Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Book Report...

...on someone else's book on China.

Just finished with Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China.

With all my travel this past year to China, I wanted to learn more of the country's recent history. Oracle Bones (2006) was a finalist for the National Book Award, and is Hessler's second book about China (a third, Country Driving, is now out). Oracle Bones focuses on a handful of contemporary people, and traces the circumstances, recent and more distant, that brought them to the present day. A couple of his subjects are former students of his from his time teaching English in the Peace Corps. Another is a low-level entrepreneur whom Hessler befriended. Others are older living Chinese who have some connection to the changes in the past century.

The term oracle bones refers to ancient bones and shells on which were engraved the earliest examples of Chinese writing. The Chinese are very proud of the long reach of their culture's history, and the discovery of these bones--within this past century or so--was an important piece of China's past. But what was done with the knowledge, and who controlled the information and to what purpose; these things are wrapped up in the formation of the China that exists today, the China in which Hessler's students have come of age. The story of modern China is the story of a very conservative culture being whisked along a path of rapid upheaval. It is a vast land with an immense population which is undergoing such change that the old feel left behind and the young feel untethered. Oracle Bones gives some sense of this by way of personal stories.

This is another of these books so beautifully written and so encompassing in scale that it makes me ashamed to even put my fingers to the computer keyboard. In addition to his mastery of a large body of historical data, Hessler is a master at revealing all the psychological connective tissue in a complex happening. His basic structure is formed of the stories of his chosen human subjects and on the exemplary events and details of their lives. But he also touches on other social movements and upheavals that have affected the lay of the land. His prose is spare and effective, and he exhibits a quiet empathy and dry humor.

In no particular order, here a few points which I found especially effective.

First, I was glad to read a good summary of the Falun Gong movement, the quasi-religion of China whose practitioners have been so brutalized (and the defenders of which I have so often seen in New York). Its coverage in Hessler's book serves to show us a the paranoid, authoritarian facet of the Chinese government that gets less press nowadays when the economy is booming. In a society based on ideology, religion looms as a threatening alternative to the Communist party line. Insofar as Falun Gong is seen officially as a religious practice, it is something to be frowned upon or squashed. At first it was deemed harmless (or it was simply ignored). But as its practitioners became more numerous and more fervent there began to be criticisms of it. Well and good so far. But for whatever reason, the followers of Falun Gong were unwilling to let criticisms go unanswered, and for each criticism the followers would organize a quiet, peaceful protest in defense of the practice. And these defenses were in their turn events which needed squashing, which brought more, and more emphatic, protests, until something like a low-grade--and highly unbalanced--social war was at hand. Hessler offers several firsthand accounts of what strikes us as absurdly violent government responses to emphatically peaceful, non-violent public gatherings, almost like a parent burning the house down when a tantrum-throwing child refuses to eat her peas.

He focuses on social movements and on human stories, but also on happenings and on broader culture. The story of the excavation of the oracle bones leads naturally to a discussion of archaeology, and of the interplay between science and politics and history. And he writes beautifully. Here he is writing about an archaeological dig, the discovery of a buried chariot.

Another building contains a chariot and four skeletons that were excavated from a neighboring field in 1987. The skeletons are paired: two horses, two humans. They were probably sacrificed in order to serve a lord in the next life; the two men may have been charioteers. One man's skeleton lies prone behind the vehicle. The other man rests facedown, directly beside the horses, his hands bound behind his back. His skull is turned to the side, as if biting at the dirt.

The chariot is no longer a chariot. Wood does not last when buried in the central plains of China, where rainwater passes quickly through the dry loess soil. Over time, the wood decays and is replaced by an earthen cast that retains the original shape. Thirty centuries slip by. In 1987, the excavation proceeds inch by inch, as archaeologists meticulously separate the exterior soil from the hardened cast, until at last the shape emerges. There are sideboards, an axle, a draft pole, and a chariot box big enough for three kneeling passengers. A curved yoke sits above the paired horse spines. The spoked wheels are over four feet in diameter. The chariot looks complete, as if it were still made of wood; but a few good shoves would reduce it to a pile of dirt. Archaeologists describe the object as a "ghost"--the earth's memory of something long gone.

I loved Hessler's interviews with David Keightly, a history professor and noted oracle bone scholar from UC Berkely. Keightly is a wizard of antiquities and he comes across as a cheerful, blustering encyclopedia of human civilization whose enthusiasm is infectious. A sample:
"The trouble with the dead in Homer is that they don't know beans," Keightly says. "They are described as 'the stupid dead.' They have no power; they can do nothing. In The Odyssey, Odysseus visits the underworld and talks with Achilles, who doesn't know what's going on back in Greece, or even if his son and father are alive. It's quite unlike the Chinese dead, who assume power as they become older. The Greeks don't do this. What the Greeks do is develop a hero cult, which is opposed to the ancestor cult. The Greeks are trying to build a city-state, as opposed to the lineage state, where you have a polity that is run by and for a group of powerful families. The Greeks did not encourage that."

