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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Funny, informative and insightful
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...
Published on 20 Aug 2009 by Printul Noptilor

versus
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed
Having very much enjoyed River Town, I was looking forward to another good reading/learning experience with Oracle Bones. However, it was not to be. I found it trivial, boring, somewhat vulgar. I read about a third of it before deciding not to continue. It's like reading someone else's diary in which nothing much happens. He assiduously collects and marshalls facts, but...
Published on 9 May 2011 by Sandy Moir


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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Funny, informative and insightful, 20 Aug 2009
By 
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. Hessler got fascinated with a certain Chinese scholar who died during the Cultural Revolution. Between Tiananmen, Falun Gong and George Bush, Mr. Hessler keeps returning to the tragic fate of that scholar, interviewing people who had known him, and, piece by piece, restoring events from a time about which there are so few historical records left. As it turns out, some things about the dead scholar hang closely together with some things about a certain person alive. That story unfolds like a thriller, and takes a totally unexpected turn by the end.

As you might have guessed by now, I was blown away by Mr. Hessler's storytelling skills. I also liked his balanced political stance. Although firm in expressing his opinion on issues like human rights, Mr. Hessler is not your usual ignorant China-basher. For the most part, he just decribes things and lets you draw your own conclusions (as well as have a good laugh at some bureaucratic stupidities). Don't get me wrong. I grew up in the Soviet Union and few people hated Communism more that I did. But I have seen with my own eyes that the People's Republic of China is nothing like the totalitarian regime in which I grew up. That's why we need books like "Oracle Bones" to help clear away the outdated prejudies still prevalent in the Western world.

Why only four stars then, you ask? That was a tough decision. It's 4.5, actually. I was reluctant to round it up to 5, as I found quite a few statements in this book which I strongly disagree with. Since this review is not a proper place to discuss political opinions, I will mention only a couple of things so that you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about. I didn't like it that Mr. Hessler defended the harmful cult of Falun Gong. I didn't like the way he justified journalists traveling to foreign countries and sticking their noses into affairs that are none of their business. (How do you think the US authorities would treat a Chinese journalist caught with classified documents?) And I was totally repulsed by Mr. Hessler's ridiculing the Chinese people's touching fascination with their Olympic Games preparations.

To sum up, if you want to get an idea of what China is like and what Chinese people think and dream about, as well as amazing insights into the differences of their and our mentality, this is the best book I can recommend. And it's one hell of a fascinating read too.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars NEW YORK PERSON, 27 July 2006
By 
DAVID BRYSON (Glossop Derbyshire England) - See all my reviews
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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. Unless I am mistaken, in the `west' we don't read a lot about the real lives of ordinary ethnic Chinese let alone about Uighurs, and it is the special insight that this book gives into the thoughts, attitudes and living conditions of the hidden population that gives Oracle Bones much of its characteristic flavour.

On the other hand far and away the main linking thread in the book is the author himself and the journey of discovery he is making. The style of writing is like the man in real life, a very distinctive mixture of candour and reserve. In real life one always has the sense that Peter is noticing a great deal and missing very little. In his books we are not reading academic texts or comprehensive studies of the communities he reports on, what we are given is a set of vignettes of life in today's China (plus what can happen to an expatriate Uighur in the USA) drawn from a true journalist's perspective of what is significant, and remarkably free from preconceived notions of what to expect. He was around at the time of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, at the time of the mid-air collision between an American and a Chinese military aircraft at the start of the current presidency of the United States, on 9/11/2001 itself, and during the visit of GWB to China. Typically, he stays detached in his reports. If I read him rightly, he seems to suggest that the Belgrade bombing actually was deliberate, but one can't be completely sure whether he is saying that. His deadpan humour is at its best when recounting the struggles of the administration over whether to apologise for the air accident, and maybe even better in his final comment on the remarks occasioned by Mr Bush's plonking inanities during his visit - nobody was even interested enough to talk about him. Even here I have glossed what he says to some extent - Peter Hessler's way is to stay noncommittal. As regards 9/11, what he reports is telling indeed. The government of China expressed proper outrage and said all the right things: among the populace themselves the main emotion expressed was glee.

These were some of the headline events, and this is the distinctive and unusual angle we get on them. Every bit as significant and revealing are the letters from his former students and his own encounters with some of the minority communities, all of his comments thoughtful and serious but with his own special tongue-in-cheek humour as well. As you would expect, there is a fair amount of historical material, as usual seen from his own perspective with less emphasis than commonly on battles and emperors and more on excavations and methods of writing.

Insofar as Oracle Bones is about China, it is a fascinating glimpse of the other China, the China of the common people behind the headlines. Insofar as it is autobiography, it is a fascinating account of the experiences of a thinking man and a fair-minded man with an independent turn of thought and an enviable gift for expressing it, and the book is enjoyable to read as well as being beneficial. I gather there is another book in preparation, although at the moment he's not giving details, at any rate not to me. There is plenty more to be said about China, and this is the source I would rather read it from than most of the periodicals put together, except perhaps The New York Person.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking - the perfect book for China, 13 Oct 2007
This review is from: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West (Paperback)
A leap from his fabulous first book River Town, in terms of style and content, Peter Hessler manages to pull off a difficult balancing act of biography, autobiography and history, showing readers the real face of both today's China and the decades stretching back to the beginnings of the country's history.
It's an unusual format, where the Oracle Bones of the chapter are dotted through the stories of several people (Polat the Uighur from the disputed north western part of China) and several former students, but makes for a fascinating mix.
I read this in China, along with several other books, and it was simply the best introduction to the country. Hessler's observations are never heavy handed or forced, and there's nothing irrelevant or superfluous. Funny, moving and enormously informative, this is simply outstanding.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a different view, 28 Feb 2009
By 
ck "ckc" (melbourne, australia) - See all my reviews
Practically all the reviews I have read have highlighted the stories of Polat and Hessler's ex- students.

