ORACLE BONES: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, by Peter Hessler. HarperCollins, 2006, 491 pp., $26.95 (cloth)

Beside their obvious antiquity, why should heaps of cattle shoulder-blades and turtle shells dating from the 13th and 14th centuries B.C. be of such immense importance to today’s archaeologists? The answer, as we discover in Peter Hessler’s eponymously named “Oracle Bones,” is that the prophecies incised onto their surfaces represent examples of East Asia’s earliest writing forms.

A free-lancer whose essays on China have appeared in the New Yorker, National Geographic and in anthologies like “The Best American Travel Writing,” Hessler likes to scope out the human angle, even when he is exploring the sediments of history. His approach to collecting information about the Chinese is simple: He lives among them, socializing, eating with them, speaking their language, learning as he befriends them.

History and the great political movements are always there in the background of Hessler’s new book, but his primary interest is in the people he encounters. His method for analyzing this unwieldy country is part reportage, travelogue and anthropology. In the process, Hessler meets a great many people, from obdurate officials, a banned woman novelist, to an old man living in a hutong, or courtyard house, the victim of a compulsory purchase order.

He focuses on, however, four main characters: Willy, a gifted teacher and avid English speaker, who decides to take a stand against his school’s practice of paying for leaked exam results; Polat, a money dealer who inhabits the netherworld of Beijing’s Uighur community, but manages to wrangle his way into the United States; and Emily, who, sickened by China’s new materialism, gives up a well-paid job to work with disabled children. The final member of Hessler’s quartet, is the oracle-bone scholar Chen Mengjia, an intellectual who, like many of his generation, paid a high price for opposing central policies as the victim of an unresolved suicide during the Cultural Revolution. Hessler pieces together parts of the story, but he remains a mystery to the very end.

Always alert to the oddities and dissonances of life in China, the sight of sleepy Beijing dog owners walking their mutts at midnight to avoid the eyes of the police and an inordinately expensive dog registration system lead the writer to a line of conjecture on how people get by, the accommodations necessary to survive in today’s China. An ineffective legal system, he concludes, leads people to give up on the law and, by extension, to cling to it as a last straw. In such a climate compassion soon wilts. Hessler’s determination to live among the Chinese obliges him to take a similar position: “I lived in the same environment as everybody else — the blurred laws, the necessary infractions . . . in the midst of events it was rare to find time for thoughtfulness; usually I just had to get things done. That was one connection that I had with many citizens — all of us were coldly pragmatic.”

Even the bones of history are eventually compromised. As the earth is dug up and leveled for development, accidental excavations occur. In China, the simplest of tasks, like digging a well, can unearth a terra-cotta warrior, a treasury of bronze heads, an underground city just five feet beneath the earth. “The past” as Hessler puts it, “is under construction.”

Held in check till now, archaeology is a genie of mixed blessings. The sudden appearance of an extraordinary artifact — a flying horse, a mummy of Indo-European origin — can spark a whole new line of inquiry at odds with the official view of history. The discovery of mummies of possible Turkic origin in the Uighur districts were interpreted by locals as proof that the Chinese had no right to be there in the first place. “None of the theories,” the author writes, “appealed to the Communist Party. As the mummies became more famous, the authorities began to restrict access to them.” Notions of national unity are blown apart with fresh discoveries hinting at cultural diversity and diffusion. At the same time, China is on the move, its migrants and travelers beginning to see immense variables in people and cultures.

Hessler concludes that China’s hopes of stability and co-existence with itself lay with its phenomenally diverse people rather than the monomaniac mandarins in Beijing. In the person of Chen, the oracle bone historian, he finds a model of noble failure, well-meaning intellectuals who had tried to reconcile Western ideas with Chinese traditions: “somehow a spark of their idealism had survived. I recognized it in young people like Emily and Willy, who, despite living in a world without familiar bearings, still cared about right and wrong.”

In “Oracle Bones” one can sense the expansion of Hessler’s journalistic instincts and erudition, to the point where, like the bones themselves, his own work can be read as divination. An inquiry into writing forms, people, history and the culture that springs from them, this book reaffirms the very power of writing itself.

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