A Journey Between China’s Past and Present
by Peter Hessler
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.