My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China (2006) by Peter Hessler begins with Hessler’s life on May 8, 1999 and ends in June 2002 but also spans centuries in historical China, where the story ranges and revolves around ancient oracle bones and the archeologist Chen Mengjia and his wife, Lucy Chao, who translated Whitman’s Leaves of Grass into Chinese Mandarin.
Oracle Bones is by far a better book than Hessler’s first called River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. Hessler seems to have matured in the five years between the two publications, and Oracle Bones takes on a deeper power that concerns itself more with the Chinese and their history than Hessler’s imperialist observations and interactions with them, as he was accustomed to do in River Town.
In Oracle Bones, a more restrained and curious Hessler steps out of the way to reveal the souls of the people who he speaks with in his quest to uncover the truth behind what happened to Chen Mengjia, a poet and lover of oracle bones.
Hessler reminds readers that the Chinese do not speak in such a way common to most Americans and that gathering the truth to certain situations which happened during the Cultural Revolution may be more difficult than one might expect, simply for cultural reasons and more complexly for the pain that is caused by the act of remembering:
“In China, people often speak circuitously when confronted with an uncomfortable memory. The narrative emerges loosely, like string falling slack onto the floor; the listener has to imagine how everything connects. Sometimes the most important details are omitted entirely. But when the Chinese do decide to speak openly, their directness can be overpowering. Often, there is no visible emotion: just the simple straight words” (p 433).
And when Hessler, doing some real reporting for a change, is able to get people beyond their defensiveness or avoidance tactics is when the story opens up more clearly about Chen Mengjia and the past that led the great scholar to commit suicide in 1966.
Two oracle bones from the Shang Dynasty in China (c. 1800 – 1200 BCE)
The climax of the book comes when Hessler tracks down Professor Li Xueqin, then almost seventy, in his office at Tsinghua University to ask him about the heavy criticism the professor published in 1957 to publicly shame Chen Mengjia decades ago during the Cultural Revolution and how this article could have been one factor of many leading to Mengjia’s suicide. What comes next is a true representation of the human condition in all its splendor and in all its agony:
“I didn’t want to do it,” tells Professor Li Xueqin, former assistant to Chen Mengjia and the director of the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project initiated in 1995, “There was no problem with the scholarly points that I made in the other parts of the essay. But the personal criticism was something that I didn’t want to write. After that essay was published, I rarely saw Chen Mengjia. But occasionally in the early 1960s, I encountered him at the Institute of Archaeology, and whenever that happened, I didn’t feel comfortable speaking to him. I just couldn’t hold a conversation, because my heart felt bad. I always regretted that article…
“I think that people understood. Much later, after he was dead, I still had contact with his friends, and occasionally I saw his wife. None of them ever attacked me. I think they understood what had happened, but I still felt bad. Mei banfa. There was nothing I could do about that…
“Throughout the interview, I have been writing, and now Professor Li looks at my notebook.
“I would prefer that you not write about this in the New Yorker,” Professor Li says, now a very old man, “It’s a personal problem. I’d rather you just wrote about the chronology project and those things that we talked about earlier.
“I say that I won’t write about it unless I can explain everything fully.
“It’s hard to understand, apart from the fact that it was a horrible period,” Professor Li explains to Hessler. “By the time the Cultural Revolution happened, if people criticized you, then you truly believed that you were wrong. I was also criticized at that time, and I believed the things that people said. Everybody was like that; it was a type of social psychology. There were so many enemies—everybody was an enemy, it seemed” (p 391).
And this has been one aspect of the human condition that has always fascinated me as a writer; it is often difficult for me to grasp the fact for how little people sell their morals down the river, for how little people give away their souls to save their skins, for how little people trade their lives to easily destroy another.
Hessler leaves the interview with Professor Li Xueqin and reflects on the professor’s mood and comments, which came unexpectedly:
“On my way to Tsinghua, I had told myself that it was necessary to take the professor by surprise, because otherwise this detail of the past might disappear. But it would have felt better if the man had become defensive or angry; it was much worse to see the regret. The author of that criticism had been twenty-four years old” (p 392).
And the story of Chen Mengjia reaches a level of sorrow also quite unexpected for the reader as Chen MengXiong, Mengjia’s little brother, speaks of the disgrace which led to Mengjia’s suicide,
“That night was the first time Mengjia tried to kill himself. He took sleeping pills, but he didn’t die. They took him to the hospital. The next day I heard the news, and I went to his home. There were Big Character posters on the door, criticizing Mengjia. I entered and realized that the courtyard was already occupied by Red Guards. They were using it as a kind of neighborhood base. And I was captured immediately. ‘Good,’ they said. ‘Zi tou luowang. You’ve cast yourself into the net.’
“Mengjia’s wife was there, too, and they seated her and me on chairs in the courtyard. The first thing they did was shave off half our hair. At that time, it was called the Yin-Yang Head, and it was a common punishment. After that, they took off their leather belts and started beating us” (p 434).
The fate of Chen Mengjia and the oracle bones, albeit one of the more fascinating ones, is but one story in a myriad of others set throughout as overlapping narratives.
Hessler also dives into juxtaposing issues that language creates, especially with so many cultures using so many languages. What is reality, then, if language creates reality? A very good question when set against an historical event like the Cultural Revolution in China.
“It’s this huge amount of data,” explains Imre Galambos, a foreign linguist in Beijing, “There’s this philosopher who had a lot of influence on me, Ernst Cassirer. He wrote this book called Language and Myth.
“Basically, his idea is that language itself creates reality. For example, in order to have words like nouns, you have to have concepts. When you form concepts, that’s when you’re creating stuff—it’s a creative process. You pick out certain things from the environment, and you give them labels, and you create this reality around you. When you’re a kid, you’re not just learning how to speak; you’re learning how to perceive a reality. It’s almost like a computer language, an internal code that makes you able to think” (p 444).
By the end of Hessler’s quest through time and China, he has captured a sense of this “internal code” which helps to create an unbiased honesty as he reflects on the similarities between China and the United States:
“My journey between China and the United States came to feel the same way—a blurring of old boundaries and distinctions. When I first lived in China, I was mostly struck by the differences, but over time the similarities became more obvious. Americans and Chinese shared a number of characteristics: they were pragmatic and informal, and they had an easy sense of humor.
“In both nations, people tended to be optimistic, sometimes to a fault. They worked hard—business success came naturally, and so did materialism. They were deeply patriotic, but it was a patriotism based on faith rather than experience: relatively few people had spent much time abroad, but they still loved their country deeply. When they did leave, they tended to be bad travelers—quick to complain, slow to adjust. Their first question about a foreign country was usually: What do you think of us? Both China and the United States were geographically isolated, and their cultures were so powerful that it was hard for people to imagine other perspectives” (p 439-440).
As I wrote in the beginning, Hessler has matured since 2001 that came with the publication of River Town and 9/11. Hessler, as both reporter and writer, has learned control and a sense of balance of his material, much like a sculptor shaping his malleable material more for the material’s gain than the artist’s own in order to show the fullness of art and reality.
“That was the nature of writing,” explains Hessler, “and you had to find ways to balance it. And I always remembered that there was at least one faith that connected the teacher and the writer. Whenever a person studied another language, and went to another place—or even imagined it—there was a chance that he would gain a new perspective. He might misinterpret information, and the material might confuse him; I had seen that happen time and time again. But if there were patience and determination and honesty, then a glimpse outside might help somebody become more comfortable with his place in the world” (p 426).
And it is a place in the world which so many people strive to achieve each and every day, their personal struggle for identity, and yet it can be described as a singular reality—a tiny dot in the vastness of uncountable dots.
But with patience, determination and honesty there is no question in my mind that the world will become a better place than it was yesterday—after all, our sun is but one tiny dot in the heavens, but without it we would all perish.
“The historical events were unimaginable,” Hessler writes of China and its history, “as if they had come from another world, but the people’s reactions were perfectly understandable. Recovery, in all its varied forms, is simply a human instinct” (p 456).
And Hessler closes with a reflection on the human condition and the three Fates, as if these three sisters (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan—who is to say for sure?) had been guiding him through his quest to understand the impossible events which took place so many decades ago in China.
Hessler is outside a retirement home in Reston, Virginia where he had just met Wu Ningkun, the author of A Single Tear, and he is waiting for a bus when he meets the three old women:
“‘I asked the women what they had thought of the memoir.
“‘I liked it,’ said one.
“‘He had a hard life,’ said the Midwest.
“‘Especially when they threw him into a labor camp,’ said New York.
“The bus pulled up; the door hissed open. Suddenly the image was clear: three elderly sisters, spinning, weaving, snipping. I paused, unsure how to end the conversation.
“‘You better get on that bus,’ said New York, and I did” (p 457).
Hessler’s Oracle Bones is far better than his previous book River Town and this is why I invite you to explore more about China and the Cultural Revolution and the oracle bones by reading Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China.
Who knows? You might one day find yourself stepping onto a bus headed into the future. Stranger things have happened, haven’t they?
CG FEWSTON in Guilin, China