Peter Hessler was an English major turned journalist, when he returned to China and wrote, what would eventually be, this work of narrative non-fiction. He had spent time in Fuling years earlier, in the Peace Corps, and wrote a wonderful memoir of that experience called River Town. One the things that makes Hessler’s writing so compelling is his ease of storytelling. You feel like you are right there beside him as he immerses himself in China circa the year 2000.
The perspective has changed with this work. As Hessler explains, in River Town, he was the teacher and his writing covered the reactions of the students to his teaching. In this book, he is the journalist, and it’s his interpretations, rather than the students that are being relayed.
In a piece for National Geographic, Hessler journeys to Anyang to research the Oracle Bones. Anyang is the site of an archeological dig where ancient turtle shells were found. The shells were found to have writing on them from the Shang Dynasty, and were used for divination. I enjoyed how Hessler researched these bones and the men who were important in bringing this find to light. Through his research, the author brings an amazing tale of the importance of culture and language, and the consequences of advocating one’s own ideas in the age of Mao. Somehow, he managed to show, through the Oracle Bones, the path China has taken.
We are reintroduced to his former students (now older, with families and jobs), and that is a marvelous way to see the changing country. Since this memoir took place fifteen years ago, I can only imagine what it must be like now, given China’s rapid changes. I’ll just have to look for more Hessler memoirs…
5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2007