Chinese Lessons

Five Classmates and the Story

of the New China

by John Pomfret

Holt, 336 pp., $26

In February 1981, an American college student named John Pomfret found himself bunking with seven Chinese men in a cramped dormitory room at Nanjing University. Pomfret, who later became a Washington Post correspondent in China and elsewhere, had made his way to Nanjing because it, alone among China's major universities, had begun allowing foreigners to live among Chinese students. Throwing himself into life among his classmates, Pomfret made the most of it, and now he has written an unusual and absorbing book, part memoir, part reporting, in which the lives of several classmates illuminate China's development over the past three decades.

The Cultural Revolution ended a few years before Pomfret arrived, enabling universities to return to normalcy of a kind. However, that political upheaval casts a long shadow over his classmates' prospects and attitudes. For some, "bad class backgrounds" made college admission the longest of shots. Some were forced to denounce their parents. One classmate's parents were killed by Red Guards.

Not all the classmates were victims. Zhou Lianchun, whose story and introspection animate the book, disarmingly owns up to his past. Zhou's Red Guard unit beat "bad elements," destroyed property and religious icons. One of their victims committed suicide, and his sons were forced to dismember their father and distribute the body parts among pig pens. Zhou joined in the daily physical persecution of the woman who raised him. Then they went home together for dinner. "Zhou admitted to having no pangs of conscience for menacing neighbors, relatives and teachers," Pomfret writes. "'I did what I was told and, being eleven, I liked it' he said. . . . 'You need to understand this,' he lectured at one point, 'to understand where we've come from.'"

With the aid of such friends, Pomfret gets a look behind much of the conventional wisdom about China--such as the notion that Chinese have stronger family values than Americans. "Don't believe the hype," Zhou tells him.

Pomfret struggles to make sense of things he, the son of a Manhattan newspaper executive, can barely imagine. Wu Xiaoqing doesn't balk when, in 2003, he is assigned to write a local history of the Cultural Revolution in Nanjing where his parents, academics, were killed by Red Guards. Pomfret observes:

There is no word in Chinese for irony, perhaps because the whole structure of society is so infused with incongruity that the Chinese can't see it anymore: a Communist Party that is capitalist; an ancient culture hell-bent on burying its past; a workers' paradise of unparalleled exploitation; a son of political martyrs being told to distort in multiple ways the circumstances leading to his parents' deaths.

Wu bends to the censors, expressing his feelings to Pomfret with one character, ren, represented as a dagger on top of a heart, meaning to "endure."

Pomfret observes the toll such contradictions and contortions take, as well as the brave efforts to forge a life among them. His classmates hunger for greater personal freedom, including in their love lives, but they are constrained by ancient mores as well as the arbitrary rule of party officials. Zhou escaped a forced marriage to help a cadre cover up his own extramarital affair, but is pressured to marry a village girl he doesn't love.

Decades later, some controls have been relaxed, but others remain strong. In order to visit his ailing father in China, Song Liming, living in Italy, must take out a newspaper ad renouncing his pro-democracy views. Finally given permission to go home, he adopts a new email address: "yesman."

Pomfret also walks a tightrope. While reporting on the demonstrations of 1989, a source, Liu Gang, is arrested and Pomfret is deported after the massacre of protesters on the night of June 3-4. "I had been blithe, naive and careless," he writes. "Liu's imprisonment was an important lesson, which came at a great price; what was worse, the price was not paid by me." Many years later, having written his own carefully worded "self-examination" in order to be readmitted to China as a reporter, Pomfret responds to an enigmatic message inviting him to a reunion with his former source. Like so many who suffered the crushing disappointment of the Tiananmen crackdown, Liu, who was tortured in prison, now has no use for politics, or much else: "Forget the nation, the people, the party, the big issues of the day. It's about me."

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.

Next Page