It has been said that China has five thousand years of past, but no history. Instead of the linear narrative we’re accustomed to seek in Western history — one culture succeeding another, improving on the last, growing, stretching the arm of empire — there is a pattern of repetition: dynasty, emperor, dynasty, emperor. Certain shapes reappear: fields, peasants, walls, cities. Then a new emperor and a new dynasty. China’s geography, climate, and relative isolation from Western culture kept it from change, until the great upheavals of the Cultural Revolution.
At least, that is the popular view that has been put forth for many years. Peter Hessler, in Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, paints a somewhat different picture. On the one hand, he follows individuals in modern China, telling their stories and connecting them to some of the phenomena that are most important to today’s Chinese people. On the other hand, he collects artifacts from the past — bone, clay, bronze — and traces their importance to the periphery of Chinese history, the stories that have perhaps not yet had a chance to be told. Hessler’s China is a place of constant change, opportunity, corruption, ambition, intelligence, and dedication. Reading the book was like stepping into running water, knowing that a snapshot of China now, just two years after the book’s publication, would show something different again.
Hessler follows several individuals — friends of his — to show certain movements in China. One man, an ethnic minority, emigrates to the United States. Another couple, former students of Hessler’s, move far from their own families and eventually save enough money as teachers to have a baby. Another young woman moves to Shenzhen, the “overnight city,” an economic experiment, where she must find her way with no family or traditional moral compass to help her. During this time, Hessler marks the sensitive anniversaries of the Chinese year: Mao’s birthday. Deng’s death. Tiananmen Square. Time shifts the meaning of these anniversaries, just as construction shifts the meaning of places.
The artifacts — a bronze head, an ancient turtle plastron with the very first Chinese characters on it — are equally mysterious. Scholars who devoted their lives to studying these artifacts were put into labor camps and sometimes killed during the Cultural Revolution; there remains a sense of darkness and danger about the study of the past. It becomes clear during the course of the book that Chinese history is not, as was once envisioned, a single placid river: there have been many tributaries, and even whole independent lakes and rivers that may have had unseen effects on the whole. Just as today, China would suffer from ignoring its ethnic minorities and its popular movements, it may have falsified its own history in the past, trying to create a unified narrative.
Oracle Bones is wonderfully readable. Hessler knows China well; he has lived in Beijing for years, and he has many friends there. He’s a journalist, so his style is easy to understand even when it’s episodic. I found his stories fascinating, both about the past and the present, and he made me want to know more. I’ve read his memoir of teaching in Fuling, River Town, and I thought Oracle Bones would be dry in comparison. It wasn’t. It told me both more and less: less about Hessler’s thoughts and emotions, but much, much more about China and its amazing, deep, long past and present.