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A Journey Between China’s Past and Present

A-Oracle BonesIn this portrait of modern-day China, Hessler describes the country’s profound transformation from Communist stronghold to economic juggernaut as he follows a diverse group of Chinese (some of the author’s former students): a professional couple saving money for a nest egg; a woman entering the anonymity of a sprawling all-in-one factory town; an expatriate businessman evading immigration authorities in America’s capital. The bones of the book’s title are 3,000-year-old divination relics that offer a glimpse into China’s past; the intriguing story of the bones’ discovery also suggests the difficulty of reconstructing the country’s history in any meaningful way. Hessler views the new China—one with an ambivalent view of the West—through the lens of the old.
HarperCollins. 492 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0060826584

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Hessler’s strongest point is his eye for … offbeat detail. … Hessler is a wry and witty writer who manages to bring humor even to tense situations such as the police crackdown on Falun Gong protests in Tiananmen Square." Mike Revzin

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Hessler’s] narrative is littered with intriguing observations and answers to his incisive questions. … [He] has achieved something quite special in Oracle Bones, conveying the idiosyncrasies of China in a way that makes people palpably human and distinctly memorable." Seth Faison

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Peter Hessler … writes again about his adopted homeland with remarkable understanding and clarity. With Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, he has created an even more thorough level of understanding of the lives of ordinary Chinese struggling to make a living in the new China." Richard C. Kagan

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Hessler must have spent a good deal of mental energy developing a structure for his book, determined to strike an aesthetic balance between the personal lives of the individual Chinese whose stories he tells and the physical and historical spaces they inhabit. … [He] is surely right about the echoes that still vibrate from China’s unvarnished past." Jonathan Spence

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Hessler … deftly illuminates the pressures weighing on today’s Chinese leaders: restive ethnic minorities chafing under Beijing’s rule, waves of rural migrants seeking better lives in the cities, and the absence of anything resembling the unifying ideology of the years after the 1949 Revolution. … Looking to the past for a hint of what’s to come remains a good way of understanding China." David J. Lynch

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Oracle Bones could be one of those tragedies in which people with silly dreams are all crushed. Except that they’re not. … Hessler has a nose for the preposterous and the skill to make the reader laugh." Bruce Ramsey

Critical Summary

Hessler, Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker, freelance journalist, and the author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (2001), a memoir of his experiences as an English teacher for the Peace Corps in China’s Sichuan Province, describes a world closed to most Westerners. The writing is smart and engaging, and Hessler uses an archaeological framework (chapters on the past, for instance, are deemed "Artifacts") to organize his narrative, a hook that reminds the reader always of the past’s influence on the present. The reconciliation between old and new will likely never be absolute. Critics agree, however, that Hessler skillfully interweaves the two temporal threads to create a portrait of a China struggling to define itself in the global community.