Book Review

The Human Side of China's Staggering Transformation

Oracle Bones: A Journey between China's Past and Present by Peter Hessler. Harper Collins, 2006, 512 pp. ISBN-10: 0060826584; ISBN-13: 978-0060826581. Hardcover, $16.98 at

Reviewed by Chan-Kei Thong

Everyone is aware of China's miraculous economic transformation. Her gross domestic product had grown approximately ten times from 1980 to 2004. China broke all records in this regard, for in no other nation in human history had that many people sustained that rate of growth for so long. This trend seems unrelenting for the moment, and the whole world can no longer ignore this phenomenon. When Shanghai's stock market sneezed in February 2006, the markets of the rest of the worldTokyo, New York, London, Amsterdamfollowed suit immediately, for no good reason. A technical adjustment in China was enough to send shockwaves encircling the entire world.

There is another set of staggering numbers to consider when it comes to China. Each year, from 25 to 30 million Chinese are migrating to urban centers in search of the "Chinese Dream." This migration pattern will urbanize up to 800 million Chinese in one generation! This sea of humanity is hard for us to grasp. These millions of peasants are called migrants when they trade their rural homes for the seemingly lucrative urban centers. They are on the move to seek a better life, and they are mostly faceless to us.

Peter Hessler's book, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present brings these and other socioeconomic changes in China to us in a narrative form. Through the telling of the real stories of his close Chinese acquaintances, he has clothed China's transformation in flesh and blood. This is a work of nonfiction, and Hessler claims that all the characters are real people with real names.

The plights of these migrants are mostly unknown to most Western readers while some of their stories have been circulating on Chinese websites. Hessler traces their journeys not only from rural to urban but from innocence to corruption among the nameless masses. He tells of the first bribe, the sexual advances of Taiwanese bosses, the long working hours, the harsh working environments and the loneliness of uprooted young peoplea perspective that is crowded out by China's phenomenal numeric growth. These are marginalized people that are forgotten or ignored by most popular media in China and abroad. These are real people with very human stories. They are like slaves in this new world order all because they are chasing a dream, an endless dream. When they reach the coastal cities, they seek to go further—to America and Europe.

Then there are other people on the fringes of China's megacities. These are the minorities—the Uighurs, Uzbeks, Turks, etc. Through the story of Hessler's special friend, Polat, we see how they are evolving, and how are they fitting into China's grand puzzle. One feels the tension and the uneasiness. Polat starts out in the story as an illegal money-changer and ends up as an emigre to the United States through some dubious means. Along the way, we get glimpses of the minority community in Beijingthe fake goods trading, the money changing, the prostitution and the displeasure of minorities with the Han Chinese.

Like his Chinese friends, who find themselves stretching or bending their moral codes, Hessler survived in this changing China through various minor infringements of the law. (This book spans the period from 1999 to 2004 during which various Chinese regulations regarding foreign residency were changed rapidly.) He started out as a clipper for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing and then did freelance journalism—though without the proper credentials. In a sense, he became very Chinese.

Oracle Bones is a book for those with some knowledge of Chinese history, culture and idiosyncrasies. Hessler writes like a journalist with a fondness for lots of facts, historical details and Chinese phrases and idioms. He weaves the lives of his Chinese friends into a lengthy story. While they do not intersect in real life, Hessler tries to draw a storyline through their common passion for happiness in life. His subject matters stretch through millennia and through a very diverse culture. This diversity comes through in his book, but it can also be overwhelming to a novice of China.

His language and subject can be too graphic for some. Part of this is due to cultural differences. What is culturally acceptable and mildly expressive in Chinese can become offensive in English. Hessler does not care to soften that. In this way, he brings the readers to the shady world of China, a place where most foreigners have not ventured.

If you are already familiar with issues such as the Falungong movement, the birth and growth of the city of Shenzhen, the discovery of the Oracle Bones, the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in 1999 and Chinese reactions to it, you will find very interesting and informative on-the-ground reporting of these significant Chinese historical events. Through Hessler, you will also glean Chinese reactions and attitudes towards America. You will find the love-hate relationship played out in real time: America is a friend when Americans are known to the Chinese.

This is a book for those who are not afraid to rub shoulders with the common, and perhaps marginal, people of China.

Image credit: Chad Downum

Chan-Kei Thong

Chan-Kei Thong is the author of Faith of Our Fathers and president of Leadership Development International (LDI). He is a Singaporean who has been residing in China for more than 20 years. View Full Bio