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

3.97  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,008 Ratings  ·  117 Reviews
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
Paperback, 336 pages
Published July 24th 2007 by Holt Paperbacks (first published 2006)
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Fascinating - John Pomfret has spent much of his adult life fully absorbed in Chinese culture, beginning with attending "Nandu" University in 1982. This book tells the complicated stories of a handful of his classmates, as well as John's own experiences and reflections on the country he loves in spite of its crazy contradictions. When I think of modern China I think of a new economic superpower, but Pomfret's perspective opened my eyes to so much more than that. Two passage from the book really ...more
Mar 05, 2016 Qiong rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I put down the book finally, let out a long sigh, and asked myself, "was it really like that?"

It's just, so surreal to me. You know what I mean? I was sitting in a lovely cafe, sipping my cup of coffee. The wait stuff paid no attention to me. They hustled around, serving cakes, drinks. I loved the flowers they put in front of the counter, and the elegant light above us made everyone look so warm and peaceful, and happy.

Was it really like that?

I'm not doubting anything the book has said. Quite o
Sep 02, 2013 Louise rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china
There is lots of material on the exiles, refugees and China based casualties of the Cultural Revolution, but this is the first I've read with confessions. As JP's friend Zhou says everyone in China claims to be a victim, but "do the math". What could the ratio of victim to torturer be? This book doesn't answer that, but sheds light on the Cultural Revolution's environment and aftermath.

Also, westerners tend to see Tienanmen Square through an idealistic lens. JP reports on hunger fasts with 8 hou
Mar 30, 2009 Gail rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very interesting book which puts a human perspective on the enormous shifts and changes in China's policies and culture in the last 50 years. Author/journalist (for the Wash. Post) John Pomfret was one of the first Americans allowed to be an exchange student in China--he attended Nanda University in Nanjing with the Class of '82. He follows the lives of nine of his classmates. They grew up during the Cultural Revolution,began their post-college adult lives just prior to the Tiananmen Square ma ...more
Aug 24, 2014 Kristine rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
Amazon got me to buy this one; I went online to get something completely different, and then got sucked into the “people who bought this book also bought …” and there were two about China. There is something overly male about this guy’s style, maybe his need to be sure the reader knows he was getting laid while all the hapless Chinese boys were doing without. And the harshness of life in China pretty much always got to grinding me down, and I started wondering why I was still reading it. He rejo ...more
Jerel Bonner
Chinese Lessons gives the reader a rare view of China that most books I have read never focus on; what happened to the people of China just after the Cultural Revolution.

When my friend first handed me this book, I thought, what can I learn from this. I took his advise and started reading and I am glad that I did. Chinese Lessons tells the story of the classmates of John Pomfret. It tells about their hardships to survive during one of China's most turbulent time and after-wards. All was not rosie
Christy King
I struggled whether to rate this a 3. The author and I are about the same age, so I find the time span in this book entirely relevant and interesting to current events in the world. His language is easy to follow, and I like that he presents his story through the filter of his fellow classmates. Great idea. However, I find his writing style a bit too factually journalistic i.e. dry. Plenty of writers who tackle long subjects for The Atlantic, for example, manage to tell great stories that don't ...more
Patty S.
May 15, 2016 Patty S. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a fascinating story of a young American who spent one year studying in Nanjing in the early 1980's. His career returned him to China giving him continuing access to his classmates. It is in some small way a coming-of-age book of an American, but even more a coming of age of a country.
After more than 16 stays in China with Chinese friends and colleagues I have some knowledge of Chinese culture and beliefs. This writer did an excellent job of explaining who the Chinese people are. I highly
Sep 17, 2015 Khaleel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I absolutely loved this book. It's one of the best i've read on China. This book shows the transition of China - during the period following Chairman Mao's death. It is a fascinating period of change, of a country and its people unsure of themselves but desperate to progress. There was an energy and eagerness after Mao's death to make great strides and overcome the poverty and backwardness that brought shame to the Chinese people.

Chinese Lessons is character driven which makes it fun to read, li
May 12, 2013 Rob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, misc
This was a fascinating read about the recent history of China through the eyes of one who has experienced himself along with several of his Chinese classmates. Pomfret is open and honest about his own experiences and the experiences of his friends. He does a great job of sharing these stories in a way that shows how China's development over the lat 40+ years has created the China of today. Before reading this book, I knew very little about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Whil ...more
Chinese Lessons opens with a situation straight out of George Orwell's 1984: the narrator wakes up to the blare of trumpets via a speaker in his bedroom, while a woman's voice bombards him with a string of propaganda.

