Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret

Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret

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I read Chinese Lessons with anticipation and in preparation of my upcoming trip to China. Only a rare few books dig deep into the soul of the modern day Chinese citizen and unearth the true facts about their habits and customs, likes and dislikes, goals and ambitions, gripes and dissatisfaction with the all-powerful communist party government. This is one of those rare books.

Chinese Lessons is a fascinating story of John Pomfret’s experience as a foreign exchange student at the Nanjing University in China. The five classmates, whom he befriended, were trusting enough to share their stories: the harsh treatment their families suffered upon the Communist take-over in the 1930’s (death, torture, and re-education which meant prison camps designed for brainwashing tactics), how they struggled through the “Great Leap Forward”, how the select five miraculously ended up at the university, and what their dreams were for the future.

One thing all Chinese students shared was an intense passion for learning and desperately fierce competition for the best grades. “In the Chinese dormitories, lights went out at 10 p.m. but long into the night, hundreds of students would crowd the ill-lit cement hallways and malodorous, sodden bathrooms to study. Even during the winter, they would huddle outdoors, wrapped in their blue or green cotton-padded overcoats, reading under the eaves of the school’s infirmary, where the lights stayed on all night”.

After graduating in 1982 John became a journalist and worked in China, so he was able to stay in contact with his Chinese friends as years passed. He covered the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 angering the authorities and was then exiled from China for several years and returned in 1998 to resume reporting. Through John’s eyes, witness China’s transformation: booming economy, new infrastructure, land development, pollution, jobs, corruption, wealth, and decadence. As Wang Kegang stated, “people’s desire for power, money, and comfort are boundless…..”

Exuding from every page including those relating a story about someone’s success, joy, and contentment is the ever-watchful spying eye of the secret service and loyal party members eager to turn in anyone, including their own friends and family to gain stature within the party. And woe is the person who breaks a rule, speaks again party propaganda, or merely makes someone envious or angry. When John Pomfret was questioned about what he thought the biggest difference was between Americans and Chinese he said in the United States everyone wants to get ahead and in China everyone wants to get ahead at the expense of betraying someone else. The scariest thing is that the Communist hierarchy is the self-proclaimed judge and jury. Forget about “innocent until proved guilty”. Punishment could be any number of things: hours of interrogation, exile to China’s version of Siberia, prison, heavy labor, torture, or death. By the time I was finished reading of all the unjustified executions, imprisonments and tortures, I was too paranoid to publish my review until arriving back safely on United States soil.

Chinese Lessons is a fascinating memoir.

Rated 5 Stars..

All contents © 2011 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.

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