Have you read: China wakes up in ‘Chinese Lessons’
“Chinese Lessons” by John Pomfret
Sometimes it seems that everyone I know is just back from a trip to China. But for the rest of us, for whom China remains in many ways a mystery, here is a book I can highly recommend.
Subtitled “Five Classmates and the Story of the New China,” it is a very engaging account of the author’s experience as a student at a Chinese university in the 1980s, the lives of five of his classmates, and their passages through the turbulent transformation of China during the final decades of the last century and the first years of this century.
In this, John Pomfret’s book is somewhat reminiscent of Frank Gibney’s seminal work, “Five Gentlemen of Japan,” a portrait of the people of that nation as it emerged from feudalism and defeat in World War II to become a more open, democratic and capitalist society.
Pomfret’s classmates at Nanjing University had survived a degree of poverty largely unimaginable to us, as well as the relentless viciousness of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, to become for a time the flower of Chinese society. They did so within the Communist Party in some cases and outside of it in others, but all were propelled by a tenacity of spirit impossible not to admire.
Many were the first students to be admitted to university by examination, to succeed on their own merits rather than as a result solely of party favoritism.
Still, Pomfret observes, his “classmates snooped on each other, read each other’s diaries, feared and suspected one another – an expression of the deep mistrust they perfected during the Cultural Revolution when they were pitted against their parents, siblings, and friends.”
Then, following Mao’s death, came Dang Xiaopeng saying “to get rich is glorious” while taking away many of the economic and social restraints that had bound the Chinese people (not the party leaders), in poverty for decades.
The result was that the gross domestic product doubled during the 1980s, and more and more of Pomfret’s former classmates “jumped into the sea,” and went into private business.
“If China was just waking up in the early 1980s,” Pomfret writes, “by the late 1980s it was fully caffeinated.” And for a time, Western-style democracy seemed to many a real possibility.
But soon came the bloodbath at Tiananmen Square, which Pomfret, by then a reporter for the Associated Press, describes in vivid detail. Four years of renewed repression ensued until Deng once again unleashed the “money-making fervor” of the urban Chinese.
By then, opposition to the communist regime had largely vanished and “most university students and recent graduates were generally happy with the direction in which China was heading.”
At the turn of the century, China, he says, “was a nation consumed by the fast buck and the quick fix – from the boardroom to the bedroom.” And his five classmates had prospered to a degree they never could have imagined when they were students.
Pomfret’s own story is here, as well, as he passes from exchange student to AP writer to war correspondent to Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing.
His evident love for China with all of its faults eventually leads him to fall in love and marry a Chinese woman, one who has survived it all to become the sort of strong and independent person who characterizes the better side of the new China.
– Jerome Evans is an art dealer, freelance writer, recreation advocate and avid reader.