Chinese Lessons Five Classmates and the Story of the New China

John Pomfret

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

336 Pages


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As a twenty-two-year-old exchange student at Nanjing University in 1981, John Pomfret was one of the first American students to be admitted to China after the Communist Revolution of 1949. Living in a cramped dorm room, Pomfret was exposed to a country few outsiders had ever experienced, one fresh from the twin tragedies of Mao's rule—the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Twenty years later, Pomfret returned to the university for a class reunion. Once again, he immersed himself in the lives of his classmates, especially the one woman and four men whose stories make up Chinese Lessons, an intimate and revealing portrait of the Chinese people. Beginning with Pomfret's first day in China, Chinese Lessons takes us back to the often torturous paths that brought together the Nanjing University History Class of 1982. We learn that Old Wu's father was killed during the Cultural Revolution for the crime of being an intellectual; Book Idiot Zhou labored in the fields for year rather than agree to a Party-arranged marriage; Little Guan was forced to publicly denounce and humiliate her father.  In Chinese Lessons, Pomfret follows his classmates from childhood to university and on to adulthood to show the effect that the country's transition from near-feudal communism to First World capitalism has had on his generation.


Praise for Chinese Lessons

" [A] compulsively readable new book on today's China . . . Chinese Lessons is a rich, first-hand account of modern Chinese history as it was lived and experienced by five of the author's 1981 classmates at Nanjing University . . . Pomfret's affection for the people he is writing about almost always shows through, which keeps Chinese Lessons from feeling like a polemic; the book's accumulation of acutely observed detail is compelling. Pomfret ends by positing a notion that will be increasingly discussed in years to come as China's great opportunity for economic growth begins to look more and more like a wasted chance to improve the lives of so many of its people: "The social contract hashed out by Deng—you can get rich if you keep your mouth shut—is fraying because too few people have won their share of the bargain." If Pomfret is correct (and I think he is), China will still be the great story of the 21st century—not because of what has gone right but because of what has gone wrong."—Karl Taro Greenfeld, The Washington Post Book World
"[A] highly personal, honest, funny and well-informed account of China’s hyperactive effort to forget its past and reinvent its future. What makes this book particularly rewarding is that Pomfret not only describes China today, he also reminds us what came before, thereby posing the important question: Is it possible for China to avoid reckoning with its past and still become a responsible, possibly great, nation?"—Orville Schell, The New York Times Book Review
"[Pomfret] 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"—William Grimes, The New York Times
“Few Chinese admit they committed crimes during the Cultural Revolution. But forty years later Zhou confided in his American classmate John Pomfret, who had been a contemporary at Nanjing University in 1981 . . . Pomfret, the author of Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, an eloquent and unexpected study of a society with something wrong at its core, went to study in China in 1980. Admitted in 1981 to one of the country’s leading universities, for two years he studied history and lived, crammed together with seven Chinese roommates, in a small room hung with manky washing.”—Jonathan Mirsky, The Times Literary Supplement
"In this intimate and revealing book, John Pomfret shows why he is one of the great China correspondents of his generation: He has never held himself at a distance, but has plunged in, with vigor and an open mind. His approach to China has no tint of romanticism or awe; the lives he discovers and the stories he tells, including his own, are unvarnished, unexpected, and riveting."—Steve Coll, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars
"Chinese Lessons is an extraordinary book. Through telling the intimate stories of his former classmates, John Pomfret reveals a contemporary China where many individual lives have been thwarted and twisted. This is a book full of insights, honesty, and compassion. It touched me deeply."—Ha Jin, author of Waiting
"John Pomfret has written a brilliant, insightful book describing the dark side and human cost of the 'Chinese economic miracle.' His feel for China, based on years of living there, his fluency in Chinese, and his reporting genius cut through the sham and spin."—James R. Lilley, former U.S. Ambassador to China and chief of the American Mission in Taiwan
"Washington Post reporter Pomfret looks back at his student days at Nanjing University in 1981 and the lives of his classmates, survivors of one of the most tumultuous periods in the country's history. Readers numbed by the catalogue of crimes offered in Mao: The Unknown Story (2005), by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, will find them evoked here with more personal applications to the lives of Big Bluffer Ye, Book Idiot Zhou, Little Guan, Old Xu and Daybreak Song. Don't be misled by their jaunty college nicknames. These are the children of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, convulsive political purges unleashed by Mao. They witnessed (and sometimes were forced to act as accomplices to) the humiliation, torture and even deaths of their own parents. Pomfret sketches each of the five as he remembers them from college, including as well the story of his own student days in a country still ill at ease with foreigners. It's his detailed reporting about their lives before and after graduation, however, that sets this book apart. While knowing that he can't fully comprehend China's tortuous history or its complete effect on his subjects, the author has immersed himself as much as any outsider can in all things Chinese, enabling him to assess each of his subjects with remarkable empathy. He plainly admires these former classmates, but he's clear-eyed about the peculiar ways in which each has been twisted by a tyrannous political system that 30 years ago put 'capitalist roaders' to death and today declares that 'to be rich is glorious.' It's fascinating to see how each has negotiated adulthood—love, family, work—in a country hurtling toward modernity under the Party's capricious whip hand. A moving account of individual experiences, indispensable to anyone seeking to understand the precarious national psyche of the world's most populous nation."—Kirkus Reviews
"[Pomfret] stayed in touch with his Chinese classmates as they came of age, and . . . he deploys their individual stories and his own coming of age and immersion in Chinese culture to tell the larger story—almost as a memoir—of a China itself coming of age. His writing is steady and frank, wittily rueful over China's follies and his own, appreciative, and wonderfully readable. His long-term commitment to China affords insights into the contradictions of economic boom, social uncertainties, and a political system that, yes, is changing but probably not fast enough."—Library Journal
"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, Booklist
"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 . . . Pomfret's palpable and pithy first-hand depiction of the New China offers a swift, elucidating introduction to its awesome energies and troubling contradictions."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
Warmly Welcome You
At six o'clock in the morning of February 3, 1981, I awoke with a start to the sounds of drums, trumpets, and the squawk of a woman telling me in Chinese to "increase vigilance, protect the motherland, and prepare for war!"
This woman would hound me for the next year, her disembodied voice blasting out of a tinny speaker dangling by a wire just far enough from the bottom bunk that I could not disable it with a broom, yet close enough to wreck my mornings. And not just mine. She was China's daily national wake-up call, broadcast
Read the full excerpt


  • John Pomfret

  • John Pomfret is a reporter for The Washington Post. Formerly the Post's Beijing bureau chief, he is now the Los Angeles bureau chief. In 2003, Pomfret was awarded the Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Asian Journalism by the Asia Society, an annual award for best coverage of Asia. He lives with his wife and family in Los Angeles.
  • John Pomfret