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"A highly personal, honest, funny and well-informed account of China's
hyperactive effort to forget its past and reinvent its future."--The New York Times Book Review
As one the first American students admitted to China after the communist revolution, John Pomfret was exposed to a country still emerging from the twin tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Crammed into a dorm room with seven Chinese men, Pomfret contended with all manner of cultural differences, from too-short beds and roommates intent on glimpsing a white man naked, to the need for cloak-and-dagger efforts to conceal his relationships with Chinese women. Amidst all that, he immersed himself in the remarkable lives of his classmates.
Beginning with Pomfret's first day in China, Chinese Lessons takes us down the often torturous paths that brought together the Nanjing University History Class of 1982: 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 years rather than agree to a Party-arranged marriage; and Little Guan was forced to publicly denounce and humiliate her father. As Pomfret follows his classmates from childhood to adulthood, he examines the effect of China's transition from near-feudal communism to first-world capitalism. The result is an illuminating report from present-day China, and a moving portrait of its extraordinary people.
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Formerly The Washington Post's bureau chief in Beijing and Los Angeles, John Pomfret was named editor of the Post's Outlook Section in 2007. In 2003, he was awarded the Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Asian Journalism and in 2007 won the Shorenstein Prize for coverage of Asia. He lives near Washington, D.C., with his wife and family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 across the country, with the same clanging music and panicky martial message.
Around me, seven Chinese men, ranging in age from eighteen to mid-thirties, all dressed in blue long-sleeved T-shirts and long johns, rustled out of their cotton bedding. As if on cue, they sent up a chorus of phlegmy hocks. Some spat on the floor; others into white enamel teacups. One by one, they slipped on flip-flops, grabbed their metal washbasins, yanked filthy washrags from a jerry-rigged clothesline stretched across the room, and shuffled off to the public bathroom to elbow out a space at a trough of cold water.
I lolled in bed, slowly unfolding my six-foot-two frame from the chin-to-knees position I had to assume to sleep on a five-foot-ten bed. Above me my bunkmate, Xu Ruiqing, lounged, too. Xu (pronounced shoe) was the eldest in our room, a thirty-two-year-old Communist Party functionary from a little city sixty miles east of Nanjing. His formal title was Secretary of the Communist Party Committee of the Students Majoring in History, Nanjing University, Class of 1982—a lot of words that meant he could linger in bed if he wanted, too. Like me and the others in the room, Xu was an undergraduate student, but he had special duties: determining who would get a shot at membership in the ruling Communist Party, and keeping tabs on his fellow students, me included, for any signs of wayward behavior.
I surveyed the room, a dark box with cement floors and dingy whitewashed walls, half the size of my bedroom at my folks’ apartment in Manhattan. Crammed against the walls were four bunk beds with gunmetal frames and rice-husk mattresses. The lumpy pillows were also stuffed with rice husks that would stab through the thin cotton cover. Our bedrolls, still in heaps, would soon be folded with military precision. Tacked on the walls were snapshots from home, typically the family arrayed solemnly around their most valuable possession, more often than not a clunky radio.
Eight wooden desks were shoved together in the center of the room, each desk matched with a stool. At head-height, my roommates had strung three wire clotheslines. Wet laundry, scabrous underwear, holey T-shirts, and faded Mao jackets drooped from the wires. From my bottom bunk in the purple darkness of early morning, the lines resembled mountain ridges stretching off into the distance.
The whole scene, lit by two naked low-watt bulbs, looked more like a work camp than university student housing—The Grapes of Wrath goes Asian. The only nod to modernity was taped on the wall near my pillow: a picture of New York’s skyline and the skull and roses of the Grateful Dead.
I had arrived in China in September 1980 after completing my third year at Stanford University. The United States had established diplomatic relations with China only a year earlier, though contacts between the two countries had intensified beginning in 1971, when Henry Kissinger, then the national security adviser, made a secret trip to Beijing as part of President Richard Nixon’s plan to thaw the decades-old cold war with the Communist nation. The two powers then united in a secret and ultimately successful campaign, involving intelligence sharing and gunrunning to rebels in Afghanistan and other Third World hotspots, with the goal of entombing their shared enemy: the Soviet Union.
