Oracle Bones

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

In his first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2001), Peter Hessler wrote about teaching English and English literature as a Peace Corps volunteer in China’s Sichuan Province. In Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, Hessler illuminates particular corners of Chinese life. Among these, he describes an elderly man being forced out of his family home, a Uighur moneychanger, and some of Hessler’s former students’ adult lives. Also covered are Hessler’s brief detention by police in the countryside, the Falun Gong spiritual movement, Chinese responses to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, and Beijing’s bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. The chapters about daily life in China are interspersed with chapters about archeological artifacts, including so-called oracle bones.

The most ancient writings yet discovered in East Asia have been found on oracle bones (also called dragon bones) dating from the Shang civilization (1766-1122 b.c.e.). Made of tortoise shells and cow bones, oracle bones were subjected to intense heat until they cracked. The cracks were then interpreted by a king or diviner to predict the future, and the interpretations were inscribed upon the bones. Typical inscriptions include “In the next ten days, there will be no disasters” and “We should perform a beheading sacrifice at Qiu Shang.” Hessler interviewed Chinese and American scholars who have specialized in the study of oracle bones. The existing records were apparently made by the elite, the king, and those close to him. The surviving inscriptions may have been skewed toward positive reports or used to help the king maintain order.

It is possible that the ancient inscriptions represent only a fraction of the writing actually produced by the ancient Shang society. While the Chinese take pride in the fact that their civilization can be traced back for centuries, great value traditionally has not been placed on the artifacts history has left behind. Written records can be scarce. Even recent events in China’s history can become blurred within a short period of time because news reports are typically vague or inaccurate. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese were encouraged to destroy objects and writings representing “old” culture. This lack of attention to preservation lends an even greater significance to relics providing even a little information about ancient societies.

Hessler notes that archeologists’ ideas and theories are affected by their geographical positions. The Chinese have had a different worldview from that of those in the West. They have not expected social progression or cultural change. It is possible that in ancient times, life actually changed little from one generation to the next. Chinese culture was primarily agricultural and politically and economically stable; people had no reason to migrate from one part of the country to another. Ancestor worship kept the Chinese psychologically tied to the past. The dead gained more power as time went on, and Chinese people believed that one day they would be ancestors themselves, holding positions after death similar to those they held in life. This was in great contrast to Western cultures’ value placed on progress.

Hessler kept in touch with many of his students from Sichuan after they graduated. Some of his former students use English names they have chosen for themselves. William Jefferson Foster, for example, is a particularly diligent student of English, studying the dictionary and taking extensive notes on English-language radio broadcasts. Foster and his girlfriend, who calls herself Nancy Drew, migrated from their rural community in Sichuan to one of the factory towns that have developed since Deng Xiaoping’s policy of Reform and Opening allowed capitalist enterprises to flourish in selected areas. Foster, Drew, and another student called Emily (for Emily Brontë) represent the more than one million young Chinese who migrated beginning in the 1990’s to special economic zones like Shenzhen, known as the Overnight City because it developed so quickly under Reform and Opening. Young people move to coastal cities, expecting to make good money as teachers or factory workers.

To avoid legal restrictions imposed in Shenzhen, businesses build factories outside the city limits, where they are less closely monitored. Factories hire more women than men because they seem easier to control and can be paid lower wages. Factory owners often keep mistresses and pressure their young employees for sexual favors; prostitution is common.

Emily finds a job in a Taiwanese costume...

(The entire section is 1924 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 16 (April 15, 2006): 23.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 5 (March 1, 2006): 220.

Library Journal 131, no. 7 (April 15, 2006): 93.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (April 30, 2006): 11.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 9 (February 27, 2006): 45.

The Spectator 301 (June 24, 2006): 40.