The Long March

Oracle Bones

A Journey between China’s Past and Present

Peter Hessler

HarperCollins, $26.95, 488 pp.

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...

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About the Author

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