Every free minute I have had since I returned to China I have spent with Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret. And, despite the misleading title, it isn’t a textbook for learning Chinese. Chinese Lessons is a book I almost didn’t buy. While I was in the states, one of the first things I did was order a slew of books about China that I can’t get digitally or can get much cheaper used. Chinese Lessons showed up on Amazon as recommended, but the title sounded dry and I thought that the book might be boring or pretentious. Lots of foreigners have lived in China over the years and have written about it and very few actually speak to or represent both the expat experience and convey the true life of the Chinese. But I noticed that I hadn’t picked any books by male authors, so I ordered it.
And I am so glad I did. This is by far the best book about China I have read since I started doing reviews. I give this book a 5 out of 5. Here is why:
It is amazing to me how little the Chinese experience for expats has changed over the years. Reading the first chapter, when Pomfret first came to China in 1980, I found myself nodding going “yeah, yeah, uh-huh, yup, I remember that.” He is able to recall that fresh-off-the-boat experience so well even though it was over 30 years ago, yet the visual picture he paints is almost the exact same as the one I had just 2 years ago. After just the first chapter I was hooked.
The book also takes a very interesting “plot” arc. This isn’t a novel, but it isn’t exactly a biography either. Pomfret when to Nanjing university in 1981 and made several life-long friendships. He tells his own story, going to China for school, work, living away from China, going back again, but intertwines that with the life stories of several of his classmates. And this was such a fascinating time in Chinese history, but so few people in China talk about it. The young people of university age in 1980 were also the children and teenagers of the Cultural Revolution – a time when schools closed, making money made you an enemy of the people, and family relationships were torn asunder. But in 1978 all that changed when the universities reopened. Now education was valued. By the mid-1980’s, capitalism was putting down roots. By 1989, people were calling for more freedom and democracy. By the mid-1990’s, China was arriving on the world scene as an economic powerhouse. These students who Pomfret convinces to talk about their lives openly lived through all these changes, and they are brutally honest about the outcomes. Pomfret was in China for all these changes too. The book definitely hits a high note when he describes actually being in Tiananmen Square when the massacre occurred. But even though he isn’t Chinese, he paints a realistic and sympathetic picture of each person he meets. Their life stories are fascinating and heartbreaking and you can’t wait to find out what happens to them next. The life of the American is authentic and the lives of the Chinese are authentic as well. To find an accurate representation of both peoples in a single book is really a masterpiece of literature.
Chinese Lessons is riveting from beginning to end. The book is appealing because of its history and its accurate portrayal of both expat and Chinese lives throughout the last 50 years in China. If you live in China and you want to better understand why the Chinese do the things that they do, then you need to read this book. If you are thinking of going to China and you want an idea of what you are getting into, then you need to read this book. If you have friends or family living in China and you want to know what life is like here, then you need to read this book. If you have any interest in China at all, then you need to read this book.