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.
In 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.