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Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present

(China trilogy #2)

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  6,204 ratings  ·  616 reviews

From the acclaimed author of River Town comes a rare portrait, both intimate and epic, of twenty-first-century China as it opens its doors to the outside world.

A century ago, outsiders saw China as a place where nothing ever changes. Today the country has become one of the most dynamic regions on earth. That sense of time—the contrast between past and present, and the

Hardcover, 512 pages
Published April 25th 2006 by Harper (first published January 1st 2006)
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Jan 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
I ran into Hessler's narration on his teaching experience in Fuling two years ago. It was just an excerpt of his book in Chinese, translated by an unknown writer, published in a magazine named BOOK TOWN that cater to the taste of new intellectuals in China by imitating the style and design of NEW YORKER. I read it all through, non-stopped, which is rare for my reading style, and found myself somewhat lost in the delicacy and poetic nature of his writing. Also did I feel a sense of nostalgia and ...more
Jun 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
I can’t say enough about this author; I’m really enchanted with him. I feel as if he’s really grown as a writer since “River Town,” his first book. He’s only a little older than me and I hope to be able to keep coming back to him through his writing for my whole life and see how his thinking progresses.
I think when I started the book I was comparing it to “Eat, Pray, Love” because both are non-fiction works about living abroad. Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey around the world is a sort of outward ma
Dec 22, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: lovers of travel writing
Shelves: essaysjournalism
Hessler's portrait of China is humbling, especially reading it as a Singaporean Chinese. We have many preconceptions of how materialistic or coarse the mainland Chinese are: the book does not deny it, but emphasizes a very different side of China. In the chapter on Shenzhen, in particular, when he profiles a former factory worker turned talk show host who sticks to her moral guns, and becomes an inspiration for many blue collar factory girls, in sharp contrast to the white collar Chinese novelis ...more
(I suddenly realized, on reaching page 454, what it was about this book..., this author.... Though the writing is non-fiction, it was like reading Borges...)

This is a beautiful, surprising, and stunningly good book -- much richer than one could imagine. For anyone interested in the context and texture of modern China, this is a must read.
May 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, hf-china
Yes, I've spent the better part of a month reading this..

And yes, it is completely THAT awesome.

Lorenzo Berardi
Mar 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
From the tiny photo on the back cover of "Oracle Bones", Peter Hassler looks like a friend of mine, A., when I was at the university.

One day, around 10 years ago, I met this fellow out of our "Media and communication" department and I told him that he should have tried doing some internship in order to get the 5 credits he missed before getting his degree.

I remember how he originally wanted to take part to some sort of seminar on semiotics or something and I insisted that it was a waste of time.
Nov 24, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: reviewed
This is a book written by a journalist. He doesn't hide it, writing about his reporting experience in China, so it's not a surprise. But the effect is that it feels like a lot of reporting packaged together, some of it pursuing a historical theme, but much of it quite random.

If you overlook this clipped-together feel, the book is very informative, maybe even too detailed (the author obviously had tonnes of notes to work with). It gives you insights into bits and pieces of China's ancient histor
Bob Reed
Jan 04, 2012 rated it liked it
I loved Peter Hessler's first book, River Town. In fact, it was the first book I gave a 5-star rating. Oracle Bones fits into the same genre, but for me it fell somewhat flat. What made River Town so appealing to me was the personal stories of the people in Hessler's life. Oracle Bones has some of that, but it is set within a larger context. Hessler tries to superimpose his various experiences and the experiences of the Chinese people he knows onto the canvas of China's history. This obviously a ...more
Apr 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was an excellent narrative of Peter Hessler's time in China as a correspondent for various American newspapers and magazines. I thought overall it was a worthwhile read and a great audiobook for work. There wasn't anything groundbreaking in the format, but the personal stories (there a three or four "main" Chinese storylines) were interesting and well-framed. Would recommend to anyone interested in China or human-interest stories from China.
Mark Oppenlander
Several years ago, Beth and I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to chaperone a Study Abroad trip to China. The lead faculty member on that trip required her students to read a number of pre-trip books. Since I had never been to Asia before, I grabbed the reading list too and soaked up as much of it as I could. One of the books on her list was Peter Hessler's "River Town." It was a terrific book describing his two years as a Peace Corp teacher in Fuling, a smaller city near Chengdu in centra ...more
Nov 29, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This second volume of Hessler’s China reportage is superior to River Town--in part, Hessler knows China much better now and, as a result, his gaze has broadened and deepened, no longer hemmed in by the realities of second-English teaching in a somewhat backwater town and by the limitations of interaction with a series of hyper-driven, consumer-mad students and rather quirky and sometimes sinister administrators. In Oracle Bones, he is more confident; he knows China and the Chinese better, and he ...more
David Quinn
Aug 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The stories of the author’s former English language students who took such names as William Jefferson Foster, Nancy Drew and Emily Bronte are interesting and funny. The author does a great job of presenting the unique perspectives of the various Chinese people he encounters without being patronizing or judgmental, although he often puts a very funny spin on them.

