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[81] Oracle Bones – Peter Hessler

oracle.jpg[This month has seen fulfillment of some of my unspoken resolution for the year. Taking up the Summer Mystery Reading Challenge allows me to read out of my usual genre, exposes me to new authors. This second book by the New Yorker foreign correspondent, also diverts me from fiction and peek into the current affairs/nonfiction realm. In addition to all these, June has been the most proliferative month in reading.]

In the midst of globalization, battle against terrorism, re-shuffling rank of power, Peter Hessler, one of my most respected writer and a China-hand, captures the humanistic side of the awakening dragon’s vicissitudes. That he arrived the country as an English teacher and maintained a close network of friends puts him at the upper hand of other foreign correspondents, who often treat China issues in an event-driven journalism. In this second memoir, he reflects that while he might be an outsider, who sifts information between continents; but over the years, he is more and more aware of the gap between the world where he lives and the world where he publishes. What he makes the shift to write feature instead of news is his aversion to the fact that people and places being distilled into words.

He writes with an understanding that when dramatic, unresolved problems–the catchy breaking stories that are usually culled by American expatriates–undergo the whole interpreting and fixing process (most correspondents don’t speak the language) the reporters and coverage have escaped history. Despite the same problems that fester in any nations, the country is stable, functioning, independent, and increasingly power. When western countries look across the pond, the critical question isn’t how the US of UK could change China. It’s far more important to understand the country and the people who live there, before anyone to act as police. Big headliners like child selling, teenage prostitution and organ blackmarket could always sell, of course, due to their dramatic nature, but readers from thousands of miles away don’t have the background necessary to keep everything in context.

Oracle Bones might appear to dab in politics but deep inside it’s a documentary of humanity. On the heels of the dispute in which China accused the US of downing a fighter plane over the South China Sea, he demonstrates how both sides were literally, lost in translation, trying to dodge around with meticulously written, vague remarks that neither repair nor bid goodwill to China-US relation. In between his lines he astutely captures the mood of a nation boiling with anti-America sentiment that is not rooted in that particular incident but something deeper and more rooted. In the past, the Chinese had always sought things from the outside world: recognition, trade relations, WTO membership, and the Olympics. The bid to host the 2008 Olympics not only brings honor, but also mitigates their usual shame in feeling outclassed in global affairs. The wind has changed as now even the US has to look upon China for support in the sticky, irksome Iraq issues.

A richly humanistic portrayal of contemporary China, Hessler mingles the multiple personalities, which consist of ethnic minorities, and tangled story lines and show how they fare under sensitive issues fettering the country like the DPP pro-independence in Taiwan, the heavy-handed missile test that ensnares Taiwan, the people democratic dictatorship module, banning Falun Gong, and issues on Xinjiang autonomy. It achieves an emotional and intellectual intensity that one usually associates with fiction. It captures that helplessness, and the dread of uncertainty of people in a country that is tipping away to booming, to increasing power, and to the slight loosening of the Communist grip.

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