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‘Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China’

There is quite a spate of “I first reached China in 19__ at the tender age of __” posturing going around the Internet these days, and most of it stems from the release of John Pomfret’s new book Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.

So, let me just get this out of the way first:

I first reached China in 1993 at the tender age of 27.

1993. The effects of the Tiananmen “Incident” just four years earlier were still relatively fresh. It felt like a breathtaking, cutting edge cultural adventure at that time.

John Pomfret, however, currently Los Angeles bureau chief for The Washington Post, makes my adventure look like a spin on an AARP tour bus. He first reached China in 1981 at the tender age of 20, which is hard to beat–though Lisa does (1979 at age 19).

But 1981 was still just five years after the close of the Cultural Revolution, and “Gang of Four” Sweetheart Jiang Qing’s trial was that year. Many psychological effects of The Cultural Revolution were definitely still “fresh” when he arrived.

Fresh in a raw, oozing sort of way.

Nevertheless, Pomfret didn’t write a book about his experiences immediately.

Instead, inspired by a 2002 20-year reunion for the class he studied with at Nanjing University, he has written a book that tells the stories of four of his Chinese classmates from that year, from their childhoods to their present adult lives, using these tales as brushes to paint a picture that is “China Today.”

From the stock description:

A first-hand account of the remarkable transformation of China over the past forty years as seen through the life of an award-winning journalist and his four Chinese classmates

As a twenty-year-old exchange student from Stanford University, John Pomfret spent a year at Nanjing University in China. His fellow classmates were among those who survived the twin tragedies of Mao’s rule–the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution–and whose success in government and private industry today are shaping China’s future. Pomfret went on to a career in journalism, spending the bulk of his time in China. After attending the twentieth reunion of his class, he decided to reacquaint himself with some of his classmates. Chinese Lessons is their story and his own.

Beginning with Pomfret’s first days in China, Chinese Lessons takes us back to the often torturous paths that brought together the Nanjing University History Class of 1982. One classmate’s father was killed during the Cultural Revolution for the crime of being an intellectual; another classmate labored in the fields for years rather than agree to a Party-arranged marriage; a third was forced to publicly denounce and humiliate her father. As we watch Pomfret and his classmates begin to make their lives as adults, we see as never before the human cost and triumph of China’s transition from near-feudal communism to first-world capitalism.

I haven’t read the book yet–it actually isn’t released until today (August 8th)–so this isnt’ a review so much as a tip for you, but an extended excerpt titled The Life and Times of Book Idiot Zhou is available for us at, and a few online reviews do give us a bit more insight:

And here’s an interview with John Pomfret by China Digital Times.

Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China

Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China

August 2006

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