Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

John Pomfret : Chinese Lessons

I just can't stay away from China - probably because everything I wear was made there.

Pomfret is an American journalist who had the unique opportunity to follow the lives of six graduates of the first university class convened after the cultural revolution. This is the generation that suffered through that catastrophe, and then built the economic engine we see today.

It's an utterly fascinating collection of stories.

On the one hand, as an outsider, Pomfret can look for the bigger picture beyond the personal destiny that limits the vision of all the Chinese autobiographies that I've read so far.

But on the other, he became fluent in Chinese and, as an exchange student in 1980, shared the lives and built personal relationships with the students he met, as he returned to China several times over the following decades, eventually marrying a Chinese born American wife.

Their stories are so wacky, colorful, and amazing -- I had to read the book twice to make sure I caught every last detail.

The overall political picture is grim. Like American political parties, the Chinese Communist party will do anything to stay in power. But whereas American parties are restrained by law, the Chinese Communist Party is the law. There are no checks and balances beyond, presumably, another disastrous revolution.

And three generations of state terror appears to have eroded any sense of personal morality and integrity, creating a culture of ruthless cynicism even more intense than America's as moderated by Christianity.

Little Guan: a brilliant over-achiever who sets family above career but still is a successful manager and business woman. Her compassion, family loyalty, and traditional mysticism sets her apart from all the other characters. Quite a delightful lady, I'm glad we got to meet her.

Big Bluffer Ye: A cheerfully immoral but inventive party functionary who builds a commercial district and is a good earner for the party.

Old Xu : A less clever party functionary who gets thrown under the bus of party politics, but re-emerges as a bag man for a businessman whom he once helped.

Daybreak Song : The lothario who beds the two Italian exchange students in 1980, become an activist who flees the country after Tienanmen Square, and ends up as a foreign correspondent sports writer living in Italy. (it's so funny/tragic how Chinese fans prefer to follow foreign sports teams because their own are so corrupt)

Book Idiot Zhao : The most fascinating of all -- he teaches Marxist history by day, and at night exploits peasant workers in his urine hauling business. (the lawless Chinese human waste industry is endlessly fascinating - and as a scholar, Zhao is also writing a history of it)

Liu Gang: a PLA officer and amateur composer whom Pomfret met during the Tienanmen Square uprising. As a result of that meeting, Liu was arrested by state security and sent to prison. But he re-emerged a decade later as a successful composer writing state-sanctioned nationalistic operas.

Old Wu : a rather sad character whose parents were murdered by the Red Guard while he must write educational material that whitewashes that period of Chinese history.
But his trip to auto driving school is hilarious. (hint: don't rent a car if you visit China)


My Chinese friend tells me that Pomfret's stories are completely believable.

But I find one thing very puzzling.

On the one hand, he presents a society that is completely paranoid about being snooped on by a single-party state insanely jealous of its monopoly on power.

But on the other, he tells stories about people who, if real, might get in bad trouble for what they say to Pomfret.

Even Big Bluffer Ye -- who seems to be the perfect apparatchik -- is also now more visible, and hence more vulnerable, to his peers competing for power within party politics.


One theme that's developed here more than elsewhere is sexuality - complete with an historical theory that connects periods of neo-Confucianism to puritanical morals.

The Mao era is seen as one such era, and the profligacy of it's aftermath as a reaction to it. Does every hotel in China really serve as a brothel? Pomfret has some pretty wild stories, several involving himself.