I’ve always thought of China as a social monolith but that’s clearly not the case and it was interesting to me to know why I was so wr
Dec 18, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I didn't know much about China before so I found the various glimpses this book provides interesting. It's focused on three things-- a) Chinese archaeologists of the 20th century and some of their discoveries, b) a Uighur trader, and c) recent students of the author who taught English for a while and how they're lives in some of China that has opened up to capitalism. It seems that everything in China that is suppose to help move it forward (whether communism or capitalism and the government pr ...more
Jul 04, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who are interested in Chinese culture
I LOVE his writing. This book, like his other book River Town is a joy to read, and I tore through this. This book examines modern China from the point of view of many of its everyday citizens, especially those marginalized, while simultaneously exploring the previous generation's experiences through the pursuit of an archaelogical mystery. The most interesting things about this book were: the Chinese perspective on September 11th (or at least the perspective of an American who is in China durin ...more
Jun 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I just read this before going to China. This is a must read if you plan on going to China and want to know what to expect, or if you want to know current China and how the distant and recent past has shaped China today.

Hessler went to China in 1996 as a Peace Corps volunteer to teach English. And he stayed, becoming a newspaper reporter, then magazine writer, and now a non-fiction author. Hessler recently published the introductory and concluding articles in the National Geographic Special Editi
Jan 31, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This book was one of the best ones I read last year. Peter Hessler manages to give an insider and outsider's view of China. He first arrived in China as a teacher and then stayed in contact with his students when he moved to Beijing as a journalist. What makes this book fascinating and a pleasure to read is the way he sympathetically tells the stories of his Chinese friends.
Panayoti Kelaidis
Nov 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing

Sitting at dinner with good friends a few months ago, we delved into what books we’d been reading. Always trust a Librarian: Deb enthused about Oracle Bones–her comments a tad vague perhaps: “it’s about oracle bones and yet about modern China”. That seemed a little oxymoronic (and intriguing) to me. Having spent many years studying both Ancient an Modern Chinese, I have always been curious about the Middle Kingdom and the possibility of a trip next summer underscored my interest in dipping b
Nov 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Oracle Bones is the book about the lives of ordinary Chinese people in the decades of great changes within the country. Peter Hessler is an expert on Chinese culture and language, who has been living in China for years. His first job there was as an English teacher in a small Sichuanese town (his first book is about life in that town). In this book, he's just got his new job – journalist in Beijing. He follows daily lives of ordinary citizens and how current global news (NATO bombing of Belgrade ...more
Amy Sturgis
What an outstanding work. Highly recommended for anyone with interest in China and/or current world events. Peter Hessler deftly blends sharing his own informed observations with allowing Chinese voices to speak for themselves.
Jul 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
I always enjoy reading Peter Hessler. He provides interesting history and intriguing personal stories. His writing provides a unique visual of Chinese life. I highly recommend reading any of his books.
Amita MV
May 31, 2019 rated it liked it
The individual profiles about people Hessler meets in China are the highlight here, especially in relation to his research on Chen Mengjia. These are beautifully written and often very moving.

