Book of

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, by Peter Hessler

A journalist weaves together stories of archaeological discoveries, the Cultural Revolution, and the changing economic and social landscape of 21st-century China.

Reading notes:

After watching Falun Gong protesters arrested in Tienanmen Square:

… it was natural for individuals in China to break the law. There were endless regulations, and many of them were unreasonable; the country changed so quickly that even rational rules slipped out of date. Virtually every Chinese citizen whom I came to know well was doing something technically illegal …

Regardless of what kind of problem an individual had, it was his problem, and only he could do something about it. Without the sense of a rational system, people rarely felt connected to the troubles of others. [p. 128-129]

Post-9/11, Hessler talked to an informant who called bin Laden “even more famous than Mao Zedong.”

It reminded me of the way that Chinese people used the word lihai, “terrible, fierce” .. And you could escribed any influential person as weida, or “great”. … It was all completely amoral, as if the world were moved by massive events and personalities who were so distant that they couldn’t be judged by normal people. If you were fortunate, you could stand back and watch. [p. 314-315]

Note that this is very much the description of gods in a number of cultures, including Chinese.

On the importance of the writing system:

Evelyn Rawski .. has estimated basic literacy rates for Chinese males in the 18th and 19th centuries at between 30 and 45 percent — comparable to those for males in preindustrial Japan and England. Rawski concludes that, although China failed to industrialize as rapidly as those nations, the disparity shouldn’t be blamed on literacy problems. [p. 405]

I hadn’t realized before how huge internal migration is in China: more than 100 million people in the past 15 years, the largest peaceful migration in history, and with much more to come.

The factories (mostly in southeast China) that produce a lot of the world’s “stuff” preferentially hire women. I wonder how this effects the traditional preference for male infants? I guess the migrant males tend to work in construction and other heavier industries — Hessler doesn’t say, his interviews with Chinese who’ve migrated other than to teach are mostly with women. Their heroines: Hu Xiaomei, lonely-hearts radio talk show host, and novelist Miao Yong.

this post was actually made on Nov.13-14, 2009.

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