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Oracle Bones: A Journey between China's Past and Present

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Overview

From the acclaimed author of River Town comes a rare portrait, both intimate and epic, of twenty-first-century China as it opens its doors to the outside world.

A century ago, outsiders saw Chinaas a place where nothing ever changes. Today the coun-try has become one of the most dynamic regions on earth. That sense of time—the contrast between past and present, and the rhythms that emerge in a vast, ever-evolving country—is brilliantly illuminated by Peter Hessler in Oracle ...

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Oracle Bones: A Journey between China's Past and Present

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Overview

From the acclaimed author of River Town comes a rare portrait, both intimate and epic, of twenty-first-century China as it opens its doors to the outside world.

A century ago, outsiders saw Chinaas a place where nothing ever changes. Today the coun-try has become one of the most dynamic regions on earth. That sense of time—the contrast between past and present, and the rhythms that emerge in a vast, ever-evolving country—is brilliantly illuminated by Peter Hessler in Oracle Bones, a book that explores the human side of China's transformation.

Hessler tells the story of modern-day China and its growing links to the Western world as seen through the lives of a handful of ordinary people. In addition to the author, an American writer living in Beijing, the narrative follows Polat, a member of a forgotten ethnic minority, who moves to the United States in searchof freedom; William Jefferson Foster, who grew up in an illiterate family and becomes a teacher; Emily,a migrant factory worker in a city without a past; and Chen Mengjia, a scholar of oracle-bone inscriptions, the earliest known writing in East Asia, and a man whosetragic story has been lost since the Cultural Revolution. All are migrants, emigrants, or wanderers who find themselves far from home, their lives dramatically changed by historical forces they are struggling to understand.

Peter Hessler excavates the past and puts a remarkable human face on the history he uncovers. In a narrative that gracefully moves between the ancient and the present, the East and the West, Hessler captures the soul of a country that is undergoing a momentous change before our eyes.

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Editorial Reviews

Nigel Richardson
“An extraordinary, genre-defying book. . . . Beautifully constructed. . . . Hessler’s reportage is vivid.”
Booklist
“Hessler has written a fascinating and frequently moving account of life in modern China.”
Entertainment Weekly
“A brilliant observer with a novelist’s ear for character and dialogue, Hessler is both fascinating and funny.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Wonderful. . . . Intimate. . . . The book reads like a really good novel.”
South China Morning Post
“Engaging. . . . Acutely observed, moving, frequently funny and a perspicacious X-ray of China’s zeitgeist.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Insightful. . . . Hessler is a wry and witty writer who manages to bring humor even to tense situations.”
Entertainment Weekly
“A brilliant observer with a novelist’s ear for character and dialogue, Hessler is both fascinating and funny.”
Booklist
“Hessler has written a fascinating and frequently moving account of life in modern China.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Wonderful. . . . Intimate. . . . The book reads like a really good novel.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Insightful. . . . Hessler is a wry and witty writer who manages to bring humor even to tense situations.”
South China Morning Post
“Engaging. . . . Acutely observed, moving, frequently funny and a perspicacious X-ray of China’s zeitgeist.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060826581
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/25/2006
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 737,003
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Hessler

Peter Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as the Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007, and is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He is the author of River Town, which won the Kiriyama Prize; Oracle Bones, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and, most recently, Country Driving. He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting, and he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011. He lives in Cairo.

Biography

Peter Hessler, one of four children, was born in 1969, in Pittsburgh, but moved shortly thereafter to Columbia, Missouri. His father is a recently retired professor of sociology at the University of Missouri, and his mother teaches history at Columbia College.

Hessler attended Princeton University, where he majored in English and Creative Writing. The summer before graduation, he worked as a researcher for the Kellogg Foundation in southeastern Missouri, where he wrote a long ethnography about a small town called Sikeston. This became his first significant publication, appearing in the Journal for Applied Anthropology.

In 1992, Hessler entered Oxford University, where he studied English Language and Literature at Mansfield College. After graduating in 1994, he traveled for six month in Europe and Asia. One of the highlights of that trip was taking the trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Beijing. That journey resulted in his first published travel story, an essay that appeared in The New York Times in 1995. And that journey was his first introduction to China.

He spent the following year freelancing and attempting to write a book about his travels. Although the book didn't work out, he was able to publish travel stories in a range of newspapers, including The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, and The Newark Star-Ledger, among others. In 1995, he received the Stratton Fellowship, a grant from the Friends of Switzerland and spent two months hiking 650 miles across the Alps. Afterwards he continued to freelance, writing travel stories for American newspapers while teaching freshman composition at the University of Missouri. He also organized volunteer projects for students on campus.

