The Magazine

Jump Into the Sea

How seven veterans of the Cultural Revolution live in the new China.

Jan 22, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 18 • By ELLEN BORK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

For many of this generation, being "about me" means getting in on China's economic growth. Zhou, a teacher of Marxism, finally overcomes his disdain for business to "jump into the sea"--a euphemism for capitalism. The sea Zhou chooses is urine, which a pharmaceutical company in Guang zhou will buy to extract an enzyme used in anti-clotting and gallstone medications. Pomfret's account of Zhou's smelly, audacious enterprise--gathering urine from municipal toilets--is hilarious, pathetic, and includes all the elements of China's economic boom: profits, corruption, cut-throat competition, and environmental degradation.

Pomfret himself has a firm command of irony. Classmate Ye Hao, known as the Big Bluffer for his card- playing prowess (not to mention bulling his way through political correctness sessions) has it made as a party functionary in a wealthy district of Nanjing. In fact, he is a thug. In the cause of property development, he forces out small vendors, sending one to a labor camp, and covers up the criminally negligent death of a stubborn resident who won't vacate a property slated for demolition. His tactics for quashing the Falun Gong are praised and emulated.

One evening, Pomfret joins Ye for dinner in a restaurant displaying the aesthetic excesses of China's nouveau riche:

From the ceiling hung a massive chandelier of cut glass set into a black base fashioned in the shape of six breasts with golden nipples. . . . Our meal, featuring shark's fin and abalone, was easily worth five hundred dollars though Ye never paid a bill. As we ate, Ye boasted about his will to succeed--for himself and the party. Then the turtle dish came. "Here, I'll help you," he said, yanking the body out of the shell by the head.

Ye Hao may not have a word for irony, but when Pomfret asks him whether he believes that China's economic development will bring about political liberalization and democracy, he scoffs. "So far, it's only made us stronger." It is hard to say whether Chinese Lessons is more heartening or disturbing. It is both, as well as a compelling account of a generation coping with China's rapid, often pitiless, change.

Ellen Bork is deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century.