For me, the most engaging and in the end most poignant was that of the oracle bone scholar, Chen, who committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution.His story is the link between the present and the past, the past not just limited to the Shan period when the oracle bones appeared but embracing the Cultural Revolution as well.

Hessler expertly tells his story by playing detective, tracking down Chen's contemporaries to fill the gaps.(And as in a detective story, our views of events change with each different character - in particular, when we finally meet the person who denounced Chen and who might have been the cause of his suicide, we find not denial or justification only deep regret and sadness - perhaps a reminder that there are no evil characters only victims in history ) In telling Chen's story, they also speak of their own indescribable suffering during the Cultural Revolution yet each seems to find an acceptance and resolution in their present lives. Hessler should be commended for seeking out these people for not too soon, there would not be many left and their stories would be lost to history.

Hessler and Fuchsia Dunlop ( Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper) both coincidentally spent time in Sichuan and both are the two best writers on China today, the latter exploring China from a culinary viewpoint.

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Giving China a human face, 21 April 2010
By 
LittleMoon (loving my life in the rain) - See all my reviews
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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. Hessler relates these events through conversations with taxi drivers, factory owners, local residents old and young, radio show hosts, actors and intellectuals; we are literally experiencing China at street level, from the general public or China's laobaixing (literally meaning "old 100 surnames").

Many have compared this book unfavourably with his first work River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), but I feel Oracle Bones is a more complex, mature and involving read. Gone is the occasional condescension that niggled in River Town; gone also is the narrow focus on a specific place at a specific time. Oracle Bones is an altogether deeper undertaking, exploring the present, unlocking the past, and viewing China's position as part of a wider world. Happily, what has not gone is Hessler's writing style: a blend of readable narrative crossed with a journalistic attention to research and detail.

Aside from what feels like a slightly random insertion of chapters towards the end, I like the structure of the work, interspersing stories of the past and present that are well signposted and easy to follow. Considering the scope of the book though, it's not surprising some readers find it a little disjointed. Sinophiles or those who have lived and travelled here, will perhaps recognise this shifting nature as part of everyday life in China - where it seems everything is changing, and no two days are the same. Where Oracle Bones is triumphant, as River Town was before it, is in capturing a few of the moods, and moments, good and bad, of the Chinese nation.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed, 9 May 2011
By 
Sandy Moir (Aberdeen, Scotland, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West (Paperback)
Having very much enjoyed River Town, I was looking forward to another good reading/learning experience with Oracle Bones. However, it was not to be. I found it trivial, boring, somewhat vulgar. I read about a third of it before deciding not to continue. It's like reading someone else's diary in which nothing much happens. He assiduously collects and marshalls facts, but to no telling purpose. Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A disappointment after "River Town", 31 May 2006
By 
Ei (Hong Kong) - See all my reviews
Oracle Bones retains many of the ingredients that made Hessler's earlier work "River Town" such a success: the effortless prose, the dry humour, the incisive mind, the kind heart. But in Oracle bones, Hessler struggles with structure.

Hessler uses the story of one man (a scholar of ancient Chinese inscriptions) as the line on which to peg recycled research for articles that Hessler has published elsewhere, along with progress reports on his former students. Late in the day, the author appears to recognise the awkwardness of this contrivance; but by then he is into his penultimate chapter and well past the point of no return:

"It's all connected: menus and bootlegs, history and movies, language and archaeology. Texts create meaning, regardless of how arbitrary the process may seem."

Few will dislike Oracle Bones (though I suspect many will skip some of the interwoven chapters about Chen Menjia; you can have too much of a good thing). But whereas River Town is still fresh in my mind a couple of years after reading it, much of Oracle Bones will have faded in a couple of weeks. What will remain, though, are the flashes of dry humour. These even carry into the author's Acknowledgments: "John DeFrancis gave me excellent guidance.... I've never known another ninety-four-year-old who responds so quickly to e-mails about morphemes".

Hessler doubtless has the self-awareness to recognise that he is going a little stale in his present environment. Let's hope he finds renewed vigour in pastures new.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 15 July 2014
This review is from: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West (Paperback)
GOOD
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5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding analysis of present-day China, 1 April 2014
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Although published in 2002, this book remains timely and gives one of the most perceptive descriptions of contemporary China that I have come across. Hessler combines sections focusing on the country's history and the development of its current written language (a fascinating topic in its own right) with descriptions of the progression of his former college students in Fuling in the late 1990s. This is definitely a must-read for all those interested in the history and development of this amazing country!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant !, 13 Feb 2014
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This review is from: Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West (Paperback)
An excellent read, following on from his River Town book. Should be read by anybody involved in China deals or holidays.
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Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West
Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China and the West by Peter Hessler (Paperback - 22 Feb 2007)
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