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Talk about a revolution

By Sheridan Prasso
August 13, 2006

'Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China'
John Pomfret
Henry Holt: 336 pp., $26

Every once in a while, a book comes along that tells the story of China's tumultuous change through intimate tales of its people's lives. Jung Chang's classic "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China" is the genre's point of reference. "Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China" by Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson is another. Now we have "Chinese Lessons" by Washington Post reporter John Pomfret.

Writing with a solid hand, the former Beijing bureau chief details the lives of former classmates at Nanjing University, where he studied Chinese in the early 1980s. That gave him early entree to what would become one of the greatest spectacles of growth and change in modern history.

First as a student struggling with the utter foreignness of China, then as an Associated Press reporter covering the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square and ultimately as a seasoned correspondent, Pomfret kept track of some of his classmates and over the years looked up others to find out how they had fared. In "Chinese Lessons," Pomfret brings to life their personal tales sometimes poignant, sometimes distressing, sometimes repulsive of navigating China's market-oriented reforms, of chasing power and riches, of moving abroad in search of political or religious freedom, of staying at home and sticking to their ideals. All paint a rich portrait of change and conflict in a China that has gone from rigid Maoist orthodoxy to capitalist aimlessness in their lifetime.

In occasional bursts of frankness, Pomfret describes himself as a teenager smoking pot under the Brooklyn Bridge; as the privileged son of a New York Times executive who could afford, after finishing his studies in China, to dabble in bartending in France before deciding at 24, while hitchhiking in Japan, to find a job back home in journalism; and as a young man who slept naked among his more chaste Chinese bunkmates, swatting one who lifted his sheets to peek at his genitals. He writes of being a naive reporter who didn't file a story when handed the biggest scoop of his life (the impending crackdown at Tiananmen) and then, guilt-ridden, finds that his informant friend has been imprisoned for years for leaking the news he didn't print. He admits that his future wife classified him as "arrogant, another one of those know-it-all foreigners who think they understand China better than the Chinese."

Yet it is Pomfret's attempts to understand China, to explain how some of his subjects could have behaved so inhumanely during the country's dark years and who they are today, that allow him to convey insights not readily found in most news coverage or history books.

Describing one brown-nosing classmate called Big Bluffer Ye, who becomes a senior Communist Party official, Pomfret notes "Ye's dainty little paws all over the road ordering bank loans, randomly confiscating goods, dictating sales policies, designing restaurants, and picking winners." When asked whether he subscribes to the Western belief that economic development and privatization will lead to political liberalization and democracy, Ye scoffs: "So far, it's only made us stronger."

Another youthful classmate he calls Old Wu, who denounced his parents as traitors after they were murdered by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, ironically is assigned as an adult to write high school history textbooks that gloss over the whole period. "There is no word in Chinese for irony, perhaps because the whole structure of society is so infused with incongruity that the Chinese can't see it anymore: a Communist Party that is capitalist; an ancient culture hell-bent on burying its past; a workers' paradise of unparalleled exploitation, a son of political martyrs being told to distort in multiple ways the circumstances leading to his parents' deaths."

Classmate Zhou, who as a teenage member of the Red Guard denounced the woman who raised him as a "capitalist" for saving her money to buy him gifts and publicly beat and humiliated a "feudal" female neighbor, confesses as an adult that he had felt frustrated at being unable to get in a good blow while beating a family suspended upside down from trees. Their bodies swung away every time he punched them. "How do you think a society where that type of behavior was condoned, no, not condoned, mandated, can heal itself? Do you think it ever can?" Zhou asks. Pomfret answers that the Chinese are forever telling Americans how much stronger their "family values" are. Zhou responds with a smirk, "Don't believe the hype."

Pomfret's most memorable subject is Little Guan, with whom he connects in a way he says he cannot with male Chinese friends. Tortured as a child for her class background, Little Guan today has an arm that hangs cocked and limp at her side, the result of a dislocated elbow that healed out of joint for lack of medical attention. Pomfret calls it her "broken wing." Yet her soaring spirit shines in his compassionate telling of her life story her decisions to refuse to join the Party, to reject a high-level job and to marry for love, to take up Internet dating after the premature death of her beloved husband and ultimately to launch herself into business.

This is not a book about the rise of China, of which so many have been written and have become outdated almost as quickly as they leave the press. Rather, Pomfret has produced a sobering work of authenticity and insight that will endure as a classic assessment of China's transformative recent decades.

Sheridan Prasso, a longtime Asia correspondent, is the author of "The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient."