A Westerner's firsthand look at Chinese history

John Pomfret was a student in China. Twenty years later, he checks up on his classmates.

As a young student at Nanjing University in 1981, John Pomfret quickly recognized that he had a front-row seat at a moment when China was in the midst of a dramatic shift.

The Cultural Revolution, during which his classmates had come of age, was over. Its worst chaos and cruelty had been checked. Young 20-somethings – some of whom had waited years to once again attend school – were determined to heed Premier Deng Xiaoping's admonition that "to get rich is glorious."

In what Pomfret describes as a "heady" time, his fellow students tested new possibilities – and gauged their limits.

Pomfret was one of the earliest American students to study and live with Chinese students after the United States and China formally restored diplomatic relations in 1979. Fresh out of college, he found himself face to face with the devastating social impact of the Cultural Revolution.

But it wasn't until 20 years later that Pomfret, by then the Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief, decided fully to plumb the devastation the period wrought in his friends' lives.

This was a generation that had witnessed some of Mao's worst excesses – only to turn on a dime and build an economy with a vigor that would astound the world.

But their experiences during the Cultural Revolution left a mark on Pomfret's youthful peers. As children, some had turned on their parents in revolutionary zeal. As students, many had discovered that, with one slip of the tongue, they could find themselves on the wrong side of Maoist ideology. These experiences left a bitter legacy – one that may hamper China as it tries to build on its growing, though highly inequitable, prosperity.

Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China examines that legacy, which, Pomfret argues, continues to cast a long shadow. The country is currently generating endless superlatives – from its blazing economic growth to its billion-plus population to its massive construction projects.

But sitting in a cafe in 2004, amid China's growing glitz and prosperity, Pomfret listens to a friend tell how, as a 15-year-old member of China's feared Red Guard, he humiliated his mother by publicly criticizing her for incorrect thinking. Forty years after the fact, he is probing the consequences of such state-sanctioned actions.

"'How do you think a society where that type of behavior was condoned, no, not condoned, mandated, can heal itself?' " he asks Pomfret. " 'Do you think it ever can?' I said Chinese were forever telling me, an American, how much stronger their family values were than those of the United States. Zhou smirked. 'Don't believe the hype.' "

Zhou's story exemplifies the often-tortuous route of those Chinese who have had to negotiate their way through so many different Chinas: a China gingerly liberalizing after the Cultural Revolution, a more repressive post-Tiananmen China, and a China obsessed with acquiring material wealth. Once a youthful denouncer of "capitalist exploiters,"Zhou goes into private business, a sector that had become a "bottomless ATM for the party machine," according to Pomfret.

Zhou teaches Maoist thought – only to be called in by a party secretary in 2002 to explain charges of "crimes against the party" by one of his students. Zhou is puzzled by the charges, which get him transferred to teaching business –and critical of his student's motives.

"I have thought a lot about why he might have done this," he tells Pomfret. "Maybe he really thought I was anti-Mao. But I think the real reason is that he wanted to show he'd be a good party member. I think these kids have even fewer principles than even we did."

Another classmate, known as Little Guan, relates how, after her elbow was dislocated by a shove from a gradeschool classmate, she was refused treatment by a doctor unwilling to help the daughter of a politically tainted father.

And Old Wu tells the appalling story of how he learns that his parents, teachers, and party members, were dragged out in front of a mob and brutally murdered. Yet several years later, he joins the very party that had deprived him of a home.

"On the stage at Nanjing Normal [University]," Pomfret writes of this classmate's father, "Wu Tianshi had stood up for his principles, insisting that he was a good Communist and got it in the neck. In the People's Republic of China, Old Wu concluded, principles didn't matter. Survival was key."

That drive for survival – and an accompanying willingness to look out for No. 1 – permeates Pomfret's unusually intimate and well-told portraits. Along the way, Pomfret paints a compelling and engaging pictureof a China in rapid transition economically, socially, and morally.

The frankness of his subjects is heart-rending and admirable: These are people who have seen the worst of human nature and survived.

But the constant political buffeting that they and their parents' generation have experienced over a half century also creates a grim picture of a China that has not confronted its troubled history in a way that will allow it to build on its current growth.

The party silenced debates about how a person could be good and virtuous, Pomfret charges, and "It is still unclear whether the country has the ability to revive the tradition of asking these timeless questions.... China has destroyed its traditions and the current vacuum in everyday morality hampers everything from public safety to education to the stock exchange."

Amelia Newcomb is the Monitor's deputy international editor.

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