Reading China

Oracle Bones
by Peter Hessler

This was our August book club read; the 458 pages was intimidating to some, parts I and II were pretty convenient at 218 pages–so we called it good at half a book (although some of us overachievers couldn’t resist reading the entire thing)! And author Peter Hessler provided plenty to talk about in our discussion even at the halfway point.

Beginning in 2002, Hessler spent years  traveling, teaching, and writing in China, living (usually illegally) in Chinese neighborhoods. That advantage gave him the opportunity to befriend locals who gave him rare insight into the lives of middle class Chinese. And so we meet William Jefferson and Nancy Drew (their chosen English names), a pair of Chinese teachers who left their rural village to become “migrants”, traveling to the coast where better lives were to be had in the city–or so they thought. Former students of Hessler, Willy’s warm  letters to him are dear, and reproduced verbatim, replete with misspelled words and raunchy jokes. Willy’s passion for learning and teaching English rival none and he was never without an English dictionary and notebook. By Chinese standards, Willy and Nancy lived comfortable lives; Americans, however, would not be content with the long hours, bleak landscape of the city,  shabby apartment, and low pay. We also meet Polat, an ethnic Uighur, who makes his fortune (and loses it) as a money exchanger, and finally emigrates to the U.S. where he is granted political asylum; a Chinese radio talk show host who gives advice to the lovelorn; and old Mr. Zhao, who fought to save his courtyard hutong from being razed.

Hessler frames his narrative by including chapters he labels as Artifact A, B, C, etc–all cultural and archeological treasures of the Chinese. The reader learns that China, rather than being the monolith we Americans seem to think, is, in fact, a vast region of many cultures and languages. We learn of an ancient city wall being unearthed by peasants spoonful-by-spoonful as it winds its way through farmland, and of the origin of Chinese characters. And, of course, of the oracle bones–really tortoise plastrons etched with questions, fired, and then “read” by diviners. Always a bit slow, it took me about 450 pages to realize the significance of the book’s title. Just as the oracle bones of the past revealed life’s mysteries, Hessler was also reading the cracks of Chinese culture to reveal the world of the Chinese to American readers. How exquisite that the journalist becomes modern-day diviner.

Next up: Miss. Hargreaves by Frank Baker. Published in 1940 this novel’s time space continuum is far beyond its time–so far, a great lark!

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