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June 14-20, 2006

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

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Part and Present
REVIEW (By Peter Hessler; HarperCollins; 491 pages; $26.95 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant

After a stint teaching English in the provinces, Peter Hessler set himself up as a freelance correspondent in China, eventually landing a job with The New Yorker. The rapidly modernizing landscape of a shifting global economy provided him with surprising opportunities to travel and pursue stories under the radar—camping alone along the Great Wall with dubious press credentials, clandestinely observing Falun Gong protests and interviewing aging protesters from the Cultural Revolution. Hessler interleaves tales of rootless young Chinese seeking opportunities in new factory cities where everything is jiade—fake, knockoff, shoddy—with stories of an older generation of scholars who worked during the most difficult years of Maoist upheavals to study the roots of China's language in the 3,000-year-old inscriptions found on turtle shells, or oracle bones. The interviews are acute and sensitive, and Hessler has a poetic sense of everyday life in China: "Some residents kept makeshift pigeon coops on their roofs, and they tied whistles to the birds, so that the flock sounded when it passed overhead. In the old parts of Beijing, that low-pitched hum, rising and falling as the birds soared across the sky, was the mark of a beautiful clear day."


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