You’d never guess it from the bare-bones surroundings of my dorm room, but I considered myself lucky to be in China. I’d started to study modern Chinese history and the Chinese language at a time when China was terra incognita. As a twenty-one-year-old American exchange student, I had won a front-row seat at what I thought was going to be the greatest show on Earth: the reemergence of China on the world scene after four decades of self-imposed isolation. Being a student offered opportunities not available to Western diplomats, businessmen, or journalists for the simple reason that the Chinese government didn’t much care about us foreign college kids. We could move around more freely, have closer contact with the locals, and, as a result, get a better idea of what it was like to be Chinese.
I had first experienced China through my belly. As a child, Chinese food was one of the first cuisines I was willing to eat outside of hamburgers. I remember, as a nine-year-old during the Vietnam War demonstrations of 1968, hearing students at Columbia University shouting, “Mao, Mao, Chairman Mao!” As I got older, my interest expanded to Chinese history and current events. But I never bought into the notion, then voguish on U.S. campuses, that Mao Zedong had created a worker-peasant paradise in China. My father, a journalist for the New York Times before becoming an executive at the company, had imbued in me early the ideas that government is not to be trusted, and that revolutions inevitably crush their own.
By my junior year at Stanford, I had chosen to major in East Asian Studies and had committed myself to finding a way to get to China. At the time, just a handful of Chinese universities had programs for exchange students, and most of those were summer courses. I wanted to go for a year or more.
Through a friend, I contacted a Chinese-American professor working at Stanford’s linear accelerator who agreed to write a letter on my behalf to his former classmate, the dean of the Beijing Languages Institute. My plan was first to study language in Beijing and then apply to a Chinese university. In December 1979, I received a letter from the People’s Republic, written on rice paper in the curlicued script of a bygone era, with a postage stamp of a monkey-king cavorting on a cloud. “Dear Friend Pomfret, Salutations!” it began and went on to inform me that I would be welcome to begin studies at the institute the following September. I had learned my first lesson in how things were accomplished in the People’s Republic—through connections. The same principle applied to getting my Chinese visa. The Chinese consulate in San Francisco had not received notification of my acceptance to the Beijing Languages Institute. I waited for months, exchanging a stack of letters with the school, until my father came to my rescue. A Times editor put him in touch with a Chinese diplomat, Cao Guisheng, who years later would be identified as a top Chinese intelligence officer. Cao agreed to help and in August 1980, I picked up my visa at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. That first brush with a Chinese spy would not be my last.
Before leaving California, I dropped in at the Asian Languages Department at Stanford. One of my Chinese professors pointed his finger at me and said, “You are going to China. Do you have a Chinese name?” It had never occurred to me that John Pomfret would not work perfectly well in China. The Chinese language, made up of about four hundred monosyllables (compared to English’s eight thousand), is woefully limited when it comes to transliterating foreign words and names. The closest one could come to my name would be something like: “Yue-Han [John] Pang-Fu-Lei-Te [Pomfret].”
My professor chose Pan as my new surname. Like my name, it started with P. There are only a few hundred last names for all 1.3 billion Chinese, and so it would be that whenever I met a Chinese with the last name Pan, he or she would invariably joke that we were from the same mythical ancestral village. For a given name, the professor chose Aiwen, from Edwin, my middle name. Aiwen means “lover of culture.” Pan Aiwen. I thought it was cool. Only later would I learn that Lover of Culture was a girl’s name, the Chinese equivalent of, say, Petunia.
In 1980, there were no flights between the United States and China. The way in was through British colonial Hong Kong, the plane swooping for a landing over the tenements that ringed Kai Tak Airport. The next morning I boarded a train for the first leg of my trip to Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, the largest city in southern China. After an hour, we arrived at the listless border town of Lowu, the last stop in Hong Kong. Lugging three suitcases and a backpack, I walked over a bridge crossing the fetid Shenzhen River into China.
In 1980, Shenzhen was a network of villages dotted with rice paddies and fishponds, with a population of 280,000. Its tallest building was five stories high; its workers and farmers each produced on average $250 worth of goods each year. A year earlier, the Chinese government had picked Shenzhen as the first of its five so-called Special Economic Zones, where experiments with capitalist-style economic reforms would soon unlock the pent-up moneymaking talents of one of the world’s most entrepreneurial peoples.
Once on Chinese soil, I transferred to a train for Guangzhou. The Shenzhen station seethed with travelers hauling merchandise—clothes, canned food, bales of rice—in sacks attached to bamboo shoulder poles that bent under the weight of the load. The scene was a two-tone riot of navy blue and olive green, the color of almost all clothing worn in China. Men with wild eyes and Mao caps surged on board. Absent the Mao cap, I looked pretty much the same.
