By John Pomfret
Published by Henry Holt; Paperback, 301 pp, ©2006
To most of us the very name China evokes inbred images and notions that have probably been colored and distorted by the past 30 years. John Pomfret's experiences as a student and clear-eyed observer offer a unique series of lessons.
A westerner fresh from three years at Stanford University, Pomfret arrived in China with the intention of taking advantage of the relatively new policy that allowed foreign students into Chinese universities in 1981. He comments on the living conditions as well as the bombardment of Communist rhetoric from loudspeakers day and night. He leaves it up to his readers to grasp not only the culture shock but the profound unpleasantness of his surroundings. These include deprivations of every physical kind, and intellectual and emotional intrusions that strike a reader as insupportable. Yet the Chinese have endured these for generations. One is left in awe of their ability to survive — literally.
"As a twenty-one-year-old exchange student, I had won a front-row seat at what I thought was going to be the greatest show on Earth: the reemergence of China on the world scene after four decades of self-imposed isolation." This show, as Pomfret tells it in a highly personal narrative, turned out to be an ongoing event whose results are still largely undetermined. The book is filled with the presence of five classmates to whom he became close and through whom he learned to understand the pervading philosophical and psychological foundations of the success of the Cultural Revolution.
It is this perspective that makes the book frightening, depressing, and fascinating. Fortunately, Pomfret has made the lessons readable and entertaining, that it's hard to put the text down. Like well-constructed fiction, the loose ends of what happened to the narrator finally are tied up neatly at the end with his marriage to a Chinese woman, his career with the Washington Post, and a happy family in the US.
It was a daring, perhaps foolhardy road to that point. The mere knowledge he acquired of the brutal stories of his classmates' lives and those of their parents, the complete destruction of their traditions and livelihood, the humiliation and tortures should have been enough to discourage any sensible person from pursuing further evidence of these things, and then from documenting them. Pomfret was nothing if not daring. Thus, he gives the reader the story of a young man's witness to his parents' torture and deaths, and that boy's resulting cooperation in the regime responsible for them. Somehow Pomfret accomplishes this while transferring his sympathetic feelings for that man. He forgoes the obvious temptation to make comparisons with the western ethical stance in a similar situation that probably does more than an argument possibly could to convey the reasons that led to this youth's behavior.
In this vein, Pomfret follows the careers of his chosen five classmates and how they managed to live through the changes that have overtaken China in the last 20 years, and the reforms that have not. Evidence of his daring is shown by such adventures as his attempt to cross into Tibet in the company of a young woman with whom he establishes a transient relationship. The trek is by train in terrible crowding, by mule and by foot. Stopped at the border by authorities, they never make it through, but that failure is ameliorated by the fact that they weren't thrown into prison or treated as traitors or spies, thanks to Pomfret's inspired bluff with a press card from The New York Times.
The book is divided into sections that deal with varying aspects of the upheavals, horrors, and rising hopes of the Chinese from the Middle Ages to the present. The writing is artful and entertaining, precise and engaging. Nothing, however, has been soft-pedaled. Government policies that ruined China's agriculture to the point of starving millions, oppressing all intellectual and scientific thought, removing the country and its people from the influences of the rest of the world are shown in detail that cannot be overlooked by a reader with a modicum of imagination. Pomfret does this with the skill of a dramatist, or perhaps more fairly, with the craft of a journalist with plenty of experience in human interest.
© 2008 Joan L. Cannon for SeniorWomen.com