Thursday, March 19, 2009

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

I don't pretend to know China. Sure, it's where my ancestors came from, but the closest I've been is Hong Kong. so reading Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China is truly an eye-opener.

Hessler was a clipper for a foreign bureau in Beijing in the late 1990s. As his job required only a few hours a week, he spent his time wandering around China and meeting people. And it's the people he met who make this book work. There's the Uighur middleman who sells almost anything and is trying to make his way to the United States, in search of a better life. Then there are Hessler's former English students Nancy Drew, William Jefferson Foster and Emily, who continue to write their teacher, telling him about their lives as migrant workers in the big cities, lives fraught with difficulties, mean bosses and all kinds of restrictions.

Oracle Bones is probably one of the better non-fiction books I've read so far. He integrated the engaging stories of these different people well, using them to illustrate 21st century China in a meandering yet thoroughly engaging narrative, told from different perspectives. This is a country that is rapidly changing. As Hessler puts it: "In Beijing, sentimentality was often just a year away."

Interspersed with these narratives are sections labelled 'artifacts', that discuss the language and history of Chinese civilisation. One of the insights I gleaned from this book is that some words in Chinese are actually Japanese in origin, as Japan had more western contact at that time, such as the phrase minzhu or democracy. Another was that Mao wanted a Chinese alphabet. Six systems were finalists but Mao and other leaders decided that they weren't usable. Instead they simplified certain characters - 515 of them.

I rather enjoyed Hessler's simple explanation about simplified and traditional Chinese: "For a traditionally educated Chinese, writing simplified characters is like walking thru the Kwik-mart 2 by sumthing." As a Chinese Singaporean, I spent 12 years taking Chinese as my 'Mother Tongue' language. I wasn't terrible at it but I still required weekly tuition, as I lived in an English-speaking household. And in Singapore, it is the simplified version of Chinese that is used (thus trips to Taiwan and Hong Kong require deciphering characters that look quite different from the ones I'm used to).

You don't need to have an interest in China to appreciate this book. If you're interested in today's world, in different cultures and people, and maybe some history, if you're interested in reading the stories of the ordinary people, read this.

1 comment:

Eva said...

I just finished reading Hessler's memoir of his Peace Corps China years (River Town), and it's just as good as I remember Oracle Bones being (I read that in 2007), though obviously a bit different in style and topic. He's a great writer, which is a wonderful thing to find in nonfic. :)