When John Pomfret arrived in China in 1980, ready to begin language classes at the University of Nanjing, he looked out the train window at a timeless pastoral scene in the fields outside Shenzhen. “I saw men steering wooden plows pulled by water buffalo, women hunkered over knee-deep in rice paddy water, and travelers tottering on clunky black bicycles along dirt paths,” he writes. “This was a view of rural China that I would come to know well.”
In 2004, after multiple stints as a foreign correspondent in China, he returned to his starting point, Shenzhen, to find that the loose collection of villages now bristled with skyscrapers, and its citizens — go-getters from the four corners of China — barked into cell phones, hailed taxis, wore business suits and single-mindedly chased after the new Chinese dream of riches and material possessions.
This improbable journey, from Maoist orthodoxy to the entrepreneurial quasi-capitalism officially described as “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” is the main theme of Chinese Lessons, but Pomfret, a reporter for The Washington Post, gives his tale a twist. He tells it not only through his own experiences as a student and journalist but through the life stories of five university classmates, who suffered through the Cultural Revolution as children, found inspiration and hope in the growing democracy movement and lived to see a China that neither they nor their parents could have imagined. This added narrative layer lends depth and poignancy to what would otherwise be an informative but fairly standard end-of-tour report filed by a skilled foreign correspondent.
All the lives Pomfret explores are extraordinary, and each sheds its own light on recent Chinese history. Perhaps the most endearing of his characters is Guan Yongxing, better known as Little Guan, who as an 11-year-old suffered social ostracism after accidentally using a piece of paper with “Long Live Chairman Mao!” on it to wipe herself in the bathroom.
After classmates threw her to the ground, no doctor would treat her dislocated shoulder, leaving her crippled for life. Her father's job as a schoolteacher made the Guan family a prime target for abuse, and Little Guan, rather than endure ridicule and torment at school, picked cotton and sprayed fertilizer on the fields, her back constantly burned by chemicals leaking from the tank. Tough, determined and highly intelligent, she survives and eventually prospers in the new China.
Many of Pomfret's classmates have similar stories to tell. The parents of Old Wu, a careworn man much younger than the name implies, were dragged through the streets of Nanjing and beaten to death, but not before their sons were forced to denounce them. Prominent educators, they easily qualified as class enemies under the new rules of the Cultural Revolution.
Zhou Lianchun, called Book Idiot Zhou by a contemptuous Communist Party official, meted out insults and torture as part of a Red Guard brigade. “I did what I was told and, being 11, I liked it,” he tells Pomfret.
There is an emblematic villain too, Big Bluffer Ye, an oily operator who excels at cheating his fellow students out of money at cards. With consummate skill he works the levers of the party, adjusts to each twist and turn in the official line and ends up a powerful local official, riding high, in a chauffeured car, when the get-rich ethos sweeps over China.
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.