Oracle Bones

It’s getting to the point where I’ll pretty much read any book about contemporary China. I only brought a few with me to NYC, along with a whole slew of literary type fare, and I’ve noticed that all of my China books are by now exhausted while I’ve barely made a dent in the fiction. What is so interesting about China? Why can’t I just go back to having a non-China-related life?

Peter Hessler went a long way towards answering that question for me with Oracle Bones, his latest offering published last year. It’s a kind of meandering narrative about life in Beijing, interspersed with random threads of historical research and biographical material about the author and his friends. The book is so chock full of random information that the author resisted trying to organize it all in a linear fashion. This formal choice is also an expression of his belief that Chinese history has a kind of circular or perpetual quality. Ancestor worship, the endless alternation from one dynasty to the next, the arcane writing system…he does have a point.

Oracle Bones

Along with his vignettes, archaeological research, and sketches of current events involving the US, Taiwan, the Falun Gong, etc. Hesller indulges in a lot of speculation that resonates with my experience. One idea is that China is a book culture, in that so much of Chinese peoples’ self-re-generated notion of “China” has to do with literacy in the Classics, while America is a movie culture, in that, basically, we’re all about Hollywood movies. Like, these cultural forms are a vital part of social life. I think I dig that.

Another is that Chinese people have been generally discouraged from looking inside themselves and finding or seeking to understand their own individual histories. The idea is that they lack an understanding of personality and an appreciation of creative potential. The result is that you have a society just bursting to change in the 50s and 60s and it relapses into the excesses of Empire, what with Mao and the Cultural revolution.

Hessler is on record as saying that deconstruction is a bunch of hogwash and Post modernism is basically bullshit. But what he’s produced is a fragmented text, a lot of which centers around the properties of text itself in creating meaning. He also talks alot in a vaguely post-colonial vain about the plight of the indigenous folk in Xinjiang, the western portion of China most of which is wasteland. He writes about ethnicity and migration and the immigrant experience and he appears to be obsessed with blurring identities and the globalised nature of the consumer economy. On top of all that, every chapter begins with an “artifact”, like he’s leaving it to the reader to piece together a necessarily flawed historical narrative from the collected “artifacts”. Finally every artifact has a Chinese name, either mis-translated or deliberately re-named in English. (I’m only aware of this last point because of my own basic familiarity with Chinese characters, he never mentions anything about it.)

Can you say freeplay? What about this is *not* postmodern? Why are you so pretentious, Peter Hessler, you Princeton/Oxford bastard? And most importantly why is your Chinese so clearly better than mine? And why can’t I write like you? I am jealous.


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