Oracle Bones

A Journey Between China’s Past and Present
by Peter Hessler
ages: adult
First sentence: “From Beijing to Anyang — from the modern capital to the city known as the cradle of ancient Chinese civilization — it takes six hours by train.”
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I picked this one up because I thought it was a travel book. I think I first saw it in Powell’s, in the travel section, and upon reading the blurb, I thought it sounded interesting. I know little about China, and have a passing interest in the country, and this sounded like a good overview.

And in may ways, it was. A series of essays and vignettes about Peter Hessler’s experiences in China, initially as a teacher and then as a foreign correspondent, spotlighting the people he met and their experiences in modern-day China, interspersed with histories of various artifacts from the oracle bones of the title to the development of Chinese language.

It was an uneven book for me: some sections — his stories about his friend Polat, an Uighur who eventually sought refuge in America, or the chapter about Hu Xiaomei, a radio talk show host in Shenzhen — were incredibly fascinating. The intersection between history, Communism and progress in China is a vibrant, conflicted, exciting thing, and there were times when Hessler caught that just perfectly.

Unfortunately — and it may just be me — there were many times in which what Hessler was trying to do just fell flat. I ended up skipping most of the Artifact sections; they were long, they were boring (to me), they didn’t add to the arc of the narrative. And then there was the fact that I wanted a travel book. Yes, the people he met were fascinating enough, but I didn’t come away with an overall picture of his experiences, his time in the country. Which disappointed me, in the end.

But, I’d be interested to hear the opinions of those who are actually interested in the area (Amira and Jennie, I’m thinking you…) to see if it was just me.

2 thoughts on “Oracle Bones

  1. I was going to comment anyway šŸ™‚

    I started this one a few years ago but never got very far. I thought it was pretty boring. But maybe I just didn't read far enough.

    I'd recommend China Road and Invisible China though.


  2. I'm glad it wasn't just me, Amira. šŸ˜€ It did start off really slow, but some of the sections got better…

    My library has China Road, so I stuck that on my list. I'll keep an eye out for Invisible China, too.


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