There are two things we can learn about journalism by reading Peter Hessler’s wonderful Oracle Bones: First, good journalism and especially reporting is not only about the power of immediate observation, it also needs plenty of patience. There is no such thing as a story without a lot of communication to unearth it. Second, in the end it’s the people who count.
Oracle Bones is written in a blog-like first person point of view. It weaves a dense web out of four or five main story lines and a half-dozen sidelines. There is the ongoing story of some of Hessler’s former students from his time as a Peace Corps English teacher in Fuling, up the Chang Jiang River. There is the story of Polat, an Uighur businessman Hessler meets in Beijing’s Yabaolu quarter, a stronghold of Russian and Central Asian people near Ritan Park. There is the story of Cheng Mengjia, an old-fashioned writer and scholar who committed suicide during Cultural Revolution, and there is the story of chinese archeology and the oracle bones themselves, which develops into the stories of Chinese writing and of the country’s special relationship with history.
The first person perspective allows these lines to develop in a quiet rhythm of encounters, of long conversations with dozens of people, of stories told to the author, of letters written to him, with all the emotions accompanying memory as well as immediate experience. It’s not only the events, it’s also and even mainly about what they are doing to people, how the events are shaped and experienced by human beings. Hessler himself as narrator is always visible without ever unnecessarily taking front stage. Still we are always aware that his writing is also perspectival, is also a very personal view on his matters.
It is this inherent reflection on reporting and on journalistic work in general that raises Oracle Bones above being simply a very good book on contemporary China. Objectivity, so we can learn from Hessler, is not the absence of perspective. It is rather the result of communication, of multi-perspectivity, the depth of a picture showing its subject from many different angles, from many points of view. In the end it’s the viewers who count as least as much as what they are looking at or talking about. Oracle Bones is a book about China by giving voice to Chinese people. It is also a book about reporting by showing a very gifted and skillful reporter at his work.