It is not 1984 but 1981, and John Pomfret, who was then a fourth-year American student at Stanford, was on an exchange programme at Nanjing University in China. Interested in learning about the Chinese first-hand, he had chosen to share a small bedroom with seven Chinese students. T
Apr 14, 2008 Dana rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I really found this book to be kind of "meh." Now I grant you that this could be because I knew it had been chosen as the pre-reading assignment for my job's study abroad students over Oracle Bones, which I had just read and was thus directly comparing it to for merit. However, that disclaimer now said, I found the writing structure of the book to be rather confusing and poorly put together.

Pomfret sets up the premise of his book as this: he was one of the first exchange students allowed to att
I've been meaning to write up a review of this book for ages. Luckily I just remembered that, duh, I had to read this for a class last semester and, duh, the resulting assignment was a book review. I even still have it saved! So, in lieu of putting forth any kind of creative effort, I'm just going to copy and paste my old assignment. Recycling!(?)

Me, circa late Spring semester 2013:

"Chinese Lessons was a phenomenal read. It was a pleasant reminder that assigned readings can actually be entertain
May 06, 2012 Eric rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My favorite personal account from an American in China so far, Chinese Lessons focuses on the rise, conclusion, and long-term consequences of the Cultural Revolution and the rise of Chinese capitalism since. The book reports the Cultural Revolution through the author's classmates at Nanjing University, some of whom were among the perpetrators of the violence and oppression, some of whom lost family members via extremely violent means, and some of whom were affected in less extreme ways.

Pomfret a
Mar 09, 2014 Brett rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For my return flight home from a fantastic first trip to southeastern China, I wanted to learn more about their history and culture. This book was everything I could have asked for, written by an accomplished journalist who I found very relatable. Pomfret cleverly relays China's evolution through the lives of a handful of his classmates. There is shocking and embarrassing material here, but I came away with a great deal more understanding about who these people are and what they have had to over ...more
Apr 08, 2009 Aliza rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I tend to agree with some of the reviews that Pomfret himself does not always come off entirely positively. He often seems to stereotype the Chinese people - for example, with the exception of his eventual wife and Little Guan, he seems to label most women as opportunists, and he makes fairly broad statements about Chinese men, even when the stories of his own classmates seem to belie these generalizations. He also seems a little arrogant about his own knowledge of China, and even desperate at t ...more
Mar 15, 2012 Anne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china-books
Another book recommended to me by my friend, Cathy.

Publisher's 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.

My review: This is quite a remarkable story. I am struck by how resilient and gritty the Chinese people are to have been able to even survive such tumult and uncertainty in their country. Pomfret first met these individuals as students 20 years pr
Apr 08, 2013 Alexa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is an unsettling account of the lives of John Pomfret's classmates in China. He discusses how each experienced the Cultural Revolution. This included a classmate who was a member of the Red Guard as a child and participated in deeply disturbing abuse of his neighbors and a classmate whose parents were professors and were murdered, among others. He follows these classmates through their time at university and their adult lives. It was fascinating to see the different paths that each cla ...more
Aug 20, 2015 Jen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read this book again, 8 years later, that's how much I liked it. Original review from August 2007 follows: I love-love-loved this book. This man lived in China off and on from 1980 to 2005. I lived there in 1992 - it was fascinating to hear his thoughts on life in China before my year there, and then also to learn about how it has changed after being there. What made this book different (for me) from the many books about China out there, is that he spent so much time in China during their tran ...more
Jul 30, 2007 Lisa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
John Pomfret, with a journalist's touch, narrates the stories of his classmates he met in Nanjing, China from 1980 to now. Tales of their experience of the Cultural Revolution, some even old enough to have known the Great Leap Forward first hand, this generation witnessed the incredible transformation that led to the China that is today.

