Peter Hessler’s rich and varied new study of China takes its title from the discovery, in 1899, around the ancient city of Anyang, of so-called oracle bones, three thousand years old. These were cattle bones or turtle shells on which questions were written-questions about urgent contemporary problems or the shape of the future. The bones would be heated until they cracked, and the cracks then read by a diviner. These divination texts show us the earliest Chinese writing, whose forms are the ancestors of the characters in use today. Ever since they came to light, learning how to decipher them has been the study of a small circle of scholars, first Chinese and later Western.

In Hessler’s view, the questions on the bones remain an apt metaphor for China’s headlong rush into the twenty-first century. A few years ago, in his engaging River Town, the author described his experience as a Peace Corps teacher in Fuling, in Sichuan province on the Yangtze. His new book is bigger and more ambitious. A ruminative account of being a foreigner living and working in China (he now serves there as a correspondent for the New Yorker), it is also a fascinating look at the lives of people in the new China, and at how today’s rapid pace of change affects them.

The book is also a meditation on the ways in which the past seeps into the present, helps to shape it, and in turn may find itself shaped by it. Hessler works three main chronological lines. In the present, we follow the careers of some of his former students-one a factory worker in the new southern boom town of Shenzhen, two others starting out as teachers-and of a man Hessler calls Polat, a disaffected Uighur from Xinjiang in the far west, living by his wits in Beijing’s thriving black market, later taking off for an uncertain life in the United States. As a counterpoint, we follow current events of the moment, including the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the downing of a spy plane on Hainan island in 2001, and President George W. Bush’s visit in 2002. There are nonevents as well, such as the silence surrounding the tenth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and the disappearance, in the name of development, of one of the capital’s last old hutong districts-a once-common form of Beijing domestic architecture, now vanishing as surely as the magnificent old city walls torn down by Mao Zedong fifty years ago.

Oracle Bones also tours the distant past: the past of the bones themselves, of Shang and Han bronzes; the past on which archaeologists and linguists have been patiently working since the late 1920s, adding historical flesh to the skeletons of ancient legend and challenging accepted ideas of China’s history, indeed of China’s very identity. Finally, there is the recent past, encompassing the wars and upheavals of the twentieth century, culminating in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution shortly before Mao’s death in 1976. Hessler visits a museum devoted to the horrifying Japanese massacre after the fall of Nanjing in 1937. DON’T FORGET HISTORY, the exhibit exhorts, THE PAST KEPT IN MIND IS A GUIDE TO THE FUTURE. But unlike the wounds inflicted by others on China, those inflicted by the Chinese on themselves remain too painful for many older people to talk about, and are hence largely unknown to the young.

One of the stories in Oracle Bones concerns Chen Mengjia, a poet and scholar of the bones and of ancient bronzes, who returned to China from America in 1949, hoping like so many others to devote his learning to benefit the new China-only to find himself condemned within a few years as a rightist, and then perhaps hounded into suicide during the Cultural Revolution. Hessler’s inability to discover the true story of Chen’s death is symptomatic of the ways in which appalling memories must be repressed, lest recent history rise up to trouble the architects of the new China as it emerges from its bloody twentieth century.

Hessler’s book is not the place to turn for figures on the growth of GDP or the booming export trade, for analysis of the weaknesses in China’s banking system, or for speculation on future leaders and future policies. But there is no shortage of whither-China books and articles that do that, with many more to come. The reward of this book comes in a deeper and more human understanding of the currents running through China, both visible and invisible. Finally, like all good writing about the foreign, Oracle Bones invites a reader’s reflection on his own country and culture. What does it mean, Hessler wonders, as he flies back on a brief trip to a now unfamiliar America after 9/11, that he leaves the “Motherland” to return to the “Homeland”? This is a fascinating work, one fully up to the high standard set by River Town.

A final note: Hessler sprinkles Chinese characters through his text. Usually he translates them. On page 42 he quotes a phrase, however, apparently obscene and having to do with Chairman Mao. Unfortunately, none of my dictionaries has it.

Nicholas Clifford was professor emeritus of Middlebury College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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Published in the 2006-08-11 issue: View Contents
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