than bikes and it’s still a challenge to cross a major thoroughfare. To lessen the burden on the roads, Shanghai is building an extensive subway system underneath an established city of 17 million people. China might be the only place in the world able to initiate such feats over the objections of whatever businesses or neighborhoods lie in the way.
Last year I attended a conference in Beijing of businessmen from around the world. The highest government official responsible for enforcing intellectual property rights told of how the Chinese government was cracking down on violations. Another member of the panel, a Hollywood executive, complained strongly of pirated DVDs still readily available in China. It didn’t help the government official’s case that while waiting for the bus to fill up to take us to this session, a man had poked his head in the door and offered to sell two “Rolex” watches for $10.00.
The government is taking steps to control the situation. The out-front DVD stores have been closed and tourists have to work a little harder to find the “clubs” that sell the pirated DVDs. It is not a problem easily solved because copied goods, some economists say, might be responsible for twenty to thirty percent of China’s economy. The “crack down” will continue, however, especially as Chinese entrepreneurs develop intellectual property they want protected.
Being major political and financial players, the United States and China will at times face off against each other. In 2001 military planes from the two countries collided in mid-air over the South China Sea killing all on board both planes. A major diplomatic brouhaha occurred as the Chinese needed an “apology” for the deaths of their military personnel. From the other side, the United States felt it had done nothing wrong and, therefore, couldn’t apologize. It is in our best interest to try and understand China and the Chinese better. Where can we find a guide to help us better understand a very different culture, language, and way of looking at things?

River Town      One of the best possible guides, another RPCV, is Peter Hessler. Peter speaks the language, lives at the grass roots today in China, and enjoys a wide range of friends and acquaintances. Peter served in the Sichuan Province where he taught English at Fuling Teachers College. His account of those two Peace Corps years were remembered in River Town, an exemplar of careful observation and fine writing.

     After his tour he returned to the U.S. to write his book, then went back to China where he worked as a “clipper” of news articles in the Beijing bureau of The Wall Street Journal. He also works as a freelance writer for The New Yorker (which the Chinese Foreign Ministry insists on translating as “New York Person.”) Peter now lives mostly fulltime in Beijing.
His second book on China is entitled, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, and follows the lives of three Chinese whom Peter befriended. Emily, one of Peter’s former students, is highly motivated to improve her lot in life but frequently questions the extent to which one can be truly happy. She moved from her rural town to work in a factory office in the boom town or “Overnight City” of Shenzhen. Peter visits her from time to time and listens to her feelings of loneliness, and her struggles to adapt to heavy work demands, a walled city, and lecherous bosses. She and many displaced villagers listen nightly to a radio show host, a kind of Chinese Ann Landers, for advice on finding their way between traditional and changing China.
The second story line of Oracle Bones focuses on one of his best students, Willy, who goes on to become an English teacher. As a teacher, Willy remains an avid learner who compiles vocabulary lists from reading Western newspaper articles and listening to the Voice of America. On a national exam, his class scores the best at his school (which is regarded as very important in the Chinese school system). When Willy finds certain favored schools have been leaked advance information on the contents of the national exam, he writes a letter exposing the corruption. With his obsession to perfect his English, also comes a distancing from, and ambivalence toward, his home Sichuanese region.
The third person in the narrative is Polat, a Uighur, an ethnic minority from Western China renown for their business and trading skills. His life on the margins of Beijing involves activities like converting currencies on the black market. Eventually he arranges counterfeit papers and emigrates to the United States where he works delivering Asian food in Washington, D.C. Polat fights traffic and parking tickets, is mugged, and poignantly reflects on what he experiences in America.
n addition to the lives of these individuals, Peter Hessler is fascinated with China’s past. At periodic intervals in his book he presents one or more “artifacts,” such as ancient bronze heads and horses, or the excavation of an ancient city. One set of artifacts are the “Oracle Bones,” a very early system of Chinese writing inscribed on animal bones and turtle shells.
I was intrigued by Peter’s account of how increasing contact with the West is changing the Chinese view of sports. It appears that today the Chinese are much more comfortable with being openly competitive. From my conversations with government officials, it also appears that they are preparing themselves to win their full share of medals in the 2008 Olympics.
Equally fascinating is Hessler’s look at what happened in China after the September 11, 2001 attacks on America.
While the government issued official expressions of sympathy, people on the street seemed to take some satisfaction in America being repaid. They seem convinced that a nation as powerful as the United States couldn’t have possibly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by accident in 1999, nor could one of their military planes collide with a Chinese plane by accident. Hessler writes about the hastily produced DVDs that inter-cut scenes from horror movies with scenes from the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings, and excerpts from American politicians. Accounts like these vividly demonstrate how wide the gap is between our cultures.
Peter also uses his own experience to show how frustrating it can be for a Westerner to understand and to try to work the system in China. His adventures to be certified by the government as a journalist are amusing and revealing, and will strike home to all of us who worked in the developing world.
However, it wasn’t amusing for Peter, when on a camping trip to a remote section of the Great Wall, he makes the mistake of saying he is a journalist. Suspicious officials detain him for hours. They couldn’t believe he just happened to be near a small town holding elections or that, as a journalist, he had no camera with him.
     I admire Peter Hessler’s tenacity and courage in developing his citizenship in two languages and two vastly different cultures. Through stories and lives I couldn’t possibly uncover as a visitor, Oracle Bones captures many aspects of what China is undergoing today. If you are looking for a sustained and brave attempt to understand China, or if you will be traveling to China, Oracle Bones is well worth reading. China intrigues me, as I said. And I promise it will intrigue you, once you read Peter Hessler’s wonderful new book.

In the Peace Corps, Michael McCaskey taught science and English in Fitche, Ethiopia. Following that, he was a business professor for ten years and then became an executive of the Chicago Bears.
     Michael is interested in exploring how new technology (internet, recycled cell phones and robust local networks) could be developed to improve the delivery of material in rural Africa and Asia. He lives with his wife and two children in the Chicago area.
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