There are several pages of this. I wish I could read something from Keightly. Or better yet, take a class from him.

I was also most interested in Hessler's discussion of the Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television network, which reaches some 42 million households in mainland China. Phoenix (which "hopes someday to become the CNN of China") is 40% owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., the people behind Fox News in the US, and their role as polemicists and flame-fanners is carried over, apparently. Hessler describes Chinese television coverage of 9/11, from both the official government channels and Phoenix. There was the real-time coverage of the event itself, and, shortly afterward, the appearance of DVD compilations of the attacks, collections of various footage with commentary. It's an interesting glimpse into how China views the US, both casually and officially, and it's (yet again) a depressing look into mass psychology and how to profit from it. Phoenix is the turd in what is after all a not very attractive punchbowl, since the government channels already were hardly producing a respectable journalism product. It's one thing to recognize the killing to be made by capitalizing on a credulous public accustomed to believing their televisions; it's quite another to out-lie the propaganda machine of the Chinese Communist Party. (I guess the lesson is never underestimate what can be accomplished when enough money is at stake.)

Phoenix's access to the Chinese market depended on a good relationship with the Communist Party, and sometimes the private station's coverage was even more nationalistic than that of the government stations...

One of the [DVDs] that I found in Yueqing had been compiled mostly from Phoenix broadcasts. Whereas the government news had avoided any criticism of America, Phoenix's tone was completely different. In the hours after the attacks, the station featured a man named Cao Jingxing, who was identified only as a "Political Commentator." He said, "Why aren't other countries hated like the United States of America? Let's try to think about that." He commented on the hijackings: "Why were the hostages taken so easily? The glory of the Americans was lost in just a few seconds."

The VCD had been poorly cut, and periodically it shifted abruptly between Chinese commentators and footage from the United States. At a press conference, Bush spoke a sentence--"Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward"--and then disappeared. There was a fragment of a statement by Colin Powell: "Once again we see terrorism, terrorists, people who don't believe in democracy, people who somehow believe that with the murder of people they can--" Bush again: "Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward." They played that clip three times, and then the Phoenix commentators reappeared.

The Chinese-language station used Fox footage of New York and Washington, D.C., which was almost as disorienting as the Hollywood cut-ins. The Fox logo appeared in the corner, and the images were the same as the ones Americans watched, but here the shots were joined by the anti-American commentary in Chinese. I remembered Willy's comment about the Chinese government being unable to express the way that it really felt. That was politics, but this was business; the media gave the people what they wanted. News Corp. used the same footage to sell patriotism in America and in China, and in both places the people bought it.

In another section, Hessler writes about a film director who had been blacklisted by the Communist Party for straying too far outside the lines (his movie had subsequently been banned, but could be found in bootleg versions--like everything else in China). This was a story of an artist and of an industry, and it showed a familiar industry in a strange setting. Hessler writes:

Censorship was a curious issue. In my Beijing neighborhood, I sometimes found bootleg DVDs whose covers advertised, in English, "Banned in China." Nobody seemed to control the bootleggers for long; even a movie such as Devils on the Doorstep [the banned actor / director's work] eventually appeared on the streets. Filmmakers themselves could be nonchalant about the issue of censorship. One young director tole me that the Film Bureau officials reminded him of his grandparents--aging authority figures whom he patronized.

After half a century, many features of Communism had become like that: the Party had power without respect, and it was tolerated rather than feared. The Film Bureau's oppression was often passive-aggressive; silence was a potent weapon. They avoided official statements, and they never told Jiang Wen how long he was banned from appearing in movies and television programs. In fact, the officials refused to meet with him at all. The goal was simply to make him worry and wait.

And I was glad to see Hessler address the limbo-like status of Taiwan, the little offshore island to which the ruling Chinese Kuomintang party fled in 1949 when the Communists gained the upper hand in the Civil War. The Kuomintang, despite being forced to flee the mainland, declared itself to be the REAL government of China, the "Republic of China," in exile. But after the dust had settled, Taiwan was the extent of the Kuomintang's sovereign territory. (Though hostilities ended in the early '50s, there has been no formal truce and to this day the Civil War has not officially ended.) Taiwan has the distinction of being "the only true democracy in China." But its independence from the mainland is tenuous and the island and its democratic ways are tolerated by the mainland and closely watched. The issue of Taiwan's connection to China is a contentious one. The people are natively Chinese, and one side of the debate celebrates the people's connection to the larger Chinese culture even as they consider the Communists' rule to be illegitimate. The other side wants complete independence from the mainland, and to maintain its self-determination in politics and all things.

It's impossible to cover so vast a place and so broad a culture in 500 pages, but every page of this work was engrossing. Highly recommended.

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