Among the first Americans to study in China following the communist victory in 1949, Washington Post reporter Pomfret looks back at his student days at Nanjing University in 1981 and the lives of his classmates, survivors of one of the most tumultuous periods in the country’s history.
Readers numbed by the catalogue of crimes offered in Mao: The Unknown Story (2005), by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, will find them evoked here with more personal applications to the lives of Big Bluffer Ye, Book Idiot Zhou, Little Guan, Old Xu and Daybreak Song. Don’t be misled by their jaunty college nicknames. These are the children of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, convulsive political purges unleashed by Mao. They witnessed (and sometimes were forced to act as accomplices to) the humiliation, torture and even deaths of their own parents. Pomfret sketches each of the five as he remembers them from college, including as well the story of his own student days in a country still ill at ease with foreigners. It’s his detailed reporting about their lives before and after graduation, however, that sets this book apart. While knowing that he can’t fully comprehend China’s tortuous history or its complete effect on his subjects, the author has immersed himself as much as any outsider can in all things Chinese, enabling him to assess each of his subjects with remarkable empathy. He plainly admires these former classmates, but he’s clear-eyed about the peculiar ways in which each has been twisted by a tyrannous political system that 30 years ago put “capitalist roaders” to death and today declares that “to be rich is glorious.” It’s fascinating to see how each has negotiated adulthood—love, family, work—in a country hurtling toward modernity under the Party’s capricious whip hand.
A moving account of individual experiences, indispensable to anyone seeking to understand the precarious national psyche of the world’s most populous nation.