In 1996 he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to China. For two years, he taught English at a small college in Fuling, a city on the Yangtze River. While living in Fuling, he studied Mandarin Chinese and became proficient in the language.

After completing his Peace Corps service in 1998, he traveled to Tibet, where he researched a long article, "Tibet Through Chinese Eyes," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in February of 1999. Following that trip, he returned to Missouri and wrote River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. While working on the book, he continued to write travel stories for The New York Times and other newspapers. In March of 1999, Hessler decided to return to China independently and try to establish himself as a freelance writer.

Over the following years, he traveled widely in China and freelanced for a variety of publications. For a brief spell, he was accredited as the Boston Globe stringer in Beijing. In 2000, The New Yorker began publishing some of his stories; the following year, he became the first New Yorker correspondent to be accredited as a full-time resident correspondent in the People's Republic.

In 2000, Hessler also started researching stories for National Geographic Magazine. The first assignment was a story about Xi'an archaeology, which sparked his interest in researching antiquities. Subsequently he accepted an assignment for a story about China's bronze-age cultures, which led to his interest of the oracle bones of the Anyang excavations.

River Town was published in 2001. It won the Kiriyama Prize for outstanding nonfiction book about the Pacific Rim and South Asia. It was also a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover award, and in the United Kingdom it was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. The book has been translated into Korean, Thai, and Hungarian. The Hungarian translation won the Elle Literary Prize for nonfiction in 2004.

Peter Hessler's magazine stories have been selected for the Best American Travel Writing anthologies of 2001, 2004 and 2005, and also for the Best American Sports Writing anthology of 2004. "Chasing the Wall," a National Geographic story published in 2003, was nominated for a National Magazine Award.

Hessler first conceived of Oracle Bones at the end of 2001 and spent the next four years researching and writing the book.

He currently lives in Beijing.

Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.

Good To Know

"The only steady job I ever held in journalism was delivering the Columbia Missourian," Hessler revealed in our interview. "I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was sixteen years old. Mary Racine, who taught sophomore English at Hickman High School, first encouraged me to take writing seriously. Mary Ann Gates taught juniors and Khaki Westerfield taught seniors; they were all remarkable teachers It makes a big difference to be encouraged at such an early stage."
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    1. Hometown:
      Beijing, China
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 14, 1968
    2. Place of Birth:
      Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
    1. Education:
      Princeton University, Creative Writing and English, 1992; Oxford University, English Language and Literature, 1994

Read an Excerpt

Oracle Bones

Chapter One

The Middleman

May 8, 1999

I was the last clipper at the beijing bureau of the Wall Street Journal. The bureau was cramped—two rooms and a converted kitchen—and the staff consisted of two foreign correspondents, a secretary, a driver, and a clipper. The driver and I shared the kitchen. My tools were a set of box cutters, a metal ruler, and a glass-covered desk. Every afternoon, the foreign newspapers were stacked above the desk. If an article about China seemed worthwhile, I spread the paper on the glass, carved out the story, and filed it in the cabinets at the back of the main office. They paid me five hundred American dollars every month.

The bureau was located in the downtown embassy district, a couple of miles from Tiananmen Square. In a neighborhood to the north, I found a cheap apartment to rent. It was a mixed area: old brick work-unit housing, some traditional hutong alleys, a luxury hotel. On one corner, next to the sidewalk, stood a big Pepsi billboard illuminated by floodlights. It was still possible to live quite simply in that part of the capital. Restaurants served lunch for less than a dollar, and I biked everywhere. When the spring evenings turned warm, young couples played badminton by the light of the Pepsi billboard.

At most other foreign bureaus in Beijing, clippers had already become obsolete, because everything was being computerized. In the old days, paper files had been necessary, and young people accepted the job because it provided an introduction to journalism. A clipper sometimes helped with research and, if a big news event broke, he might dosome spot reporting. On the average, the job required only a few hours a week, which left plenty of time for travel and freelance writing. A clipper could learn the ropes, publish some stories, and eventually become a real China correspondent. I had some previous experience in the country, teaching English and studying Chinese, but I had never worked as a journalist. I arrived in Beijing with three bags, a stack of traveler's checks, and an open-ended return ticket from St. Louis. I was twenty-nine years old.

