Chinese Lessons: An American, His Classmates, and the Story of the New China by John Pomfret (Holt)

lessonsSixty-three history majors graduated from Nanjing University in 1982. One of them was an American, 25-year-old John Pomfret, who went to China in 1980 to learn the language and to attend university there as an exchange student from Stanford. How Pomfret's life was transformed by his youthful decision, leading him to become a journalist in China, where he met his wife and started a family, is an interesting story. It is overshadowed, however, by stories that are far more compelling: the lives of four men and one woman who were his classmates. All  of the people who opened their lives to Pomfret had lived through the Cultural Revolution and had seen how Chinese social values were turned upside down during that time. Daybreak Song's father was a Red Guard, and Big Bluffer Ye learned how to play the system by watching his father do the same. Old Wu, whose parents were killed by Red Guards when he was 15, later denounced them in order to become a Communist Party member. Little Guan, whose father was sent to a re-education camp for four years, spent her early adolescence working in the rice fields as a "class enemy." Book Idiot Zhou, who was on a Red Guard team, admitted, "I did what I was told and, being eleven, I liked it." "You need to understand this," he told Pomfret, "to understand where we've come from."

All five entered the University in 1978, when private businesses began to sprout, foreigner students appeared in their classes, and Gone with the Wind was so popular in its Chinese translation that students took turns reading it  in shifts. Daybreak Song's popularity with Italian girls launched him into a love affair that led to marriage and a life in Italy after graduation. Big Bluffer Ye joined the Communist Party with dreams of making Nanjing modern and prosperous; after graduating and becoming a bureaucrat, he was able to transform a neighborhood into a Las Vegas-inspired shoppers' paradise. Book Idiot Zhou, to augment his earnings as a teacher, began a business that collected human urine and extracted enzymes that were used in pharmaceuticals. Little Guan married the man she had chosen two days after graduation, refusing a job assignment to be with her husband and make a family and a home. Old Wu, Pomfret says, was doomed to "a lifetime of humiliation," writing censored history and investigating the "antiparty" activities of university colleagues.

As China becomes more affluent, so do Pomfret's classmates. Old Wu learns to use the Internet, takes driving lessons, and sends his daughter to school in Australia. Big Bluffer Ye has an Audi and a chauffeur. Book Idiot Zhou owns a Volkswagen and a brick house that he has built in his ancestral village. Daybreak Song, living in Italy, is a highly paid sportswriter for a Chinese newspaper. Little Guan, a widow, owns her own apartment, has invested in a bar, and has embarked upon an e-commerce business venture with her son.

Through his personal history and that of his classmates, Pomfret has provided a look at China that is both intimate and illuminating. Few people would have been able to write this book; many will be grateful that John Pomfret did.~by Janet Brown (previously published in another form by Waterbridge Review)