The class of 1982 is a sorry group, undernourished and desperately poor, and these are the new elite. Student housing is wretched (Pomfret shares a small dorm room with seven men), the bathrooms are unspeakable, and the climate of repression, both political and sexual, is stifling. Of the 63 people in Pomfret's class, with an average age of 23, only three have ever kissed a member of the opposite sex. When art appreciation classes are offered, male students stampede to see pictures of nude women. In the bathrooms, desperate urges are expressed in polite Chinese form: “Forgive my forthrightness,” one piece of graffiti reads. “I want sexual intercourse.”
More even than sex, students want just a little bit of the good life that seems to be in reach as China's rulers relax their economic policies. To get it they master a strange kind of doublethink, pledging allegiance to the party and Communist ideals while scheming to start a business.
Book Idiot Zhou, a history teacher by day, jumps into a business partnership to process urine for the pharmaceutical industry. “Several days a week, he taught Marxism, Leninism and Maoist thought and railed against the exploitation of the capitalist class,” Pomfret writes. “The rest of the time he spent as a budding entrepreneur, employing dozens at rock-bottom wages, working the system to enrich himself, his partners and his family.”
Pomfret's fluent language skills take him places that other journalists cannot easily go. He has complicated love affairs with Chinese women. His close contacts with leaders of the student democracy movement pull him into the whirlpool of events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and lead to his expulsion from China and to the imprisonment of a good friend.
He loves China, and he excels at describing the minutiae that make up Chinese life: the slang, the food, the bathrooms and the explosion of nouveau-riche bad taste in the boom towns and shopping districts. He makes an engaging, expert guide to the changes that have transformed China in the last quarter-century.
His classmates have done well. But their lives, and the China described in Chinese Lessons, bear a heavy load of suppressed grief, terrible compromises and boundless cynicism. At a new drive-in called the Happy Auto Movie Palace, Pomfret notices something strange about the concrete slabs underneath his feet. They show the marks of tank treads. The drive-in owner bought them after the government repaved Tiananmen Square.
This strikes Pomfret as bizarre, but not the owner. “It was a good deal,” he says.