The small bureau was pleasant—the crisp smell of newspapers, the smattering of languages that echoed off the old tiled floors. The foreign staff and the secretary spoke both English and Chinese, and the driver was a heavyset man with a strong Beijing accent. While filing the clipped stories, I thought of the subject headings as another language that I would someday learn. The folders were arranged alphabetically, by topic:

Democracy
Democracy party
Demonstrations
Disabled
Disasters
Dissidents

Complicated topics were subdivided:

U.S.-china—exchanges
U.S.-china—relations
U.S.-china—scandal
U.S.-china—summit
U.S.-china—trade

During my early days on the job, I hoped that the files could provide useful training. I often pulled a folder and read through dozens of stories, yellowed with age, all of them circling around the same topic. But inevitably I started skimming headlines; after a while, even the headlines bored me. To amuse myself while working, I read the file labels in alphabetical order, imagining possible storylines to connect them:

science & technology
secrets & spies
security
sex

One section of Ps read like a tragedy, complete with hubris, in all of six words:

party
patriotism
political reform
population
poverty

Another series seemed scrambled beyond comprehension:

students
style
superpower—"new threat"
superstition
tea

Once, I pointed out this sequence to the bureau chief, who remarked that sooner or later every China correspondent has to write an article about tea. In May of 1999, when a United States B2 plane took off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, flew to Belgrade, and dropped a series of satellite-directed bombs on the Chinese embassy, killing three Chinese journalists, the Wall Street Journal created a new file: U.S.-China—Embassy Bombing. It fit next to exchanges.

I happened to be in the southern city of Nanjing when the attack occurred. That was my first research trip: I planned to write a newspaper travel article about the history of the city, which had been the capital of China during various periods. Nanjing was the sort of place important events always seemed to march through on their way to some other destination. Over the centuries, various armies had occupied the city, and great leaders had come and gone, leaving nothing but tombs and silent memorials of stone. Even the name itself—"Southern Capital"—was a type of memory.

Artifacts had been strewn everywhere around Nanjing. Outside of town, the emperor Yongle of the Ming dynasty had commissioned the carving of the biggest stone tablet in the world as a memorial to his father, the dynastic founder. In 1421, Yongle moved the capital north to Beijing, for reasons that remain unclear, and his engineers left the tablet unfinished. Supposedly they had never figured out how they were going to move the object.

When I visited the stone tablet, there were only a handful of tourists at the site. The quarry was mostly overgrown, with young trees and low bushes creeping up the rolling hills. The abandoned memorial consisted of three parts: a broad base, an arched cap, and the main body of the tablet itself. The limestone object lay on its side, as if some absentminded giant had set it down and then wandered away. It was 147 feet long, and the top edge stood as high as a three-story building. Over the centuries, straight streaks of rain runoff had stained the stone face, like lines on a child's writing pad. Apart from those water marks, the surface was completely blank; nobody had ever gotten around to inscribing the intended memorial. Visitors could walk freely on top. There weren't any rails.

A young woman named Yang Jun staffed the ticket booth. She was twenty years old, a country girl who had come to Nanjing to find work. Young people like her were flocking to cities all across the nation—more than one hundred million Chinese had migrated, mostly to the factory boomtowns of the southern coast. Social scientists described it as the largest peaceful migration in human history. This was China's Industrial Revolution: a generation that would define the nation's future.

Oracle Bones. Copyright © by Peter Hessler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 10, 2009

    Great book that reveals the essence of todays China.

    A fascinating account of the author's experiences interwoven with much historical information.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Oracle Bones is the Best Book I've Read Recently

    Peter Hessler is an amazing writer! I really enjoy his writing style which is clear, insightful,intelligent and well researched.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 27, 2012

    This book seems informal, without pre-set plan or structure. The

    This book seems informal, without pre-set plan or structure. The author seems to wander around, hanging out with ordinary people. He follows a number of friendships over several years, switching back and forth between people and places. And slowly I realized this is the finest sort of journalism I've seen. The loose net of stories explores China from dozens of viewpoints--of Uighur traders, migrant teachers, aging archaeologists, factory girls. Gradually themes of investigation arise--into the fate of an archeologist who died in the Cultural Revolution, or the story of China's script. There's no central theme. Just a world of lives and experiences spread across China, captured with unpretentious art.

    --author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2011

    loved it!

    i read this book right after i visited china and i loved it! it provides very helpful insight into the china of today and is an entertaining well-written read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2006

    Moving!

    I do like this book, though I like his other book River Town better. Very good story line, but not deep in the general understanding about this vast changing nation and its knowledge of history is rather limited. I'd recommend two more insightful books: 1. China's Global Reach: markets, multinationals, and globalization 2. 1587: a new year of no significance. Both are written by leading Chinese writers.

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