The title of Peter Hessler’s book, Oracle Bones, is a bit of a mystery when you first pick it up. I’ve had people theorize that it’s a novel or that it’s fantasy, but mostly – during those what are you reading? conversations – people have been genuinely curious: what on earth is an oracle bone? As it turns out, there are actual bones, primarily turtle shells, with ancient divinations that reveal much of what the academic world knows about the Shang dynasty of early China. Archaeology and the discovery of such artifacts is a central story of the book: it challenges the generally understood narrative of Chinese history which emphasizes geographic and linear continuity. The whole book exposes stories in this fashion. The other central stories, a Uighur friend that emigrates to the United States, students that migrate to boomtown cities, political resistance by Falun Gong, and Hessler’s own journey as a freelance writer, all peel off layers until the details are laid bare.
As I look around in Shanghai now, I wonder about artifacts and details. Economic reform and development were the most powerful driver for archaeological discovery in Chinese history. As the country built roads and buildings, they dug and they found. Right here, under the concrete there might be artifacts that challenge the existing understanding of history. Yet, the eastern approach to history is not the same as in the west:
“The imaginative world, like [Chinese] geography, was a trap. Ancestor followed ancestor; dynasty followed dynasty—an overpopulated history, the endless spiral of time. The Chinese tended to look farsightedly into the past, whereas […] in the Western view, even the ancient past had lessons the could serve modern progress.” (254)
In other words, one thing that makes the possibility of underground discovery so intriguing is that the artifacts’ discovery challenges perspective. Archaeology, a western discipline, acts as a vessel for new ways of thinking about the past – specifically the neatness of it. Even the story of the oracle bones discovery is not neat: during Hessler’s exploration he learns that one of the greatest contributors to the study of the oracle bones, Chen Mengjia, had committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. After interviewing several relatives and finding that his “story seems to change with every telling”, this becomes the central mystery of the book. Hessler finally finds someone who can give him the truth, but I won’t spoil it for you.
To me, the essence of this searching and sifting for answers seems to be at the core of everything in Shanghai. Everywhere, I find that things are not straightforward and that I must dig for details which later change the entire picture. The professors at NYU Shanghai prefer to keep syllabi vague and release details of assignments the week they are due. Bureaucratic processes are a process of discovery, and not laid out in advance. It’s a sensation of complexity under the surface that extends to every corner, including people themselves.
It is hard to imagine that this tendency has not slipped into my own mind and actions. Like a new accent, we all have a way of picking things up. Two of Hessler’s students, Willy and Nancy, migrate to Zhejiang and later Wenzhou to make a future for themselves. They are driven by something beyond financial opportunity in coastal cities—something that can’t quite be articulated at first. It is through the details of their making a life together, learning of the world, making mistakes and doing the right thing which exposes the nature of that drive to me: it is the drive to define themselves. As I look around Shanghai now, I wonder about my artifacts and details—what do they say about me? And where is my perspective shaped by the discipline I use to discover them? In the end, I think this book taught me a lot about China, but it also gives me an opportunity to examine myself. Right here, under the concrete.