A generation scarred by China’s
Cultural Revolution is taking charge. By T. A. Frank
In 1970, Zhou Lianchun, a 15-year-old in Jiangsu Province, China, received a difficult assignment: He was to lead a session of “thought work” against a group of 11 fellow villagers. The problem wasn’t the idea of thought work, a euphemism for the torture of so-called class enemies. Zhou had been doing that since 1966, when Mao Zedong had launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and youths across the country had left school to form Red Guard units that set out to eradicate any vestiges of pre-Communist culture. The problem, rather, was that one of the people on the latest list of enemies was someone Zhou loved: Big Mama, his father’s wife and the woman who had raised him as a son.
In one respect, Zhou was lucky. During the worst chaos of the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1968, thought work often brought death to the victim. By 1970, though, simple humiliation and mental abuse were usually considered enough. So, day after day, Big Mama would kneel on a pile of straw in front of a crowd as Zhou screamed at her for taking in extra money as a seamstress, denouncing her as a “capitalist” and accusing her of harboring a “petty-bourgeois sensibility.” Then the two would return home together and Big Mama would cook dinner for the household, with no one mentioning the day’s events.
Today, nearly two decades later, Zhou looks back on those times and asks, “How do you think a society where that type of behavior was condoned, no, not condoned, mandated, can heal itself? Do you think it ever can?” His question reverberates through Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, a book by Washington Post reporter John Pomfret, who was the Post’s Beijing bureau chief from 1998 to 2003 and Beijing reporter for the Associated Press during the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. Pomfret has been observing China for nearly three decades now, watching it evolve from impoverished Maoist totalitarianism to wealthy Deng Xiaoping-ist authoritarianism, and beyond. Economically and politically, China has come far from the bad old days, but, spiritually, as Pomfret’s book makes clear, much of the poison remains.
Chinese Lessons is part memoir, part reporting. Pomfret first came to China as a visiting student in 1980. In 1981, having enrolled at Nanjing University, he had a chance to experience the country in a way that few foreigners ever do. Rather than being assigned to a dormitory set aside for two-to-a-room foreign students, Pomfret was given the option of living with seven others in a normal dormitory for Chinese. If conditions were cramped, the opportunity to befriend Chinese peers was unparalleled. (In fact, no university in China that I’m aware of offers such intermingling today.) Here, Pomfret would meet Zhou, the former Red Guard, as well as numerous other Chinese students with whom he’d keep in touch over the years. In Chinese Lessons, Pomfret focuses on the stories of five of his classmates, weaving them in with his own, and opens a window into contemporary China in all its frenetic disarray.
Pomfret’s classmates in 1981 had one bit of extremely good fortune in common: They were university students. The Cultural Revolution had shuttered schools for a decade, consigning an entire generation to ignorance and miserable jobs. Only a small number, most already in their mid-twenties (having spent much of their youth as Red Guards and, later, as farmworkers), were able to combine brainpower, work, and just plain luck to pass the admissions exams and escape their lot. Pomfret’s friends that year were all members of this extraordinary crop, the first selected for college in 1978 after the long intellectual drought.
They’d certainly suffered enough. Wu Xiaoqing, now a professor at Nanjing University, had lost both his parents in a single day at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, when mobs paraded them about town and finally beat them to death. Guan Yongxing, the one female among the five classmates in Pomfret’s account, saw her father sent away to a labor camp in 1966 and was ordered to denounce him publicly two years later. To this day, one of Guan’s arms is nearly useless because doctors at the time refused to set it when schoolmates broke it. For any citizen of the People’s Republic over the age of 45, such stories are common.
Lucky as they were to be in school, though, Pomfret’s classmates still had to contend with the state, which held almost all the country’s economic levers and exercised its grip capriciously. Graduation from school brought with it government-assigned jobs, some of which could be so dismaying (such as being dispatched to teach in some remote and poor region of the country) that students would kill themselves. Most simply accepted their fate. When Guan Yongxing was assigned to work in Beijing and her husband-to-be to Anhui Province, over 24 hours away by train, no one was willing to help keep the couple together. Guan chose to live with her husband, turning down her job and, with it, her career. For most Chinese, the early 1980s were still years of anxiety, bitterness, and jealousy.
Today, a visitor to China would see something very different. College students now graduate without work assignments, free to work in the private sector and to hop from job to job. People often own their own homes, and they can rent apartments on the open market. Unmarried couples often move in together. China has bohemian painters, punk rockers, and millionaire capitalists. The opportunities for making money outside of the government are plentiful (and, sadly, inside government, even more plentiful). Fear has subsided greatly.
