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

3.98  ·  Rating Details ·  1,078 Ratings  ·  125 Reviews
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 glimps ...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published August 8th 2006 by Henry Holt and Co. (first published 2006)
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Tanya
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
Louise
Sep 02, 2013 Louise rated it really liked it
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
...more
Qiong
Mar 02, 2016 Qiong rated it really liked it
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
...more
Michelle
Oct 27, 2016 Michelle rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fall16
Chinese people are a very strange race. Their prided endurance is an easy breeding ground for injustice. They take advantage of iniquity that they hate. Collectively they are so full of hypocrisy and bullshit yet individually they are so admirable. I know these are very strong words and they are also why I can't live in China again and why my parents would not want me to live in China.

But these traits did not come from a vacuum. China's recent history is full of human-inflicted trauma that the
...more
Gail
Mar 30, 2009 Gail rated it really liked it
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
Zach
Jun 13, 2013 Zach rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Heidi
Mar 08, 2017 Heidi is currently reading it
it is a good book about chinese history
Gerund
Mar 02, 2009 Gerund rated it liked it
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
...more
Dana
Mar 31, 2008 Dana rated it it was ok
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
...more
Rob
Oct 26, 2011 Rob rated it really liked it
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
Eric
May 06, 2012 Eric rated it really liked it
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
...more
Khaleel
Mar 05, 2012 Khaleel rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Kristine
Aug 24, 2014 Kristine rated it liked it
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
...more
Петър Стойков
Няма да я оценявам, защото не я довърших. А не я довърших, защото не беше това, което очаквах.

Под "история на новия Китай" аз очаквах описание на последните години от китайската история, след замирането на дивия комунизъм и началото на капиталистическото развитие на страната, което я превърна в работилницата на света и за има няма двайсет години намали бедността там от 80 на 30%, което е абсолютен прецедент в световната история.

Според автора обаче, "новият Китай" е просто не античния Китай, тоес
...more
Aliza
Apr 08, 2009 Aliza rated it liked it
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
Anne
Jan 29, 2009 Anne rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Jen
Sep 07, 2007 Jen rated it it was amazing
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
Lisa
Jul 26, 2007 Lisa rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Christy King
Feb 05, 2014 Christy King rated it liked it
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
Alexa
Feb 20, 2013 Alexa rated it really liked it
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
Colin
Apr 19, 2009 Colin rated it really liked it
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
Lynette
Nov 01, 2009 Lynette rated it liked it
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
Susan
Sep 28, 2008 Susan rated it it was amazing
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
Diane
Dec 16, 2007 Diane rated it liked it
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
...more
Kate Stout
Dec 25, 2016 Kate Stout rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, bio
I've read a lot about recent (Maoist on) Chinese history. In this account of an American who studies in China in 1980, only a few years after the universities are reopened, I got a much better sense of how China has changed rapidly in such a short time. The author follows the lives of 5 of his fellow students from the time of the Cultural Revolution to the modern capitalistic/communistic model that is so bewildering.

I found myself understanding China better than I had before - to think how many
...more
Brett
Feb 23, 2014 Brett rated it really liked it
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
Katie
May 21, 2008 Katie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Cecily Robertson
Apr 05, 2010 Cecily Robertson rated it it was ok
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
Philberta Leung
Dec 26, 2007 Philberta Leung rated it really liked it
Awesome book. John Pomfret is now a WashPost journalist and was one of the first students to study abroad in China when it opened its doors to America back in late 70's, early 80's. Pomfret has a great way of narrating stories of his classmates' lives during the Cultural Revolution and their lives over the last 20 years. It was fascinating to read about China this way from his point of view, and it makes it all the more interesting and funny because he reminds me so much of my many non-Chinese f ...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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