As a young student at Nanjing University in 1981, John Pomfret
quickly recognized that he had a front-row seat at a moment when
China was in the midst of a dramatic shift.
The Cultural Revolution, during which his classmates had come of
age, was over. Its worst chaos and cruelty had been checked. Young
20-somethings - some of whom had waited years to once again attend
school - were determined to heed Premier Deng Xiaoping's admonition
that "to get rich is glorious."
In what Pomfret describes as a "heady" time, his fellow students
tested new possibilities - and gauged their limits.
Pomfret was one of the earliest American students to study and
live with Chinese students after the United States and China
formally restored diplomatic relations in 1979. Fresh out of
college, he found himself face to face with the devastating social
impact of the Cultural Revolution.
But it wasn't until 20 years later that Pomfret, by then the
Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief, decided fully to plumb the
devastation the period wrought in his friends' lives.
This was a generation that had witnessed some of Mao's worst
excesses - only to turn on a dime and build an economy with a vigor
that would astound the world.
But their experiences during the Cultural Revolution left a mark
on Pomfret's youthful peers. As children, some had turned on their
parents in revolutionary zeal. As students, many had discovered
that, with one slip of the tongue, they could find themselves on the
wrong side of Maoist ideology. These experiences left a bitter
legacy - one that may hamper China as it tries to build on its
growing, though highly inequitable, prosperity.
Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China
examines that legacy, which, Pomfret argues, continues to cast a
long shadow. The country is currently generating endless
superlatives - from its blazing economic growth to its billion-plus
population to its massive construction projects.
But sitting in a cafe in 2004, amid China's growing glitz and
prosperity, Pomfret listens to a friend tell how, as a 15-year-old
member of China's feared Red Guard, he humiliated his mother by
publicly criticizing her for incorrect thinking. Forty years after
the fact, he is probing the consequences of such state-sanctioned
"'How do you think a society where that type of behavior was
condoned, no, not condoned, mandated, can heal itself?' " he asks
Pomfret. " 'Do you think it ever can?' I said Chinese were forever
telling me, an American, how much stronger their family values were
than those of the United States. Zhou smirked. 'Don't believe the
Zhou's story exemplifies the often-tortuous route of those
Chinese who have had to negotiate their way through so many
different Chinas: a China gingerly liberalizing after the Cultural
Revolution, a more repressive post-Tiananmen China, and a China
obsessed with acquiring material wealth. …