History Books

In the Central Country

John Pomfret's Chinese Lessons begins almost at the birth of modern, post-Mao China, and continues right up to the day before yesterday. The author, a recent college graduate at the start, is a fortyish father father at the end. In the same twenty-odd years, China goes from grinding austerity to Wild-West exuberance. In the middle of the story (if not midway chronologically), there is a big bump, familiarly referred to simply as "Tiananmen." Pomfret is in Beijing in 1989, covers the student uprising, and is thrown out of China for his pains. He regains access years later when, working for the Washington Post, he is fortunate to have Katharine Graham as an advocate. Strings are pulled. Returning to China, Pomfret finds the country greatly changed. He also tracks down a few close classmates from his early days, in the early Eighties, when he was one of the first Americans allowed to study at Nanjing University. He meets and falls in love with a woman from an ancient Nanjing family displaced to Yunnan by the Ming who has an advanced degree from Harvard.

You wonder what language they fight in, but you're immediately grateful for not having been told. As befits a book about China, Pomfret's memoir is often more candid than one might expect it to be and in unexpected ways.

Cultural clashes occurred nonstop; we called them "China moments." One day in the fall, I was invited to a friend's apartment for dinner. When I arrived, the night guard stopped me and told a blatant lie: my friend was not in. There was no way to call because people had no phones, and I couldn't scale the brick walls because they were too high. I erupted at the gatekeeper, mangling my Chinese in a fit of futile histrionics.

"I get angry here," I wrote in a letter home to my parents, "a weird almost uncontrollable rage, a rage that makes me want to break up restaurants, push people, scream and yell, smack into people on my bicycle as they cross the street with their heads down."

In the dorm, there's the guy who is fascinated by the fact that Pomfret sleeps in the nude; he's not to be confused with the guy who wants to get cozy. Much later, there's the expedition to buy antiques that involves dealing with hotel prostitutes. And when Pomfret meets his future wife, he's nonplussed: "As for me, my interaction with Chinese women had been pretty much limited to floozies and opportunists." Such scraps of information suggest that John Pomfret is more George Clooney than James Stewart. In the end, however, scraps are all the we get. This book is about a handful of Chinese people; the author tells us no more than we need to know for him to serve as an intelligible lens.

The Chinese tend to overlook the possibility that they might be intelligible to him. He is used to this when he meets his seven roommates at the university ("Nanda").

I had gotten accustomed to Chinese surrounding me, their heads cocked sideways, mouths agape, apprising my looks, my nose, my eyes, hair, and clothes. It was always "Can he talk?" as if Chinese was the world's sole tongue. It never seemed to occur to them that I could understand what they were saying about me. In my four months in China, I had often been unnerved by being privy to what every stranger thought about me. I had though somehow that Nanda was going to be different. "Hey," I said, "looking at them, trying my hand at a joke, "the monkey speaks."

Chinese Lessons offers few portraits of Chinese admirers of the West who long to escape. For all the suffering (much of it horrific) that Pomfret's friends endured during the Cultural Revolution and earlier, they remain natives of a place that they call the Central Country. The relentlessness with which these people believe that the Chinese way is not so much the best as the only way to live sensibly will jar readers who are overly accustomed to the idea that foreigners everywhere regard everything Western with envy. Although most of the Chinese whom Pomfret gets to know regard the Communist Party as misguided (or worse), they never identify it with "China."

Thumbnails of the lives of four of Pomfret's "five classmates" Little Guan, "Book Idiot" Zhou, Old Xu, and Daybreak Song would spoil both the story and the reader's appetite for it: the strength of Pomfret's generous narrative is that it makes his friends' endurance endurable. Their lives are not gothic nightmares, and to varying degrees they all triumph over daunting adversity. The career of the fifth classmate, "Big Bluffer" Ye, is in contrast bitterly comic. The son of a petty official who accommodated himself to the betrayals of the Cultural Revolution, Ye has no horrors to recall. He is determined to work the system to his advantage, and when we last see him he is stepping into a limousine, now a bigwig in Nanjing who has widened a commercial thoroughfare into a glitzy strip of neon. His low-level corruption is so casually acknowledged that one cannot help feeling Nemesis shuddering around the corner. But Nemesis may not bea  Chinese concept.