But most surprising is the openness he was received as an outsider looking in; the bluntness of some of the stories, the frankness in the storyteller. For a 1st
Jan 14, 2014 Rebecca rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china
A look at modern Chinese history through the life stories of a handful of the author's college classmates. The author is an American who studied in Nanjing shortly after foreign students were allowed to enter universities. The Cultural Revolution stories that his classmates told are horrible, but somewhat familiar to anyone who has read about the Cultural Revolution. It's the change from idealists to post-Tiananmen cynics that is most interesting and sets this book apart. Some of the author's st ...more
Apr 19, 2009 Colin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was incredible - a extremely vivid portrait of five classmates that graduate from Nanjing University in the early 1980s. Each character is described with intimate and engaging details - they truly come alive through Pomfret's language. The scope of the novel is also worth noting. It spans two decades and weaves in the events of the day in a way that is both natural and a wonderful history lesson. His style is impressively down-to-earth and he shys away from the verbose. Beyond the book ...more
May 22, 2015 D rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've read widely on China and been there briefly, visiting small villages and several lesser known cities, mostly away from the tourist route. This was one of the best and most useful books on my long list.
Aug 10, 2014 Mark rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
The structure of the book can be somewhat confusing and scattered, but my high expectations prior to reading probably played the biggest role in the diminished return in value I felt upon completion.
Cecily Robertson
This was the least captivating book that I read for Global Awareness. It started off with some pretty gruesome stories, which excited me initially, but I felt like I didn't learn much about China as a whole. The only story I was mildly interested in throughout the book was Little Guan's, so the chapters that focused on other characters seemed to drag. I hoped to walk away from this book having learned about something new about China, but I really didn't. They're communists, the Tiananmen Square ...more
This book was recommended by Nick Meyer and was written by a friend of his. It follows the lives of five of Pomfret's classmates from his college study abroad experience in 1981. Pomfret his lived in China for much of his life and his method of following his classmates life stories over the next 25 years offers a stark look at the experiences of those moving out of Mao's communist Cultural Revolution and into the capitalist/communist experience of today. I enjoyed the book and would recommend it ...more
Oct 01, 2008 Susan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you have a budding interest in China or are an old China hand, run to the nearest bookstore or library. Pomfret doesn't hold back at all in this narrative about his years in China--as one of the first American students to live in China post-1949, as well as his first-hand experience with Tiananmen. He traces the lives of a handful of classmates from his early years in China, all of whom have taken different paths in new China, and reveals the many social and political problems that have stric ...more
Jan 10, 2008 Diane rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: china-chinese
Pomfret spent time as a student in China in the early 1980's. He was usually the only westerner in his classes and the only westerner that his friends knew. He spends a lot of time in China and marries a Chinese woman. He tells the stories five of his friends - their amazing early lives and what becomes of them as China changes.

I did not llike Pomfret as he presented himself and that detracted a lot from the book. But the stories of his friends especially their emotional and physcial survival
Aug 06, 2009 Katie rated it liked it
It was valuable to hear such personal stories about the bare brutality of the Cultural Revolution, but I didn't think Pomfret did a very good job of stitching these stories together into a cohesive whole. I wasn't even sure who the five classmates were for the first half of the book - there's a lot of jumping around without clear connections, which kept me from really becoming invested in any one story line. I didn't even finish the book - although I came within 5 pages of the end. It did bring ...more
Jun 09, 2010 Spanakos rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: area-studies
This is probably one of the best nonfiction books about the new China. Pomfret was one of the first Americans to study (and complete his university education) in China. Interestingly, just as he was allowed to study in China, Chinese universities were being opened to Chinese students. He talks about the lives of his fellow students in the early 1980s, 1989, and then in the early 20th century. The reader can learn a lot about contemporary and historic China from the lives of Pomfret's colleagues. ...more
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John Pomfret is an American journalist and writer. He was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and raised in New York. He attended Stanford University, receiving his B.A. and M.A. in East Asian Studies. In 1980, he was one of the first American students to go to China and study at Nanjing University. Between 1983 and 1984 he attended Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies as a Fulbright Scholar, ...more
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“I liked the way it felt to speak Chinese—the elegant rise and fall of the tones, the sensuous way my tongue flitted about my mouth and the economy of a language that needed very few words to say a lot. Speaking good French demands control of one’s lips; American English relies on an open mouth; but Chinese can be spoken perfectly even through clenched teeth. “Picture your tongue as a butterfly,” one of my instructors would say, and there it would be, flapping against my mouth and banging against my teeth as I sought to harness it and speak Chinese.” 0 likes
“The idioms also revealed that Chinese shared a barnyard bawdiness with American English. My favorite was “taking off your pants to fart”—wasted effort.” 0 likes
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