August 01, 2006

Oracle Bones [Book Review]

My first book review. The version that appeared in OT was half this size, mainly because I couldn't condense this to 500 words.

Oracle Bones
A Journey Between China's Past and Present
Peter Hessler
Harper Collins
Rs 565, 491pp

China, to Indians, is more than love affair with Chinese food and chop sockey films. It is a looming presence across the border, one who we have had a war and a skirmish or two with, but with whom we do business now. A repressive, nominally communist regime that seems to be doing rather a good job of out-pacing the running dogs of capitalism. A close and often direct competitor in India’s endeavour to attract investor dollars and global customers. The source of ultra-cheap electronic gizmos and other mass-produced goods.
China has been, in to large parts of the rest of the world, a hazy myth, due in no small part to its own choices over the centuries.
While I was reading Oracle Bones, I was also neck-deep in a fight against an Indian government order restricting free expression on the internet, an effort that took up enormous amounts of my time, got in the way of my reading the book, and delayed my submission of this review. But explaining that to the editor isn’t why I bring that up here. The riff I heard most frequently, whether it was online or in the press, was along the lines of are we going the China way? Chinese citizens have restricted access to large parts of the web: the Great Firewall of China is grim reality. Among my blog acquaintances and people I read on the web are people from most corners of the world. But aside from one blogger/activist (who I had heard of because he was jailed) I know of no one in China.
So Oracle Bones was a fascinating read. A picture of the modern, bustling China in transition, a land at once familiar—vast size, huge population, staggering contrasts and variety, extreme poverty and immense wealth living cheek-by-jowl—and alien. Hessler tells the story through his own life over the period from 1996 to 2002, first in a Peace Corps stint as an English teacher, then as a “clipper” (he clipped out and filed news reports from papers) for the Wall Street Journals’s Beijing bureau, and as a freelance writer.
He writes of his travels to around the country, of Chinese perceptions of world events, of politics and larger concerns and everyday life as a foreigner and a struggling freelancer. He also he weaves in the stories of the lives of some of his students students from his teaching stint: William Jefferson Foster and his girlfriend, Nancy Drew, Emily, Freeman (all the “English names” that these young people chose for themselves) and others. He shows us their struggles to find work, to beat the system, to make a living, through their letters to him, and his meetings with some of them long after their student years. He also tells the story of “Polat” (name changed, for his own protection), a member of the Uighur ethnic minority, from the Xinjiang province. When Hessler first meets him, Polat is a former teacher, now a “businessman” and fixer in Beijing’s black market. His aspiration, to get the USA, something he manages to do during the course of the narrative.
The most fascinating character, however, is one Hessler does not meet.
Chen Mengjia, poet, member of the resistance against the Japanese occupation, professor, researcher in the USA, who came back to the New China after the revolution, but who was then condemned, like many other intellectuals, as a Rightist during the Cultural Revolution, a tortured soul who, after two failed attempts, committed suicide in 1966. Little was known about Chen, but Hessler pieces together the life of the disgraced scholar, through people who knew him. His tragedy, representative of so many other intellectuals purged during the revolution, plays counterpoint to the pragmatism of the lives of Polat, and of Hessler’s former students.
Chen was an expert on the oracle bones of the title—dating back to more than three thousand years, these cattle bones (and frequently, the undershells of tortoises) were heated till they cracked, and seers would foretell the future from the sound, believed to be the voices of departed ancestors. Their divinations were then inscribed on the bones and are the oldest-known examples of what we now call Chinese writing.
Over the course of its twenty-four chapters and twelve “artifacts” (interludes that “reflect a deeper sense of time—the ways in which people make sense of history after it has receded farther into the past,” to quote his introductory note) Hessler’s book paints vivid pictures, and makes every attempt to present an objective view. He does not, however, disguise the fact that it is a picture seen through western eyes. But, while he makes it clear that China isn’t a uniform, single-culture country, that it has distinct languages and scripts, geographically disparate regions, ethnic and religious minorities and huge cultural differences, there is more than one sweeping generalisation about the “Chinese way,” or a typically Chinese gesture the equivalent, perhaps, of referring to a Punjabi accent as an Indian one.
In Artifact A, at the beginning of the book, Hessler describes a scene at an archaeology dig. Alluvial soil being deposited by floods, wind-borne loess from the deserts, and other factors make archaeologists here develop tools and methods somewhat different from the traditional. Workers using a Luoyang spade (“a tubular blade cut in half like a scoop, and then attached to a long pole”) pound straight into the ground, twist, and extract a cylinder of soil six inches long and a couple of inches across, a method that can yield soil cores from six feet down and deeper. Occasionally, these cores contain artifacts, bone shards, the evidence of the tamped earth of a wall. An experienced archaeologist can, from these cores, “determine whether he stands above an ancient buried wall, or a tomb, or a rubbish pit. The dirt plugs reflect the meaning of what lies below; they are like words that can be recognized at a glance.”
That’s pretty much the feeling that Oracle Bones left me with: of a series of narrow diameter excavations that, with a combination of study and conjecture, and some generous dollops of insight, reveals a time and place of which we know little. It is not the whole picture, though, and leaves one hungering for a genuine insider’s view. Perhaps that will come from Hessler himself, when he settles more firmly in Chinese soil.


Published in the Outlook Traveller, August 2006 issue.

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