Book review: “Oracle Bones” by Peter Hessler

I was introduced to the works of Peter Hessler during a seminar on U.S.-China relations. I decided to start with “Oracle Bones” (2006, HarperCollins). There are different stories woven into the narrative. One story is that of a Uighur man and his journey from China to the United States. There are stories of Hessler’s former students and their lives after college. The story of the oracle bones takes us through the recent history of China. There are also stories of Hessler’s travels in China and his experiences as a journalist.

The book dates events that occurred from 1999 to 2002. When I read about the recent crackdown on journalists in China, it reminded me of the beginning chapters of life as a journalist in China from “Oracle Bones.” The narrative of the oracle bones and development of the Chinese language is interspersed with Hessler’s experiences in China. I was particularly interested in his correspondence with his students from teaching English in China. It was the first time I encountered the term “special English,” which is used by Voice of America for English learning.

I think the book provides a great general introduction to the study of the origin of Chinese characters. Interviews with the academics involved in the study provides history and cultural studies of the evolution of the Chinese language.

This passage jumped right out at me during my first reading of the book:

If anything, character simplification only divides the Chinese literary world. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and most other overseas Chinese communities still use the traditional characters. For years, it was illegal for a Taiwanese to import a book that contained simplified characters. That restriction was politically motivated, but nowadays the disgust is mostly aesthetic. For a traditionally educated Chinese, writing simplified characters is like walking thru the Kwik-mart 2 by sumthing. (Hessler, Oracle Bones, p. 417)

The distinction between traditional and simplified characters is not easy to describe. It is even more difficult when describing the difference to someone who does not know Chinese. Hessler’s example of simplified English is an unique way of explaining the difference. However, I feel that the difference in characters is not only in aesthetics. Traditional characters establishes the Taiwanese identity and separates the history of Taiwan from the history of China.


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