Friday, January 30, 2009

"Chinese Lessons"

Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)
For two weeks this Summer, all the world focused on China where the 2008 Olympic Games took place. The opening ceremony with its perfectly choreographed cast of thousands and lip-synching baby-doll was China’s way of showing the world just how far that nation has come. A mere 30 years ago, China was locked up by Chairman Mao’s brand of Communism; very few foreigners were allowed in and those lucky few were closely watched. In 1981, John Pomfret, a twenty-two-year-old student, found a way in and matriculated at Nanjing University. Mr. Pomfret’s memoir, Chinese Lessons, documents his almost thirty-year relationship with China as a student and a journalist: the friends he made, the history he observed as it happened, and the evolution he witnessed as Communist China learned to compete in the global marketplace.

We Americans know very little about China. Most of us enjoy Chinese restaurants and attempting to use chopsticks, and some of us appreciate Chinese art and antiques. If we paid attention in high school history, we learned about the silk and spice trade routes, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, and that Japan attempted to conquer China during World War II. We also knew that China was a Communist country, and therefore an enemy until that nation discovered the benefits of capitalism and US corporations began hiring Chinese laborers for pennies on the dollar. Recently I have seen a number of bumper-stickers encouraging Americans not to buy things that are made in China. This speaks to a deep level of distrust we Americans continue to have toward that ancient, vast, densely populated, and mysterious nation.

Chinese Lessons is a moving and compelling description of modern China: the nation which emerged from the brutal repression of Maoist Communism to become an economic powerhouse. At twenty-two, John Pomfret had completed his junior year at Stanford University, majoring in East Asian Studies. Through university connections he secured a place in an exchange program and obtained the visa required to study in China. Upon arriving, Mr. Pomfret enrolled in a language school where he quickly learned how important a keen ear is. Spoken Chinese is a tonal language, in other words the same word can have different meanings depending on how it is “sung”. On his first night out, Mr. Pomfret meant to call himself “rice bucket” (big eater), but instead called himself “dummy” to the amusement of his dinner companions.

Mr. Pomfret made many friends and acquaintances while studying in China. A photograph at the beginning of the book shows the sixty-three history majors in Nanjing University’s class of 1982. A few fellow students became close friends and stayed in touch over the ensuing years. Through these friends, Mr. Pomfret learned of the brutality of Communist China, the effects of which continue to shape national attitudes. Under Chairman Mao, the country was ruled by fear causing friends and family to betray each other as a self-serving means of avoiding starvation, exile, or death. Even now, Chinese don’t tend to go out of their way to help each other.

After thousands of years of being peasants serving emperors, “the people” took power in the form of Mao Zedong who became a de facto emperor. What Mao did not have that previous emperors did, was the ability to run a country. Mao, with his Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, succeeded in starving the population and ridding the country of the people who knew how to read, write, make, grow, and build things. He was a political genius who distracted China’s people with empty slogans and created a paranoid society where distrust ran thicker than blood. Any deviation from the Communist party line could ruin a life or a family. After Mao died in 1976, his successor Hua Guofeng arrested Mao’s widow and three others, referred to as the “Gang of Four.” This purge did not spell the end of Communist Party rule, it merely changed the players.

What is particularly interesting is how Mao maintained his power in spite of dissention among the Party and the military. He did this by creating a propaganda machine which taught young people to chant slogans and see things in very simple, black and white, terms. Chinese youth who followed Chairman Mao became the Red Guard, a highly disciplined para-military movement aimed at smashing “class enemies”, in other words, those who did not agree with Mao. Deng Xiaopeng, was one of the early dissenters and for this was twice purged by Mao’s red guard, but somehow avoided being killed. After Mao’s death, Deng returned and succeeded in wresting power from Hua Guofeng.

Deng Xiaopeng was a strong leader who understood that China could become extremely powerful in global trade by becoming “capitalist with Chinese characteristics”, or allowing businesses to create wealth under the auspices of the Party. As China began to develop its new identity, students in Beijing with a pent up yearning for “freedom” began demonstrating in Tiananmen Square in 1989. For a little while this was tolerated, but within days tens of thousands of protestors had arrived. At that time, John Pomfret was a reporter for AP News and using his Chinese connections was able to witness the events as they unfolded. What started as a peaceful protest became a standoff between thousands of unarmed civilians and army troops. According to Mr. Pomfret, the student leaders were too young to know the horrors the Party was capable of and did not believe that the “People’s Army” would fire on “the people” in the square. However, the Chinese government declared martial law and the stakes became deadly. In an attempt to block the soldiers from storming them, the protestors swarmed to create defensive lines. The soldiers were under orders to end the occupation of Tiananmen Square and began shooting into the crowds. The two-month-long standoff was over and the Party had won.

Almost thirty years later, the students who organized the protests think it was a mistake and now go along with the mainstream in China. As an American, I find this complacency difficult to understand. We are trained from birth to be individuals and use our creativity. Our relatively young nation is one of expanding horizons and opportunities. We hold our rights to speech and assembly higher than political power. China’s story is much different.

In terms of land area, only Russia is larger. With a population of 1.4 billion China is four times larger than the United States. Across the millennia, China’s boundaries ebbed and flowed until the Qing (pronounced “cheen”) Dynasty which expanded China to its current size – 3.7 million square miles. The Qings ruled from 1644 – 1912. During the late 1800s, Britain and other European nations began exploiting the Orient. The Qings enjoyed many benefits from British engagement, but feared and resented the Europeans at the same time. British-controlled India produced vast quantities of opium which ended up in China’s black markets. China tried to enforce its strict drug laws, sparking a war with Great Britain, but lost. The Emperor became a puppet of the British and signed numerous treaties which served to enrich Britain by ceding control of Chinese ports, raw materials, cheap labor, and markets. This was a time of great humiliation for China – an ancient and highly sophisticated culture.

As one of the opening salvos of World War II, the Japanese attacked and occupied the province of Manchuria in an attempt to secure access to food sources and raw materials. Japan eventually lost the war and retreated; and China emerged free for the first time from the rule of emperors and colonists. Communism filled the power vacuum and the uneducated population, accustomed to being told what to do, followed along. The Communists destroyed traditions and broke apart family ties. China lost its heart and soul and for a long time suffered from poverty, widespread hunger, and illiteracy. The Communists were not stupid and wanted to become a world power. This required scientists and scientists needed education. A world power also needed a sense of itself and historians could tell the nation’s story. And so the ignorance-loving Communists allowed education as long as it served the Party.

Mr. Pomfret’s friends and acquaintances from his years as a student in China form a microcosm of Chinese society with their collective amnesia about the Communist Party. A few of his friends, however, questioned the social norms and were forced into exile. One family challenged the one child rule and one classmate became almost as brutal as Mao’s Red Guard in his quest for wealth and power. When we think of China, we often do not stop to consider that the Chinese people are cut from the same cloth that we are. John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons reveals that given the opportunity, they want what we want: housing, food, education, and consumer goods. What took the United States 100 years to achieve, the Chinese achieved in a couple of decades. The story is not over, however. China will be devastated by industrial pollution, traffic congestion, and over-population for a long time. Meanwhile, Chinese workers are becoming more demanding and so the days of cheap Chinese labor are numbered. To paraphrase a sentence from Chinese Lessons: China, warmly we welcome you to the dog-eat-dog capitalist world.

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