A Review of “Chinese Lessons” By John Pomfret

In this book journalist John Pomfret chooses to tell a wide and sweeping history of China through particular people, his classmates at Nanjing University in 1981. This book is unique in that it not only details the devastation of lives during the Cultural Revolution, but it also follows up on those lives 20 years later.

The book begins with Pomfret’s stories of being one of the first American students to be admitted to China after it became communist. The book is chock full of telling details and stories that make the experience come alive for the reader. In self-deprecating manner the author tells us that:

-His American professor helped him choose the Chinese name “Pan Aiwan” which meant “lover of culture.” After he had been in China a while, he learned that the name was really a girl’s name, equivalent to a name like “Petunia” in the United States.

-The friendly locals at the restaurant who toasted their “American friend” taught him a new word, fantong which literally means “rice bucket.” They laughed as he repeated louder and louder “I am a rice bucket.” Later he learned that the phrase also meant “dummy.”

Pomfret soon introduces us to five of his classmates with varied experiences and attitudes towards the persecution and atrocities of the Cultural Revolution, a time when the government basically brainwashed the youth and sent them out to destroy the people and artifacts that embodied the pre-communist order, especially the intelligentsia and the elite, though anyone could get caught up in petty and false accusations. There were those who hated the Communists and wanted to see them destroyed. There were those who were complicit in the purges and spent their time bullying and harassing their neighbors. Mostly he met people who were trying to get ahead in a maze of personal and political peril in which the rules kept changing.

Along with the specific individual stories, Pomfret places them in context with concise yet evocative explanations of Chinese history and culture.

Personal histories of the Cultural Revolution abound, and what sets this book apart is that we find out what the survivors did with their lives after making it through those times and getting their college degrees. The overriding theme is how so many Chinese were able to “eat bitterness,” deal with the hardship and suffering, and continue living on in the society. One man now teaches on the campus where his parents were murdered, and every day passes the place where they were publicly humiliated. Another has become the type of capitalist that he had persecuted 30 years earlier. One writes from exile in Italy, covering European soccer for a Chinese publication. One woman who worked her way out of poverty starts the process again after her husband dies.

To conclude, Pomfret presents us with a picture of China as it enters the 21st century. The economy is booming, yet huge problems loom on the horizon. Corruption is still rampant, and the lack of trust is a barrier to business. No one trusts online companies because so many bogus companies cheated their shoppers. The government’s grip on the press frees up for a moment, but then clamps down again. Unrest is growing among the poorer sections of the country. One third of the population will be 65 or older in the next 15 years. The country has the world’s worst environmental problems. And even though times are easier for the current generation of young people, they seem to lack the hard-earned experience of those who endured tough political times.

As a former Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post, Pomfret knows China, and through the lives of these five classmates he is able to give readers a detailed and poignant look at the China of the late 20th century. Highly recommended reading.