Oracle Bones, Peter Hessler (2006) explores the history and culture of China, incorporating personal and social commentary. Hessler (2006) also weaves personal stories of individual Chinese people into Oracle Bones, to provide both a broad and an intimate narrative. The three core personal narratives are vastly different, to capture the diversity of Chinese culture and society. One of the people that Hesler (2006) follows is a Uighur (Muslim from Eastern China), who successfully endeavors to leave China for the United States. Named Polat, the Uighur's perspective on Chinese society and politics provides an interesting counterpart to the entire tale of Oracle Bones. The second personal narrative belongs to Chen Mengjia, who lends Hessler's book its title because Cheng Mengjia was an oracle bone scholar. The oracle bones become the title for Hessler's (2006) book because they symbolize the continuity between past, present, and future that characterizes modern China.
A third narrative thread is created by stringing together the stories of young Chinese students, both men and women. Their optimistic visions of the future contrast poignantly with the stories of Chen Mengjia and Polat, who expose more of the dark side of China especially the Cultural Revolution. Chen Mengjia committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution. Hessler (2006) interviews an old man about the issue of personal responsibility and political activism and reveals the deeply conflicted nature of Communist China. Some of the stories of the students are disturbing too, however, especially from the perspective of gender and social power. One woman, for example, notes that she received a promotion that happened to coincide with one of their Hong Kong representatives wanting to spend more time with her.
Oracle Bones is also linked to together by Hessler's (2006) own personal story as a journalist living and working in Beijing. The narrative is relatively unbiased, as the author demonstrates respect for Chinese culture and history. He describes how he came to love China, via its history and culture, and to eventually to live in Beijing as an article clipper for The Wall Street Journal and finally, a correspondent. Hessler (2006) first visited as a traveler and then became entrenched, learning Mandarin and participating deeply in Chinese life. This is how the author comes to meet the characters he interviews and researches for the book.
The book is divided into four parts, each of which integrates past, present, and future. Because Hessler (2006) is interested in Chinese history and archaeology, the narrative is interspersed with information about the past that becomes metaphorically relevant to the future. By structuring the narrative of Oracle Bones in this manner, Hessler (2006) is more able to accurately capture the complexity of contemporary Chinese society. Western impressions of China are biased and skewed due to Western views of time as linear and "progress" as a natural state of affairs in a linear world. The Chinese universe and worldview is structured much differently. It is more like a tapestry or wallpaper, which evolves and changes even as it remains the same. For example, there was a billboard of Deng Xiaoping at one of the entrances or checkpoints to Shenzhen. The billboard had a slogan inspiring the people and honoring the Communist party while participating in the newly created special economic zone. Hessler (2006) notes that when Deng Xiaoping passed away, the billboard became a shrine not unlike those used for ancestor worship. The past is never far from the present, which is also not far from the future.
One of the prevailing themes of Oracle Bones is the changing business and economic climate of China, especially since the nation shifted its economic policy during the Deng Xiaoping reforms. By opening its markets to the outside world, China welcomed a unique economic structure including special economic zones and the rapid development of cities to serve the growing needs of business. The Deng Xiaoping reforms also stimulated domestic growth that gave rise to several generations of people migrating from rural to urban areas. Upward social mobility became possible within China, which conveys a unique balance between a communist government and a capitalist soul.
When Hessler (2006) interviews the Chinese students, they reflect the way the Chinese economy provides opportunities for youth.Those opportunities include those in senior management. Chinese society is being dramatically transformed due to economic reform, as many rural people are moving to cities and radically shifting their views on tradition and culture. Hessler (2006) explores the implications of economic reform on Chinese society and business culture. The changes Hessler (2006) describes have been happening extremely rapidly. Each individual must seize opportunities as they arise, leading to a fast-paced and cut-throat environment from the time young students are in school to the time they are in the workplace.
Oracle Bones is not strictly about business; its core themes transcend the mundane managerial world. However, it is practically impossible to separate modern Chinese society from its business and economic climate. Business in China is entwined with the fabric of life and society, integrated with culture and politics. At the opening of the narrative, Hessler (2006) discusses the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in light of the city of Shenzhen, one of the modern marvels of China. From a tiny fishing village sprouted a bustling metropolis of four million people, in just a few decades. This rapid growth in cities like Shenzhen shows how economics, politics, culture, and society are inextricably linked in China. Special economic zones, which were once experimental methods of opening windows to the outside world, have become more plentiful and more lucrative. The program is working, and achieving its intended goals of creating a productive and future-oriented workforce.
Even if Shenzhen was "the result of a powerful man's patronage rather than as the natural product of free-market economics," the success of China's special economic zones has promoted further market reform (Hessler, 2006, p. 85). Business concepts related to foreign direct investment, regional supply chains, organizational structure, and leadership are all explored in Oracle Bones to some degree. Foreign companies have been welcomed to do business with Chinese manufacturers, and now, foreign companies can open branches in China to sell finished products to the burgeoning Chinese marketplace. As consumers have more disposable income, it is possible to witness an entire product cycle take place in the same country. An item manufactured in China is sold in China at the same price it would be sold outside of China, ensuring the stability of profit margins (Gearth, 2010).
The migrant Uighur Polat, who emigrates to the United States using false documents, raises other questions about business and economics. From a political standpoint, Uighurs are in a liminal position. The Chinese government classifies the Uighur people as an official minority group, but the Uighurs have often fought for the right to independence. Polat sees greater opportunity for personal and political freedom outside of China, and so he leaves. His story is therefore not much different from those of Chinese migrant laborers who remain in China. Polat's story and many of the anecdotes that Hessler (2006) discusses in Oracle Bones reveal the underbelly of black market economies in China, too. These black and gray market activities provide a suitable income for many Chinese people (Spence, 2006).
Among legitimate business concerns in China, all hinge on improving the educational system. The theme of education is strong in Oracle Bones, partly because the author first started to work in China as an English teacher. As an English teacher in rural regions, Hessler met with many of the students that he follows and writes about in Oracle Bones. Some of the former students went on to achieve great things. A few actually stayed in their villages to teach English to other people; whereas the top students were the ones that left the village to pursue higher education…