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Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West Paperback – 22 Feb 2007

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Frequently Bought Together

  • Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West
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Product details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray (22 Feb. 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0719564417
  • ISBN-13: 978-0719564413
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 3.3 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 110,419 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


To come across a Westerner patient enough and tolerant enough to try and understand the immense, exasperating and ultimately lovable entity that is China is always a pleasure. To encounter one that is as literate and sensitive as Peter Hessler is a joy (Simon Winchester)

'One of the most profoundly original books about China' (The Economist)

'A swirl of interconnecting stories and histories make up Peter Hessler's extraordinary, genre-defying second book' (Daily Telegraph)

'Oracle Bones, the much anticipated follow-up to his acclaimed debut, River Town, lays bare a rapidly evolving China through his often bizarre encounters with the engines of its social changes.' (South China Morning Post)

'Extensive travel around China with occasional flits back home to the U.S., combine with some fascinating speculation on the origins of Chinese civilisation and how the remote past impinges on the present' (China Review)

'Dip into it ... You will be hooked' (International Herald Tribune)

'A brilliant tapestry of ancient and modern China' (Spectator)

'He ranges widely and, in doing so, illustrates how Chinese history accumulates' (Mick Herron, Geographical Magazine)

'Valuable for its necklace of vignettes - poignant, comic, and weird ' (Jonathan Mirsky, Literary Review)

'[An] extraordinary survey of contemporary China...really quite unforgettable' (The Observer)

'If you read one book on Chinese modern culture, read this one' (

'Ingenious ... Stretches back in time as well as criss-crossing present-day China' (John Dugdale, Guardian)

'Anyone who wants to begin to understand the complexities that are China, and their bitter-sweet and pregnant relationships with the West, should read this idiosyncratic, brilliant book' (Ross Leckie, The Times)

'An impressive and moving account of the lives of ordinary people' (Clover Stroud, Sunday Telegraph / Travel)

Book Description

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

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Printul Noptilor on 20 Aug. 2009
Format: Paperback
The author spent several years in China. I understand that in "River Town" (which I haven't read) he wrote about the time he was teaching English in South Western China. This book is about the time after that (about 1999-2002), when he lived in Beijing and worked as a journalist.

To give you a simplified general idea of what this book is about, one could say that it consists of three parallel storylines.

Firstly, Mr. Hessler describes what he's doing. It's not really "about" anything, just a journalist covering news events and traveling around the country. It doesn't sound too exciting but it is. For instance, one chapter is titled "Starch" and it's about... well, starch. Don't laugh. You'll get to laugh enough when you'll read the chapter. It's unbelievable how funny it can get when a foreign journalist visits a Chinese starch factory. In that chapter, as well as in the others, Mr. Hessler demonstrates his unique ability to make normal conversations with regular people so incredibly interesting to read. Most of the time, he lets his intervewees have the spotlight, so typically for a journalist. But describing his adventures near the North Korean border he reveals a touchingly human side of himself.

Secondly, Mr. Hessler follows the lives of some of his former students (apparently from "River Town") who have now flown away from their native Sichuan to various places all over China. Mr. Hessler gets letters from them and visits them, painting through their eyes an amazingly vivid picture of Chinese people's lives. Having places I've visited in China come alive in my mental eye was an enjoyment beyond description. Several times, I found myself resisting the urge to rush to the airport and catch the first plane back to China.

Thirdly, Mr.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By DAVID BRYSON TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 27 July 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Had you ever heard of a magazine called The New York Person? I expect not. However if you take the title `New Yorker' for which Peter Hessler is the Beijing correspondent, translate it into Chinese and give it to the appropriate officials of the Chinese Communist party, the title will come back as `New York Person', and argument with the functionaries will be futile.

This is the second volume of Peter Hessler's memoirs of his life in China. In River Town he had set down his experiences as a teacher of English for the Peace Corps in a small town on the Yangtse. In Oracle Bones he is a professional journalist, still at that time single and unattached, exploring China, its peoples and their culture. As I read the book, it is autobiography even more than it is sociology or history. The author gets about a lot of China, as can be easily checked from the beautiful map at the front of the book, but his explorations have more of a random feel to me than the sense of any systematic search. Wherever he goes, he goes there with an open mind, and the acquaintances he makes are only big names insofar as some of them are highly specialised scholars. In fact the oracle bones of the book's title are not even a major element in the narrative. They are of interest in their own right and they serve as a literary linking device, but this book is mainly about people. Peter Hessler has been long enough in China to get to know a number of its ordinary citizens well. A few of his former students kept in touch with him, but in particular a good deal of the story is hung around an Uighur going under the pseudonym of Polat, kept anonymous for his own protection.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By LittleMoon VINE VOICE on 21 April 2010
Format: Paperback
Hessler has a sizeable following among expats in China, and his books are often book club reads here in Beijing (they're reviewing his latest offering this very week: Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip). I, for one, am hoping that Hessler can reach a wider audience with his genre-straddling mix of travel writing, history, and auto/biography because it's doing something very important: it's giving China a human face.

In the outside world where China is synonymous with "1.3 billion", "Communism" and "the world's factory", it might sometimes be difficult to keep in perspective that beyond the stereotypes, the Chinese are human too. Hessler humanises China brilliantly by building his writing from the lives of everyday people; following a few of his recently graduated students, exploring his friendship with Polat, a Xinjiang-born Uighur (Xinjiang is the Westernmost Province in China, Uighurs make up the largest of 13 non-Chinese ethnic groups there), and uncovering the tragic story of Oracle Bone (writing fragments found on turtle shells and animal bones that date back to over 1000 years BC) scholar Chen Mengjia.

Oracle Bones was researched between 1999 and 2004, and covers a time of massive change in China, against a backdrop of extraordinary world events; opening with the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, moving through the 9/11 attacks, and looking forward to the 2008 Olympic Games.
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