On the other hand, Hessler’s attempts to contextualize these stories within Chinese history fall flat and detract from the stories themselves. His depiction of this context is too general, and I felt it conveyed stereotypes and verged on orientalism - this is particularly apparent in passages where he uses
Stephen Douglas Rowland
Mar 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Truly fascinating. I avoided this one for the longest time due to its popularity (yes, I'm one of those people), but now I see that was a stupid thing to do. This is an original and beautifully written work of nonfiction. Highly recommended to anyone interested in contemporary China.
Troy Parfitt
Aug 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
Oracle Bones, Peter Hessler’s second effort, or Part II, as it were, of his China trilogy, chronicles, mainly, the lives of various Chinese people, from archeologists and intellectuals to the author’s friends and former students. Many of the narratives seem to be more detailed and more rewarding versions of his newspaper and magazine articles. Themes and “characters” recur and are given a sort of chronological treatment. The glue that binds the book together, the oracle bones, is also a sort of ...more
Edie Light
Sep 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Manuel-Antonio Monteagudo Gauvrit
By now, this has become a historic piece rather than a portrayal of contemporary China

I bought this book during my first trip to China.
One sentence convinced me to buy it, and it plainly described the landscapes I witnessed through the window of the Hong Kong- Beijing train: "a peasant, a field, a road, a village".
Add "appartment complexes" to that, and that was it: the author saw the China I saw, and offered his interpretation. Exactly what I needed during this trip of discovery!

How wrong I was
Nov 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in recent history
Recommended to James by: Non-GR friend
Shelves: non-fiction, china
A friend recommended this book to, partially because of my interest in China and my very nerdy obsession of carving seals, many using the oracle bone script(甲骨文). It's a fun narrative history that covers a wide variety of topics from the mass migration of workers, the cultural revolution, Falun Gong and of course the bones. Most of these are the stories of individuals caught in the waves of change, your not going to find the traditional objective? (and boring) analysis that afflicts some China b ...more
Nov 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Hessler reads like a Dalrymple to me. Foreign guy with a strong interest in a big Asian country. Interesting stories about local people, lots of historical stuff. In all, a great read. I'll keep an eye out for more of his books.

All that being said, I'm uncomfortable with the shades of white privilege I see throughout. Emily says it best:
"I always enjoy talking with you, you are the one who knows my everything... But every time you went back to Beijing (after reporting in Shenzhen), I felt the pa
John Collings
Jan 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As an American, when I think about China, I think about a country filled with faceless individuals who for some reason I am not supposed to get along with. They worship differently than us. They create more pollution than us. They have a different government than we do. There is no way that anybody that lives in the country can be anything like me. This is why reading Peter Hessler's book was so important for me. I gained not only insight into the history, society, and culture of this hidden cou ...more
Jun 15, 2012 rated it liked it
This is a nonfiction book about China's past and present and how they interrelate, specifically focusing on linguistics and archaeology. I found the history parts a bit dry (lots of small, dense text, no pictures, etc.) but that's partially because I'm not a big history person. But I really liked the anecdotal parts, where the author talks in depth about people's lives who were friends and acquaintances of his. I particularly liked Polat, the Uighur businessman friend who emigrates to America an ...more
Robin Watson
Dec 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed the China of today and the China of yesterday as described in Peter Hessler's experiences. So many terrible things happened to good people, back in the day...I think of the extermination of the Jews and people who supported them...for what? Is China really changing with Opening and Reform? Can People from the West get a true picture? I think Peter Hessler's book takes on a journey of real Chinese people...people who live the life and the politics and the culture. Something that was sai ...more
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Peter Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as Beijing correspondent from 2000-2007, and is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He is the author of River Town, which won the Kiriyama Book Prize, and Oracle Bones, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

Other books in the series

China trilogy (3 books)
  • River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
  • Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory

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