A Journey Between China’s Past and Present
Peter Hessler, 2006
John Keay’s China, A History provided me with a comprehensive and well researched overview of the main events in the last 3000 to 5000 or so years of Chinese history, but that book left me wanting more perspective about the people’s history. Keay’s book was focused on rulers and wars, with periods of decline and expansion but lacked a personal touch. Li Kunwu’s A Chinese Life satisfied some of my desire to learn more about the rise of communist China with all of its failings and struggles through the eyes of one man, the artist, Li Kunwu. However, as enjoyable and informative as it was, the graphic novel penned by Li Kunwu has a specific voice and is but one of many. Peter Hessler’s voice, spoken as a foreign educator turned journalist living in China provides a satisfying compliment to my interest in China’s past and present through his catalog of ancient artifacts and modern stories of a rapidly changing country struggling to redefine its relationship to tradition in an increasingly global world.
Chronologically, the stories in Oracle Bones span the years from May, 1999 through June, 2002 when Hessler was working as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and the New Yorker. This time period interestingly catalogs rough relations between America and China: first in 1999 with the questionably accidental US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war, then the April 2001 accidental crash between a Chinese F-8 fighter and a US spy-plane over the China sea, then of course the world changing events of September 11th, and the subsequent US war with China’s western neighbor, Afghanistan, and finally the heralding of the US-Iraq war that was coupled with negotiations to the benefit of the Chinese communist government to eventually classify members of the separatist western minority population of Uighur as terrorists potentially in bed with al Qaeda.
These many events provide the background to Hessler’s work, and he often discusses the temperature of the Chinese people’s national consensus and personal opinions of the peoples he interviewed alongside the political events that occurred. Honest opinions that look down upon American imperialism are voiced alongside the government’s calmly censured diplomatic response to the events that occurred. When the government officially expresses its regret about the tragedy of September 11th, Hessler is able to purchase and view poorly edited bootleg DVDs depicting the attack as a celebration of an inevitable punishment for America’s blatant global hegemony. These conflicting views might shock the Fox News viewer that worships the importance of this century’s day of remembrance, but I found Hessler’s depiction of the views of the common Chinese man (the taxi driver, the restaurant owner, the school teacher) to be enlightening and totally understandable. Just as many Americans never travel outside their home country and therefore fail to develop a global perspective, feeding an ignorant fear of the unknown, much of the Chinese population live an isolated life (although they may migrate within their expansive country, they may never leave it) and therefore it is completely understandable for them to look upon the unknown America with fear and anger fueled by limited perspective.
I am certain that the tenuousness of a developing nation living in the shadow of America’s global power fuels much of the negative perspective I alluded to above, and Hessler further elaborates on this through exploration of the Chinese perspective of historical victimization as evidenced by the British colonial period, followed by the fall of the Qing dynasty to the Kuomintang uprising, then the Japanese occupation, and then the communist revolution and years of isolation and struggle. As expressed in Hessler’s book several times, China celebrates a longstanding history of several millennia of unification and succession only to find itself scrambling to gain significance in the modern industrialized world. The fact that the world’s oldest continuous nation finds itself only a developing country at the edge of the 21st century has fostered a sense of embarrassment in the national pride and this has in turn sparked a fire ripe for burning down the old ways to develop China into a prosperous contender. Although the current world events of this day in 2014 clearly acknowledge China’s rising importance as a global economic power alongside the post-2008 economic crisis revelation of America’s gradual weakening, at the time of Hessler’s authorial investigation of Oracle Bones in 1999 through 2002 the China/US economic relationship was not as apparent to the public. China was in a state of constant change in a rush to modernize and experiment with forms of capitalism and even in some forms, democracy, to promote the nation’s competitive edge in the global economy.
