by John Pomfret
Reader’s Choice 12/08
China confuses me sometimes. How can the images I see of the hip young people on the streets of Beijing with cell phones pressed to their ears or riding around in buses with huge Dior advertisements plastered on them portray life in a country still headed by a Communist regime? A wonderful book I read a decade ago, “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China” by Jung Chang, started my Eastern education—making up for my Euro-centric school and college history classes--through its personal accounts of life during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and the years surrounding it. But a little voice inside my head tells me it’s about time I learn more about what’s been going on in that enormous country in the last two decades. With that in mind, I picked up “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China” by American journalist John Pomfret.
Pomfret took off a year to study in China during his undergraduate program at Stanford University in 1981. For a young man at that time in history, he told an interviewer, China was as interesting and exotic as a trip to the moon. The tall slim “big-nose” (as Westerners are known) stuck out from his Chinese dorm mates at Nanjing University, yet his conscientious study of their language and his pleasant, curious attitude helped him gain acceptance by them. The friends he made during that year became the subjects of this book after he was able to interview them during subsequent stays there. Pomfret returned to Beijing during the ‘90’s as a China correspondent for the Associated Press and then later for the Washington Post.
Like millions of other Chinese, Pomfret’s classmates had struggled through the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Chairman Mao was determined to break the bonds between family members so that their allegiance was clearly to him. One of Pomfret’s friends named Zhou was given a list of 11 people on whom he should undertake “thought work”—a humiliating and cruel process of ‘re-education’. On the list he found his own mother. After the public sessions he put her through, they would go home and she would prepare their dinner.
Others had more tragic stories. Another classmate Wu was told by an enthusiastic teen he met in the street that a group of university students in town had denounced some educators as “enemies of the revolution”, slapping dunce caps on their heads and parading them through the streets. “ Some students, he said, “beat up this guy, the head of the province’s educational department, and his wife. And guess what? They died!” This was the way Wu learned of his own parents’ deaths.
When asked in an interview why China matters to us, Pomfret had ready responses. “What will the world be like when China has 200 million cars . . . when the Chinese Yuan floats like the US dollar . . . when the global competition for oil and water pit China against the US?”, he says. Pomfret doesn’t give us the answers. He thinks the jury is still out on whether today’s China has what it takes to become a world-class power. What he does offer us in “Chinese Lessons” is the opportunity to experience first-hand some of the recent history and answer some of our questions about this sometimes confounding country.