As a foreigner, I had been placed in first class, where the fans worked, clean white lace antimacassars adorned the seatbacks, and attendants delivered thermoses of boiling water and lidded teacups. The rest of the long train was third class, what the Chinese aptly call “hard seat,” where hundreds of sweating, smoking travelers crammed together on benches.
The train clanked past bamboo groves, duck ponds, and village houses blackened by coal dust. I saw men steering wooden plows pulled by water buffalo, women hunkered over knee-deep in rice paddy water, and travelers tottering on clunky black bicycles along dirt paths. This was a view of rural southern China I would come to know well, and one I believed would be everlasting.
After dumping my suitcases at one of the few Guangzhou hotels that catered to foreigners, I went off in search of food. All I had was an address of a famed restaurant and a bad street map. I trudged for hours, getting caught in a downpour, before finding shelter under the awning of a teahouse alongside several couples, all of whom were holding hands. That was interesting; I’d been told that public displays of affection were banned.
As late afternoon approached, families cascaded out from narrow doorways into the streets for dinner, squatting on tiny stools, rice bowl in one hand, chopsticks in the other, shoveling food into their mouths. By the time I found the restaurant, it was teeming with diners. All heads turned toward me, the sweat-stained foreigner. My Chinese was pretty primitive, so I walked table to table with a waitress, pointing to what I wanted to eat. What’s that? Snake. And that? Owl. And that? Civet cat.
In my college Chinese textbooks, by chapter three, we had learned “vanguard of the proletariat” and “serve the people,” but we never did learn how to say “I’d like General Tso’s Civet Cat, please.” I chose a plate of shredded chicken with bell peppers, some green vegetables, and a steamed fish, downing it all along with four bowls of rice and an indeterminate quantity of warm flat beer served in bowls. Diners from neighboring tables, their faces scarlet with drink, staggered over to toast this “American friend.” That night I learned a new word: fantong, literally “rice bucket” or “big eater.” To peals of laughter, I repeated it louder and louder. “I am a rice bucket. I am rice bucket.” Later on I learned it also meant “dummy.”
The next evening, I boarded the train from Guangzhou to Beijing. Back in first class, I shared my berth with a Chinese official in a finely pressed Mao suit. I had brought a small cassette player, and I popped in a Bob Marley tape, explaining in broken Chinese, “This is the music of revolution.” Thinking this would earn me some solidarity, I was surprised when he seemed to recoil in horror at the word. I thought he had misunderstood, so I reformulated the sentence. “This is revolutionary music.” Again, he looked at me oddly, as if in dismay. After four decades of non-stop political struggle, revolution was probably the farthest thing from his mind.
I wandered back to the hard sleeper cars with their rack-upon-rack of three-level padded black bunks crammed with families and young people. A group of students heading to the university in Beijing asked me to sit down and share some sunflower seeds. A few tried out their halting English on me, as I did my Chinese on them. They, too, had no interest in Bob Marley. They favored the Eagles’ greatest hits, until the train police appeared and told me to go back to first class and my new friends scattered with embarrassed smiles.
As the train chugged north toward Beijing, the air grew cooler, the skies brighter. I developed my first crush on a Chinese woman—a train attendant who made fun of my bad Chinese and harangued me for being left-handed. Both would become routine—the crushes and the teasing I took about the way I spoke their language and manhandled their chopsticks. The landscape out the window changed from tropical rolling hills to flatter, drier plains of yellow dirt. We lumbered through the industrial heartland of Wuhan, crossing the Yangtze River, and then half a day later we left the muddy waters of the Yellow River behind as well. At dawn on the third day we began our approach to Beijing.
Once in Beijing, I made my way, via a rattling Russian-made taxi, from the railroad station to the Beijing Languages Institute, on the northwestern outskirts of town. On the way we passed an enormous square. The driver turned to look at me: “This is Tiananmen!” he shouted, spraying me in his enthusiasm with a mouthful of spittle. I asked him to drive around it once so I could take in the view and the enormous painted portrait of Mao that dominated its northern side.
With their victory over the Nationalists in 1949, the Communists moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. They flattened Beijing’s old city walls and bulldozed the courtyard houses and shantytown that stretched for a mile in front of the crimson gates of the Forbidden City, for centuries the residence of China’s emperors, empresses, and their eunuch aides and courtesans. In place of the shantytown, they paved a four-million-square-foot rectangle; it was called Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Aft...
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