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 mI 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 attend a regular Chinese university with regular Chinese students, back in the early 80s, and now he's going to tell the story of having followed several of his classmates through their lives since then. However, there were 5 of these classmates (plus himself) that he wants to present, and he does this chapter by chapter. Unfortunately, these chapters jump around a lot chronologically and geographically, so I found myself distracted from actually continuing to read the book by my brain puzzling over questions like, "Okay, where are we in time now again? How does this fit with the events that were going on in the last several chapters? Wait, when was the last time I saw this person again? Where did his/her story leave off?," and so on. Though the author did occasionally make comparative references to the lives of the others at the same time, there never seemed to be one cohesive and coherent storyline, which was something I had been astounded by in Oracle Bones, especially since Hessler managed to create his cohesive story across centuries, as well as decades and disparate parts of Chinese society.
This is not to say that Chinese Lessons is without merit. Pomfret lived through some very pivotal events during his life in China, and his accounts of those experiences are quite interesting. In some ways, I suspect that the book would have been better (to me) if he had only concentrated on his own story.
The other thing that struck me when comparing the two books is that Pomfret's book concentrates almost entirely on modern Chinese history since the Cultural Revolution, whereas Hessler's book brings in more of China's overall history and historical context. As such, Pomfret's book has a much more depressing feeling, as if modern China has no relation to ancient China, will draw nothing from all the vastness of its history, and will go forward only from the rather bleak picture he reveals of the now. Hessler, on the other hand, shows me that China's history is not really all that irrelevant, and maybe, just maybe, people can draw some hope from that past to go into the future. In his eyes, there is more to modern China than the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. (But then, I've always been more interested in more ancient Chinese history than modern, and I was pleased to read something that brought the two together.)...more