Zhifei Ge's Reviews > Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
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's review
May 24, 12

bookshelves: travelogue
Read in May, 2012

  The topic of the book is serious. It's about how we Chinese are treating the ancient and the near history. But the tone of the book is condescending. The author, Peter Hessler, does not give a specific answer to the question how we should treat our history. Rather, he tells a lot of stories. Although superficial on the surface, they reflect the contradictions in contemporary China and stimulates us to rethink about our history and ourselves.
  The first story is the study of oracle bones. Our worship of ancestors drives us to study the oracle bones. Nonetheless, most of the oracle bones are about future, such as, "in the next ten days, there will be no disaster". It feels so contradictory that while we're digging holes to unearth our origins, our ancestors seem more concerned with their immediate future than their ancestors. Then, why shall we worship those who do even share our philosophy?
  The second story comes with the people studying oracle bones. The knot of this story is Mengjia Chen, a famous archaeologist. He committed suicide just before the Culture Revolution. One obvious reason is that he felt irritable but hopeless of the destruction of history by the then contemporaries. Associated with him are his friends, relatives and colleagues. After so many years, how those people think of his suicide? Guilty or innocent? We'll realize that the boundary between these two contradicting feelings are just not so clear when we read the book.
  The third story is about Polat. Polat is a Uighur, a minority ethnic group of China. Polat is an intellectual and also a business man. He resents China for her single-handed claim of Xinjiang and disrespect of Uighur's culture and natural rights. From Polat's perspective, China has ignored the major part Uighur's history or has lied to herself that Xinjiang is historically part of China. His resentment is probably the ultimate reason why he would take every risk to immigrate to the US. But from Peter's writings, we still find Polat connected in every way with China and the Chinese ways.

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