Global Context (China): Chinese Lessons

March 6, 2009 by Bruce Ashford

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Global Context (East Asia-China): Chinese Lessons

By: Bruce Riley Ashford

This series of posts deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

Chinese Lessons is a lively, witty, and intimate portrait of five Chinese nationals who the author met in 1981 during Deng Xiaoping’s cautious reopening of China to the West and China’s rise as a police state flirting with capitalism. The author, John Pomfret, was an American exchange student at Nanjing University in the 1980s, and afterwards served two stints as a journalist in China.

The book centers on this small circle of close friends that he made as an exchange student. They are Big Bluffer Ye, Book Idiot Zhou, Little Guan, Old Xu, and Daybreak Song. Pomfret details not only his encounters with them during college, but also narrates their lives pre- and post-college. He shows how they sprung forth from the soil of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and how they negotiated life after college, under the capricious hand of the Party and in the context of China’s current rise to power.

The book is helpful for those who would like an accessible and lively portrayal of Chinese society and culture, with bits and pieces of recent Chinese history along the way. Pomfret draws upon personal experience, intimate conversations, interviews, and personal diaries in painting a portrait of his friends, their families, and life in China. At times the story is sad, as he details how his classmates witnessed the humiliation and torture of their family and friends at the hands of the Chinese police state. But it is not always sad, as he tells how they each fell in love, got married, gave birth to children, found jobs, and otherwise made something of the life they were given.

Along the way, many themes emerge, among which are the following five. First, Pomfret shows the immorality that pervades the economic sector of Chinese society today, and argues that it was fostered by the Cultural Revolution which encouraged a ruthlessly competitive economic environment. Second, he details political corruption, as evidenced, for example, by the government’s refusal to come clean about SARS epidemics, poisoned water supplies, political assassinations and other issues. Third, he points out China’s demographic crisis caused by a rapidly aging population that is disproportionately male and its environmental crisis causes by consistent degradation of land, water, and sky. Fourth, many Chinese are still involved in ancestor worship, the appeasement of territorial ghosts, and other such folk religious practices that do not fit the image of an emerging world power. But fifth, Pomfret remains convinced that China is the story of the 21st century, in spite of all of its flaws.

Pomfret’s knowledge of and immersion in Chinese society and culture, his affection for the Chinese people, his eye for detail, and his sharp wit combine to make this book an exciting and informative read.

Book: Chinese Lessons (2006)

Author: John Pomfret

Region: East Asia (China)

Genre: Historical Journalism

Length: 312 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate

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