Oracle Bones

A Journey Through Time in China

by Peter Hessler

Read:  2017-03-14, Rating:  8/10.

As entertaining as River Town by the same author. Excellent way to see China from a westerner’s perspective.

Book Notes

to follow certain individuals across this period, recording how their lives were shaped by a changing world.

Polat means “steel” in the Uighur language, and he chose that name because of the qualities that he believed are necessary for anybody far from home.

The Shang produced the earliest known writing in East Asia, inscribed into bones and shells—the oracle bones

this part of Henan is where it all began for China.

Nanjing was the sort of place important events always seemed to march through on their way to some other destination.

Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping. Each man’s profile was accompanied by his most distinctive slogan, and the three sentences lined up neatly on a strip of cardboard: THE WHOLE WORLD AS ONE COMMUNITY SERVE THE PEOPLE BE PRACTICAL AND REALISTIC

Whereas the Chinese prided themselves on continuity, many basic characteristics of the Uighurs were fluid—their name, their writing, their religion, their political allegiances. But they always seemed capable of surviving on the margins.

people have a natural tendency to choose certain figures and events, exaggerate their importance, and then incorporate them into narratives.

One of Willy’s most vivid childhood memories was from that day in 1982, when his family became the first in Number Three Production Team to own a television. Years later, he remembered the scene

The new economy changed so fast that windows of opportunity were brief—sometimes a certain product or a particular set of skills were valuable for only a year or two.

If you visited a bridge that had been bombed out by Americans, restored by Chinese, and then rented out to small-scale entrepreneurs who sold Titanic ice cream bars, it wasn’t surprising that people reacted to the outside world in illogical ways.

The pilot watched him leave, and then he sighed. He was thirty-three years old. He said, “Many old people don’t understand the way things are in China nowadays.”

Beijing sneered at Shenzhen for all the usual reasons—no history, no culture, no class—but the city meant something entirely different to migrants from the interior. To them, it had a living character: strengths and flaws, cruelties and successes. In a nation of boomtowns, Shenzhen was the most famous of them all.

After 1978, when Reform and Opening began, Deng and the other leaders faced the problem of where to start. They didn’t want to test radical changes in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, where mistakes would be politically disastrous. Instead, Deng decided to experiment in distant, less developed areas, in what came to be known as Special Economic Zones.

“The important lesson of Shenzhen is to dare to charge into forbidden zones.”

“This place used to be a poor country village, and then Deng Xiaoping came and told them to build it,” he said. “That’s how things work in China—one person says something should be done, and it happens. That’s Communism.”

“Some people say there is no real love in Shenzhen. People are too busy with earning money to exist.”

“…In Shenzhen, you have to take care of everything yourself.”

Special English:

China’s history is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. For much of its past, China was far more advanced than Western countries. The Chinese were the first to produce paper, printed books, gunpowder, porcelain, cast iron, silk, and the magnetic compass. But the last two centuries have often been tragic, especially with regard to China’s relations with the outside world. The result is that today’s China is still a developing country with many problems.

The Chinese word for “publicity” is xuanchuan, which is also defined in the dictionary as “propaganda.” There isn’t any distinction between the two meanings. In 1997, the government’s Central Committee changed the official English translation of its Xuanchuan Bu from “Propaganda Department” to “Publicity Department.” But the Chinese name remained exactly the same.

In China, 40 percent of the cornstarch was used to make MSG, whereas in the United States, 60 percent of the cornstarch was used to make artificial sweeteners. Those statistics seemed to say something profound about the differences between the two nations.

“It’s always like that with politics,” Mr. Wang continued. “You always get fucked by your deputies. That’s politics. If you want to be president, you have to fuck up your competition. If you’re a mild, nice guy, then you’ll get moved out. They fuck you.”

Wim and Kees jumped every time Mr. Wang used the word “fuck.” Mr. Wang’s English was excellent, but he was one of those foreigners who had learned the language without becoming aware of what happens when you use the word “fuck” three times in one paragraph. What happens is that Dutch people jump.

propaganda: the key information isn’t what you put in, but what you leave out.

Nowadays, many Chinese seemed inspired by two semi-faiths: materialism and nationalism.

Red is the color of Communism. In China, it also has a traditional meaning of happiness. The big yellow star represents the Communist Party. The smaller yellow stars represent the four classes: the soldiers, the peasants, the workers, the scientists.

I could eat a meal in Hollywood, surrounded by prostitutes, black marketers, and illegal money changers; and then I’d bicycle for fifteen minutes and watch somebody get arrested for raising his arms over his head.

the country changed so quickly that even rational rules slipped out of date.

the Chinese had never stressed strong community bonds; the family and other more immediate groups were the ones that mattered most. But the lack of a rational legal climate also encouraged people to focus strictly on their own problems.

A foreigner inevitably felt even more isolated. I lived in the same environment as everybody else—the blurred laws, the necessary infractions—but I had even less stake in the system. Regardless of how much sympathy I might have for a protestor on the Square, I still viewed him through a screen, because there was no chance that I would ever be in that situation. I wasn’t going to get beaten to death by the police or sent to a labor camp. The worst the government could do was kick me out of the country. Sometimes it bothered me, because my own Chinese life seemed a parody of certain things that I observed. But in the midst of events it was rare to find time for thoughtfulness; usually, I just had to get things done. That was one connection that I had with many citizens—all of us were coldly pragmatic.

By the end of 1999, Emily had worked at the jewelry factory for two years. At twenty-three, she was the oldest woman in her department.

Taiwan, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam broadcast rumors and lies on their radio stations. We urge everybody not to receive the voice of the enemies.

“Your individual ideas are more important, because people don’t know about your private life. It’s not like the interior, where your family will tell you what to do. It’s freedom, but that kind of freedom creates pressure.”

Hu Xiaomei was a blue-collar heroine; Miao Yong belonged to white-collar life. In a country controlled by a single political party, and in a city where almost everybody considered themselves members of one ethnic group, it was remarkable how segregated the society could become in only two decades.

On the side, an English brand name had been painted in blue letters onto steel: China Tianjin Sweeper Special Automobile Company, Ltd. It was a beautiful autumn day; the sky was high and blue and there was not a cloud in sight. That was the first anniversary of China’s anti-cult law.

Chen Mengjia

Lucy Chao

Keightley has published a paper on this topic: “Clean Hands and Shining Helmets: Heroic Action in Early Chinese and Greek Culture.”

In contrast to the literature of ancient Greece, the moral world of the Chinese classics is remarkably orderly. In ancient China, the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. Gods do not come down to earth and behave badly. There is no tragedy in ancient Chinese literature. The dead function in essentially the same way as the living, except with greater power. Order, regularity, organization.