These days books about China are filled with numbers cold, hard statistics.
It's understandable. After all, China is the world's fastest-growing economy. At this point in its history, the nation's best storyteller is probably an accountant.
But behind the remarkable figures are stories of ordinary, everyday people.
And in his new book, "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present," Peter Hessler tells the story of two such people who are part of the driving force behind China's economic rise migrant workers.
The title refers to the first known writing in China scraps of bones and shells inscribed with divinations, which date back about 3,000 years. Scholars who study the bones have tried to piece together a vision of Chinese culture back then, and Hessler said he tried to do the same with today's China by drawing together various characters.
Hessler, an American, has lived in China for about 10 years, most recently as the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker magazine and a contributor to National Geographic magazine.
It was in his first incarnation, however, as a Peace Corps volunteer English teacher for two years from 1996 in Fuling, in Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, where he met the two students.
One of the students featured in the book, who adopted the English name William Jefferson Foster, grows up in an illiterate family and goes on to become a teacher after leaving his small village to join the exodus of migrant workers in East China's Zhejiang Province.
The other student, whose English name is Emily, ends up working six days a week as a factory girl in Shenzhen in the southern province of Guangdong.
"I do think there are a lot of books that look at the economic side of China, and that is really important and is probably the way to view this place now," said Hessler, 37, who lives in Beijing.
"But that's an improvement from what the case was maybe five or 10 years ago, when a lot of books were heavily political.
"My book isn't about the big economic picture, but it is economic in the sense that the people that I write about are involved in the new economy here in various ways, and all of them are trying to cope with it and benefit from it."
In the past, Hessler writes, it was rare for Chinese to leave their home regions, and four-fifths of the population was rural.
But that began to change after the reform and restructuring policies initiated in the Deng Xiaoping era of the late '70s and '80s. By the late '90s, one in every 11 Chinese was on the move.
Hessler said the phenomenon of migrant workers, such as the experiences of his former students, helped inspire the book.
"It (the rise of migrant workers) is the most important social development in China over the past decade," he said. "It involves such a huge number of people.
"On the downside, it has seen some people live in really rough conditions or be cheated out of their wages by their bosses. But at the same time, there is an enormous number of positives, where people have been able to redefine and improve their lives."
The isolation sometimes felt by his former students as they head into unknown and almost alien cities is compounded by the fact they are, in a sense, pioneers. They have no historical frame of reference to guide them.
During one visit to his home village, Jefferson Foster wrote a letter to Hessler, published in the book, of how the place felt deserted.
"It makes me sad that I cannot find familiar people or friends who I knew well when I was young," wrote Jefferson Foster.
"Sometimes I think this kind of life, going out to small coastal regions without a stable home, is the saddest and the most stressful thing in the world."
He knew in his heart, he added, that he would never really return home.
Hessler said: "Most of the people who were in my class and this current generation were born when or just after Mao Zedong died in 1976, so in a very literal sense, they have grown up with these changes.
"Young people have much more freedom than they had in the past. They have more money and opportunities, but that, in turn, creates other pressures. It doesn't necessarily make life easier."
The book also strikes parallels between the lives of migrant workers and those of foreigners in China.
In one letter from Shenzhen, Emily sympathizes with Hessler's experiences of life away from home.
She writes she "cannot understand what the natives said their dialects are strange to us, because their tone and rhythm are so far different from ours."
Hessler revealed: "Many of my students migrated to find work, and many of them have written similar letters to me at some point.
"It reflects the diversity there is in the country, but it is a really important experience for them and their individuality. It can be hard and traumatic, but it's a positive experience."
He said that he hoped the book can provide more of a human perspective and understanding of China, something he thinks is needed, particularly in the United States.
"I actually think it would be a good thing for people in America to do something like the migrant workers have done, go abroad to a new place and be in a different environment with a different language," Hessler said.
"They would return and be able to see things from a different perspective."
(Oracle Bones is available at Beijing's Bookworm Cafe.)
(China Daily 08/04/2006 page1)