For all these changes, though, Pomfret’s book reminds us of the extent to which brutality, deception, and corruption still bedevil everyday life. When Guan Yongxing decides to bring a ray of hope to a fatherless and destitute peasant girl, she avoids going through any charities (they pilfer the money) and instead sends $65 by mail to the girl’s mother each month. Unfortunately, postal workers regularly steal it, and the party chief of the village demands a cut. In 2002, when Zhou Lianchun is teaching a class on Marxism at the Anhui Institute of Finance and Trade, a student writes up an eight-page denunciation of Zhou for being anti-party and anti-Mao. Why, wonders Zhou, when so many students cheat and plagiarize in college, would this student make such an effort? “I think the real reason is that he wanted to show he’d be a good party member,” Zhou speculates. “I think these kids have even fewer principles than even we did.” Mao may be dead, but the party goes on.
Perhaps no character better sums up the bloat and rot in China’s elite today than the book’s fifth main character, Ye Hao. In 1981, he is an aspiring apparatchik who keeps a safe distance from his roommate Pomfret and focuses his attention instead on flattering party superiors. By the late 1990s, he has become a party bigwig in Nanjing, and when we meet him again in 2004, he’s just spent the summer at Wharton. This stint in business school and a trip to Nevada have inspired Ye to revamp Nanjing’s downtown to make it more closely resemble Las Vegas. Over the years, he’s also managed to clear out all the street peddlers and beggars, sometimes jailing them, other times tacitly allowing them to be kidnapped and put to work in factories. An enthusiastic horseman, Ye has at the ready a Mongolian pony, the gift of a real estate developer. (Ye might make a good congressional representative from San Diego.) At one point, when Ye arrives in a chauffeured Audi to pick Pomfret up for dinner, the driver knocks over an elderly bicyclist and sends him headfirst into the asphalt. “Don’t worry about him,” Ye shouts to Pomfret. “Get in.”
I enjoyed Chinese Lessons, and I imagine both general readers and professional China hands will, too. The stories are vivid, and the book is expertly constructed. Luckily for Pomfret, he has a knack for being in China at the right time, at least journalistically, as he was during the Tiananmen protests of 1989. His description of that brief and giddy outpouring of freedom and the subsequent crackdown is gripping. His political outlook, too, while only hinted at, is agreeable. Pomfret clearly believes China would have been better off had the Communists never come to power, an opinion more unusual among China experts than one might think.
If I wished for anything more out of the book, it was for an even closer examination of some of the characters. Ye, in particular, remains somewhat cartoonish in his venality. (To be sure, power can do that.) But even some of the more fleshed-out characters present contradictions that seem worth exploring further. Take Zhou, the Red Guard who denounced the woman who raised him. On the one hand, he possesses an extraordinary degree of moral and intellectual courage. We read that he returned on his own initiative to his home town of 2,500 people in 1988 to assess the damage done during the Cultural Revolution. (The findings: two tons of books burned, nine temples ransacked, hundreds of carvings destroyed, dozens of people seriously injured, and 10 people so traumatized by their beatings that they shortly afterwards committed suicide.) On the other hand, he is also an entrepreneur who engages in much of the shadiness that gives Chinese business a bad name. As Pomfret notes in an aside, Zhou and his partner have “dodged taxes, disobeyed local pollution regulations and offered skimpy benefits to their workers.” Such inconsistencies are common enough anywhere, but they still merit an effort to reconcile them.
Also, Pomfret’s description of his love life, which has included several Chinese girlfriends, can be disquieting, mainly because the workings of Chinese-foreign love affairs are inherently tense. One party generally has wealth and liberty and becomes a gatekeeper to both, while the other party has nothing. Pomfret knows this, of course, but I still found myself wishing he’d act a little more uncomfortable about it.
But this is minor stuff. Pomfret has gracefully tied together dozens of threads, gathered from years of travel and research, and made the effort look easy when it surely wasn’t. Even when the picture he paints is familiar, the execution makes it worthwhile. To be sure, this book won’t clear up the bewilderment that China can produce in those who try to understand it. (Indeed, the Chinese themselves are perhaps the most baffled of all.) But it presents the mystery awfully well.
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T.A. Frank is a Washington Monthly consulting editor.