Certainly the most poignant story that threads through Chinese Lessons is that of Daybreak Song, the class Romeo. Having hooked up with an Italian exchange student, he makes his way to Italy in the late Eighties, only to be stuck there when his participation in pro-Democracy (anti Tiananmen crackdown) demonstrations in Rome makes him persona non grata at home. After a protracted spell of unattractive idleness, Song finally lands a good job as a sportswriter for soccer-mad Chinese fans. But the urge to return to China is overpowering, even though he recognizes the personal danger. Countless Chinese have been thrown in jail for milder "offenses."

Living in Italy all these years had preserved Song's idealism, the infectious, blind hope that made China so vibrant in the 1980s. Absent during the Tiananmen crackdown and China's transformation in the 1990s into a society out for cash and kicks, Song maintained his innocence about the corruption, the swindles, and the general disintegration of whatever remained of traditional values.

How could he believe he could be free in China, of all places, I wondered. If he returned, what would stop state security from ordering his arrest? With just a click of the mouse, Chinese police could read all of the posts Song had made on Internet Web sites calling for China to begin negotiations with the Dalai Lama. People were routinely hauled off for lesser crimes. In 2004 and 2005, state security agents rounded up scores of people for posting their opinions on the Internet, slapping them with lengthy prison terms. In 2005, for the sixth year in a row, China had more journalists in prison than any other country.

Maria Luisa was right. Something of his father the spurned supplicant to the Communist Party remained in Song, exemplified by his slavish brownnosing of the Nanjing security agent and his dream of being welcomed back into China's embrace. Near the end of their stay, Song, Maria Luisa, and I went for coffee at a Nanjing Starbucks. As we savored our espressos, Song told a Taoist fable about a young boy who goes to another country to learn their way of walking. Before mastering the steps, however, he forgets his own and has to crawl home.

"Perhaps," he said, "I am this boy."

Heartier by far is the story of Little Guan, the student with the Cinderella girlhood behind her who eventually marries a lovely man and has a lovely son and whose life does not stop there. Relatively affluent, Little Guan decides to "do something" for a poor rural girl whom she reads about after the child fends off a jackal on a lonely mountain road. It doesn't take long for Little Guan to find out that her remittances to the girl, also surnamed Guan, are being diverted by postal workers.

Little Guan pestered and cajoled the local authorities as she fought for the right to help Xiaodan, and her sister, who had returned from the textile mills because her left hand had gone numb after seven days a week on a sewing machine. Little Guan's contacts in the province's legal department threatened local officials in Shitai. The stolen money was returned, although the thieving postmen were not punished, and the village chief backed off. After lunch, as we strolled in the countryside with Xiaodan and her mother, I asked Little Guan if she thought she'd be able to fight her way out of the countryside if she were a modern-day peasant girl like Guan Xiaodan. "China was a different country then," she said. "I don't know if I'd be able to make it today."

To look back and consider that things were not altogether worse before the economic liberalizations of Deng Xiao-Ping is not encouraging.

The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were so successfully stage-managed that any "otherness" about China that Westerners were forced to confront was relatively decorative. If the Chinese of Pomfret's student days were delighted that a young American could understand their pride in the traditions of their country, today's Chinese, however eager for the admiration of foreigners, appear to be indifferent to their interest. If we no longer entertain the stereotype of "inscrutable Orientals" that governed Western prejudice well into the Twentieth Century, that may be because our misconceptions have given way to an absence of conceptions altogether. I can think of no more engaging corrective to our bland unconsciousness of China than John Pomfret's Chinese Lessons. (September 2008)

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press

Write to me