Review: Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

A year ago, before I left for China, I read and reviewed Hessler’s “River Town,” a book about his 2-year stint as a Peace Corps member in the rural village of Fuling along the Yangtze River. The book was inspiring, thought-provoking, and compelling, in that I was compelled to think hard and dream big about the myriad ways my own experience as an English teacher in modern China could and would play out.

Reading “Oracle Bones” after the completion of my year abroad, I found myself nodding along to the cultural quirks, shaking my head at the recounting of struggles between protesters and oppressors, and feeling deep sadness for a culture that is congruently burying a past, living in a present, and ignoring a future except in the abstract.

Oracle bones are usually ox scapula or the underside of turtle shells which have been heated and cracked. The crack lines are used to divine oracles which are then scratched into or written on the bones. They weren’t recognized for what they were until 1899, when a Qing dynasty official, Wang Yirong, went to the pharmacy for some ailment and was prescribed oracle bone as a cure. He noticed the written glyphs on the bone before it was ground to powder, and he bought the pharmacy out so the bones could be studied. No one knows how many oracle bones had been ingested by your average Chinese citizen before the value of the bones were discovered.

Hessler’s a journalist who lives in the ever-changing cityscape of Beijing. “Oracle Bones” gracefully entwines the past and present of Chinese history by chronicling a few ‘ordinary’ lives: Polat, a black-market money-trading Uighur who seeks political asylum in the United States, William Jefferson Foster and Nancy Drew, two of Hessler’s former students who migrate to Wenzhou for work, Emily, another former student who migrates to what’s been called the “soulless” city of Shenzhen, and Chen Mengjia, a scholar of oracle-bones whose story is remade, obscured, and revealed in small glimpses of truth all the time by the different people who tell it. Also chronicled are the brutal shutdowns of the peaceful protests of Falun Gong practitioners. Falun Gong is a religion based on meditation and qigong exercises introduced in China in 1992 and subsequently forbidden and prosecuted by the government.

Falun Gong members practicing meditation in front of their insignia.

Lacking some of the momentum and flow of “River Town,” “Oracle Bones” nonetheless creates an impressive dialogue between a complicated, hazy past and a likewise complicated and hazy present. It seems in all this history, a very common divination of the oracle bones is all that can be hoped for: “In the next ten days, there will be no disasters.” Throughout the book, or rather, throughout Chinese history as evoked by the book, there’s the sense that looking ahead further than those ten days would be nonsensical. In a world riddled with oppression and a rapidly changing and growing economy, there’s no guarantee that the future will in any way resemble what the world looked like a week ago.

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