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Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China Paperback – July 24, 2007
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Pomfret deftly interweaves his personal history with that of his classmates - the wonderfully named Daybreak Song, Book Idiot Zhou, Big Bluffer Ye and Little Guan. These four - along with the author - are the 'Five Classmates' of the book's subtitle. A set of excellent photos - most taken by Pomfret himself - add richness and depth to the tale. A picture of then-AP reporter Pomfret behind 1989 student uprising leaders Wang Dan and Wu'er Kaixi stands as a testament to Pomfret's place near the epicenter of that story. His proximity to the protagonists would seem almost Zelig-like were it not the real thing.
The book's narrative thread connects the dots between three time periods: the classmates time together in university; the the student uprising culminating in the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989; and a 20th reunion of the classmates in Nanjing in 2002. In revealing the personal histories of his classmates, Pomfret lets us see the impact that the Cultural Revolution had on each of their families. It put China into upheaval for years. The reverberations still linger.
As a revolution of an entirely different nature, Pomfret discusses the country's headlong rush into its unique brand of capitalism over the last 15 years. His take on that transformation is summed up nicely by a paragraph about Daybreak Song, who has lived out the post-Tiananmen years in exile in Italy:
"Living in Italy all these years had preserved Song's idealism, the infectious, blind hope that made China so vibrant in the 1980s. Absent during the Tiananmen crackdown and China's transformation in the 1990s into a society of cash and kicks, Song maintained his innocence about the corruption, the swindles, and the general disintegration of whatever remained of traditional values."
That gives you a good take of Pomfret's assessment of the past 15 years. Despite that opinion, this is a man who cares deeply for China and its people. This outstanding book serves as a testament to the depth of those feelings and the experiences that shaped them.
Pomfret has also detailed his sexual involvements with Chinese women - something rare in our politically correct age when it is somehow deemed inappropriate to admit of interracial relationships with Asian women that stop short of marriage. This honesty and willingness to take risks with people make his relations ring with authenticity and interest. He met his first girlfriend there in 1981, at a time when it was illegal for Chinese women to date, let alone sleep or cohabit with foreign men. Even on the street women seen with foreign men could be arrested, and those caught in real or supposed sexual relationships were charged with the same crime as bona fide prostitutes, "hooliganism," and sent off to re-education camp for three or four years. This lends an air of excitement to Pomfret's trysts with Fay, whom he met at a bar frequented by foreign students. He describes their delicate courtship process, delicate more out of caution than bashfulness, their excursions to secret spaces out of sight of prying eyes; their making love outside in alleys perched on his bicycle seat while he disguised himself in Mao attire; their lengthy trip to the southwest of the country when they had to pretend not to know each other on trains and couldn't share the same hotel room (Fay was caught by the police trying to get into Tibet with him though fortunately released); her understandable falling for this tall, young handsome foreign man fluent in Chinese and her wishes to marry him, which came to nought.
His next girlfriend, or fling rather, was in 1988 (when puritanical restrictions on sex were beginning to thaw), with a divorced former actress, Nana, who managed to smuggle Pomfret into her PLA compound residence where she lived and worked. Actors in China have a long tradition going back centuries of being associated with the world of vice, and she seemed to fit this stereotype for the author, with her frank sexuality and open relationships with other Chinese men (even flirting with one of them on the phone while having sex with Pomfret). A decade later he meets Zhang Mei, a Harvard-educated Chinese returnee after years living in the US, fully conversant in the English language and Western culture, and the "love of his life," a kind of fairytale triumph over the "floozies and opportunists" he calls his previous relationships (referring to Fay and Nana). Of the three princesses I find myself most drawn to the bad ones, these two earlier, remarkably liberated women, than to the good one who wins the prince, Zhang Mei, who comes off as a bit too normal and flat to be of interest, though perhaps appropriate for a fairytale ending.
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