Saturday, February 9, 2013

"Oracle Bones"

Separated migrant families, strained diplomatic relations, and the search for Chinese civilization's soul. In Peter Hessler's second book Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present, the New Yorker's Beijing correspondent paints an initially disjointed but gradually cohesive picture of normal Chinese citizens' anxieties and aspirations. In a rapidly urbanizing society in moral and social fluidity, these hopes are difficult to capture; the book's subtle gradations humanize ordinary Chinese and offer a multilayered view of the national psyche.

The 2006 Oracle Bones is a parallel fusion of an uprooted Uighur, university-educated migrant workers, and noted oracle bone scholar Chen Mengjia. For those familiar with Hessler's New Yorker profiles or 2001 book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, the stories of his Fuling students will resonate and seamlessly weave into Oracle Bones. Hessler's complementary writing attracts followers while allowing him to explore new elements of Chinese society within a familiar narrative.

Boiling complex change into human stories is Hessler's forte. Shared political and economic pressures exist in all three threads, infusing the text with China's subtle-yet-overbearing past. The question of the past's relevancy, particularly how it shapes a young nation with a 5,000-year-old civilization is pressing. Hessler's use of archaeology to show pride and disruption in China's collective memory is ingenious and effective.

The author's Uighur friend, Polat, is an indispensable voice for understanding China's ethnic tensions. Although 90% of Chinese are Han, the P.R.C. officially recognizes 55 ethnic groups, many of which resist cultural assimilation into China's national fabric. Polat operates at the margins of Beijing's economy as an illegal currency trader and risks government retaliation when he sought political asylum in the United States. The Polat character depicts China's fractious diversity and cross-cultural misunderstandings on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

Migrant workers have epitomized China's post-Mao growth model and urbanization initiatives. Hessler portrays migrants' hopes and emotional displacement better than other foreign observers, as his longstanding friendships with former students offer deep psychological insight. The pressure to earn more money in stratified cities is piercing, as Hessler demonstrates it's impossible to understand contemporary China without understanding migrant workers.

Chen Mengjia's thread is the book's strongest, as Hessler meshes primary and secondary archaeological sources with living subject interviews. Turmoil for urban elites in the early P.R.C., particularly during the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign and 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution has lingering effects in contemporary China. Hessler's inclusion of the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, April 2001 Hainan spy plane incident, and September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks show links between modern chaos and early Red China's chaos.

Living subject interviews offer competing perspectives on Mengjia's personal and professional lives. Hessler is both extremely fortunate interview subjects in advanced age were willing to discuss China's painful nation-building and extremely resourceful to seek them out. The interviewees both confirm and contradict each other, as Hessler explores how truth plays into national memory. Both the passage of time and more openness in Chinese society have allowed Hessler to research these topics.

Mengjia's involvement in archaeological and traditional character preservation created many enemies, which mirrors disputes in contemporary Chinese archaeology. Chinese civilization was not as insular as previously thought, which distorts national self-understanding and cultural essence.

Transitions in this book may feel inorganic, but the emergence of common themes make it an easier read. Hessler grapples with complicated questions about contemporary China and its relation to the past. The fundamental success of this book is how it broke down complex social trends into human tales. While China's growth rate is even disorienting to Chinese nationals, it's even harder to imagine for foreigners. Hessler's book is a great service for foreigners who want to understand contemporary China.

No comments:

Post a Comment