It's been 75 years since Pearl Buck's novel "The Good Earth" helped Westerners to see China through the eyes of peasants. Now, Peter Hessler shows us that country through the eyes of a different group of Chinese: those leaving the good earth to seek their fortunes in China's boomtowns.
Hessler's witty, insightful nonfiction work Oracle Bones focuses on the lives of a disparate group of ordinary Chinese - young migrants, aging intellectuals whose lives were shattered by Mao, and a Uighur (an ethnic Muslim minority) - the kind who would be invisible to most foreigners.
The book's title refers to ancient bones, inscribed with the earliest writing in East Asia. They were used to predict the future. (Unfortunately, the passages about these archeological discoveries are perhaps the least interesting portion of the book.)
Hessler, the China correspondent for The New Yorker, first worked in China as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English to college students and wrote "River Town" about that experience. Several of the students he wrote about in "River Town" reappear in "Oracle Bones." Some of them are beginning new lives far from home - encountering exploitation as well as opportunity.
Their stories also offer a telling look at the rural world that they are leaving behind. One young man, who adopts the name William Jefferson Foster for his English class, came from a family which, in 1982, was the first in their village to get a TV. Dozens of people flocked to his house to stare at the screen, an overflow crowd standing outside and looking through the window. A Mexican soap opera, Hessler notes, was their first glimpse of the outside world.
Hessler's strongest point is his eye for exactly that kind of offbeat detail. Among the many other examples: a loudspeaker blaring "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" in summertime Beijing.
But nothing is as bizarre as Hessler's visit to the North Korean border. There he finds a Wild West atmosphere, karaoke bars, a 24-hour venereal-disease clinic, and the Finland Bathing and Pleasure Center.
Hessler is a wry and witty writer who manages to bring humor even to tense situations such as the police crackdown on Falun Gong protests in Tiananmen Square. He tells how once, while waiting for an expected protest, he avoided police by blending in with a crowd of American tourists. (When police swarmed in on a protester, one of the tourists naively boasted to his friends, "I got a picturr!" Seconds later, to the tourist's astonishment, police whisked him away for questioning.)
Hessler's dealings with the Chinese authorities show the closed-minded mentality that still dominates much of Chinese life. He is detained by police, for example, when he wanders into a village on election day. China may be taking small steps toward democracy - but those steps remain a state secret.
Ill-informed authorities even bungle the translation of "The New Yorker" ("New York Person" magazine) on Hessler's press credentials.
Of course, the older Chinese that Hessler meets faced far worse during the Mao era. Hessler tells of those who were humiliated, tortured, or driven to suicide.
Throughout the course of the book Hessler visits his former students, and receives poignant letters from them in broken English. One former student, Emily, describes her adjustment to Shenzhen, a freewheeling city near Hong Kong. "During the first two days, only one girl in our office showed her hospitality; others acted as if they didn't notice my exist. I felt very lonely," she writes.
In college, William begins a romance with a fellow student, who has given herself the English name Nancy Drew. They later move to a new province to seek better jobs. The life they find there reflects both the good and bad of China's fast-changing society.
We also see China's ethnic tensions through the eyes of Polat. A Uighur, Polat is a wheeler-dealer working on the fringes of society. In another time and place, someone with Polat's business acumen would end up a CEO. But Polat instead opts for political asylum in the United States, where he faces new travails.
Chinese views of America appear often in the book. Hessler was in China in 1999, when a US plane accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese. Hessler struggles to explain the love-hate relationship the Chinese have with the US - even as he watches an angry crowd in Nanjing destroy a statue of Ronald McDonald.
In "The Good Earth," conflict arises between the father, who cherishes the land, and his sons, who have no attachment to it. Similarly, the young Chinese whom Hessler follows lead lives quite unlike those of their parents. In the high-rise apartment buildings of the east, unmarried couples live together - something that would be scandalous in their hometowns.
No longer guaranteed an income from the Communists' "iron rice bowl," they face the possibility of building better lives with their newly gained freedoms - or of failing without a safety net.
The ordinary Chinese Hessler profiles in "Oracle Bones" are struggling to build these new lives without the good earth beneath their feet. How they fare will determine the future of the world's most populous nation.
• Mike Revzin is a journalist who has covered China