I had the benefit to travel to Shaghai and a neighboring Hangzhou in January of 1998 durning roughly the same time as the beginning of Hessler’s work. During my brief visit I witnessed for myself some of the rampant bulldozing construction to restructure the once colonial port town of Shanghai into a 21st century business center. My impression of Shaghai at the time was that it was one giant construction zone and I am told by the friend that I had traveled with that today I wouldn’t even recognize the Shanghai that I had visited 15 years ago. Hessler discusses this steroidal model of rampant growth in the chapters titled “The Overnight City” and “The Courtyard” that catalog the development of the then 20 year old economic metropolis of Shenzen and the razing of 4 century old hutong familial homes in ancient Bejing. I live in the city of San Francisco where it seems just about any dilapidated structure can easily be granted historical significance and it is mind boggling for me to imagine the bulldozing of structures that are older than my nation just to build a characterless sky rise of apartments. Hessler explores this dichotomy by acknowledging that few current generation Chinese see architecture as historically significant, for them the pragmatic motivating force is to do what is best for the people and destroying an old structure is a necessary means towards modernization and development.
“When the Han Chinese talked about culture and history, it reminded me of the way Americans talked about democracy and freedom. These were fundamental values, but they also had some quality of faith, because if you actually investigated – if you poked around an archaeological site in Gansu, or an election in Florida – then you saw the element of disorder the lay just beneath the surface. Some of the power of each nation was the narrative: they smoothed over the irregularities, creating good stories about themselves. That was why each country coped so badly with failure…and it was probably natural that in extreme crisis, the Americans took steps that undermined democracy and freedom, just as the Chinese had turned against their own history and culture.” (440)
I have talked at length about big ideas of politics, economy, and development discussed in Hessler’s Oracle Bones, and although it is true that these elements are the background to the book’s thematic progression, this isn’t necessarily a political or historical book. Hessler’s book is engaging because it is collection of very human stories based upon his friendships developed during his time in China. This is a book about China told through the eyes of very real Chinese people. The books reads almost like a novel, weaving in and out through lives of many voices including Hessler’s friend the Uighur Polat who was a blackmarket middleman in Bejing who eventually immigrated and sought asslyum in the US, three of his former students migrants from the central city of Fuling: the couple William and Nancy who became English teachers themselves, and Emily who sought wealth in the fast growing Shenzen economy. Each of their stories provides a unique perspective of the many voices of developing China. Polat is the minority voice, who looks different from the Han Chinese. William and Nancy express the changing views toward tradition as they live together unmarried and do not have a child until they can raise enough money to make their traditional parents respect their non-traditional decision. Emily represents the perspective of cheap migrant labor and the dichotomy of female power in a paternalistic society. Each of their stories is engaging and it is apparent that Hessler does each of his friend’s great service to express their varying perspectives as the collective perspective of a changing China.
And what of the title, Oracle Bones? The title refers to the turtle shells of the Shang dynasty discovered at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century which represent the oldest representation of written Chinese text. Hessler’s chronological depiction of the the lives of the Chinese people at the turn of the 2oth to the 21st century is periodically interrupted by chapters titled “Artifacts” that explore the archaeology of ancient China. At nearly 3000 years old, the Oracle Bones represent the oldest form of known Chinese history and Hessler’s interviews with several archaeologists explores the odd relationship of China with its history. The Confucian philosophy laid the groundwork for a profound respect for tradition and one’s elders and may explain why the 3000 year old characters on the Oracle Bones are strikingly similar to classical Chinese characters that can be read today without the need for a Rosetta stone. One of the most prominent researchers into the oracle bones, Chen Mengjia was silenced following the communist revolution due to his outspoken criticism towards the communist effort to modernize and simplify the ancient classical form of writing.
The story of writing and and the importance of calligraphy becomes central to Hessler’s discussion of modern China’s relationship to its past. Just as I had marveled at the ease with which ancient structures could be bulldozed, many Chinese intellectuals may marvel at the Western world’s lack of respect for the written form. For the written word is a representation of reality, it is the voice of the past and says much more than any structure ever could ever speak. As China continues to enter the global market, it is increasingly using English and the arabic alphabet. The changing relationship of language in a global culture affects the peoples relationship to their past.