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Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China Hardcover – August 8, 2006

4.6 out of 5 stars 79 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Pomfret's first sojourn in China came as an American exchange student at Nanjing University in 1981, near the outset of China's limited reopening to the West and its halting, chaotic and momentous conversion from Maoist totalitarianism to police state capitalism and status as world economic giant. Over the next two decades, he returned twice as a professional journalist and was an eyewitness to the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Pomfret's enthusiasm and personal access make this an engaging examination of three tumultuous decades, rooted in the stories of classmates whose remarkable grit and harrowing experiences neatly epitomize the sexual and cultural transformations, and the economic ups and downs, of China since the 1960s. At the same time, Pomfret draws on intimate conversations and personal diaries to paint idiosyncratic portraits with a vivid, literary flair. Viewing China's version of capitalism as an anomoly, and focused overwhelmingly within its national borders, the book's lack of a greater critical context will be limiting for some. But Pomfret's palpable and pithy first-hand depiction of the New China offers a swift, elucidating introduction to its awesome energies and troubling contradictions. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Tracing individual lives is a familiar way to make sense of history, and tracing the intersections of individuals is a familiar strategy for studying identity. Pomfret, a 1981 exchange student at Nanjing University and later an American journalist in China, does both in this coming-of-age story that reads like a novel, complete with conflict, intrigue, illicit sex, convincing villains, and sympathetic, flawed heroes, and drawing as much on Greek as Chinese notions of fate in the lives of individuals and states. Inverting Plato in typical American fashion, he looks at individuals--the small circle of friends whose lives first crossed at Nanjing University when China's "opening and reform" began--to understand the state in which they live. In so doing, he affords readers a glimpse of the intersection of two societies at a time when they were defining themselves as predominant world players. Regardless of whether what followed was guided by fate, Pomfret's narrative of it may prove helpful in realizing something other than collision between the U.S and China. Steven Schroeder
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (August 8, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805076158
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805076158
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,272,729 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Seth Faison on August 6, 2006
Format: Hardcover
An outstanding book. There really is no better way to tell the story of China's incredible transformation over the past 25 years than through the lives of a few well-chosen characters. Pomfret delivers, beautifully. In a winning narrative, he skillfully braids the intricate tales of several classmates from Nanjing University, where Pomfret went in 1981, bunking with seven roommates in a tiny dorm room. Together, taking a variety of tracks over the next 20 years, those classmates end up capturing the striking horrors and unpredictable aspirations of the Chinese nation. By keeping in touch with them, as he matures into a first-rate journalist, Pomfret is able to gain a level of intimacy and knowledge about their lives that is unmatched in any narrative about Modern China. His writing is sharp and convivial. His story-telling ability matches the stories themselves, which are unbelievable.

Book-Idiot Zhou confides to Pomfret that he was a tormentor, not a victim, during the Cultural Revoluiton. Later, he alternates teaching Marxist history with deal-making in the urine industry. Song, a born Romeo, falls for an Italian woman and has sneak-away trysts. My own favorite was Little Guan, persecuted at age 11 for wiping herself with a piece of paper that said 'Long live Chairman Mao. She is a cheerful fighter, and bucks the odds over and over to succeed.

Pomfret is masterful. Armed with a fluent Chinese and a deft pen, he becomes an outstanding journalist, leading the coverage of Tiananmen, being formally expelled from China, and coming back again as Beijing Bureau chief for the Washington Post to establish himself as the dean of foreign correspondents. His newspaper stories were the gold standard of China coverage for several years. In this book, more than anything, it is his extraordinary ability to learn, ruminate and convey the stories of his Chinese classmates that stands out. Highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
Chinese Lessons provides great insight into contemporary China, which John Pomfret has learned to know from the ground up in a quarter century of close involvement with the country and its people.

Pomfret was 21 when he commenced his studies at Nanjing University in 1980, near the beginning of China's reopening to the outside world after the convulsive Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. He has since devoted much of his life to reporting on China.

In Chinese Lessons, his first book, Pomfret skillfully weaves intimate stories of several Nanjing University classmates together with his own personal narrative as an astute observer of the country's explosive transformation from communist hermit to capitalist factory to the world.

The stories Pomfret tells of his classmates and their families stretch back to the revolutionary political movements of the 1950s and 60s and forward to the capitalist present. Through the window of these fascinating lives one sees the corrosive effects of Mao's catastrophic politics on human relationships and beliefs, effects that are still being felt today and will continue to shape the country's future for decades to come.

No great familiarity with contemporary China and its recent past is required to be riveted and informed by this compelling book. Highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
It doesn't happen often that I truly cannot bear to start the last chapter, much less turn the last page, of a book but 'Chinese Lessons' had a grip on me that still won't let go. What a story! I stayed up half the night to finish it and then read parts again.

This is a great book and that is not something I ever say lightly. Pomfret's fine-honed skills as a reporter are everywhere in evidence, as well as the depth of research that stands behind his observations and the conclusions he draws from them. He is a wonderfully gifted writer and has the ability to create multiple personalities and whole scenes with an economy of descriptive and effective words. His love of China is coupled with the objective eye of the true reporter and, there again, the professional shows, but unobtrusively. The thing I love most of all is the many ways in which Pomfret is able to teach his readers without any condescension whatsoever while, at the same time, revealing himself as a colorful, strong and fragile man. He is intimate with us and yet ever more impressive.

After working in Shanghai twice in the '80s I am now not at all sure I want to return to the China of Big Bluffer Ye but I treasure the memories I have even more and feel I have learned more from 'Chinese Lessons' than I would have absorbed in a lifetime of living there. This book is a never-to-be-forgotten work of brilliant reporting, stirring (and often funny) personal history, and true art. A Standing Ovation for John Pomfret!!!
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Format: Hardcover
Chinese Lessons" is an exceptional book, an ideal summary of the seismic changes China has undergone over the past 40 years. This transformation of China, from destitution and tyranny to a great power at the center of the world's economic cosmos, is perhaps the singlemost important story of our time. This book tells that story, but does so in a way that is uniquely and brilliantly crafted. It is as far from dry, sterile history writing as a book of such importance can be.

Pomfret's narrative is built upon the life stories of five of his Chinese university classmates. Their lives are retold with wit and insight. Cumulatively, the reader gains a very substantial and nuanced understanding of the forces, political and social, that pushed China first beyond the brink of chaos during the Cultural Revolution and then, over the succeeding 25 years, to a place of central importance in the world.

No country has ever grown so fast for so long as China over the last 25 years, nor undergone such a thoroughgoing process of radical, and largely positive change. How was this achieved? This book provides answers. Indeed, for me, the lessons learned from reading "Chinese Lessons" are many, and valuable. The book is a superb achievement.
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