John Pomfret’s new book, Chinese Lessons


UPDATE: Unfortunately the comments thread seems to have been corrupted. Please leave new comments here.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine wanted to show me the dorm he lived in at Fudan Daxue. I was very curious, having heard how students were crammed into famously small quarters. At the building’s entrance, however, a burly security guard stopped us and said no foreigners were allowed in the building. My friend tried arguing, but the guard was steadfast. I was rather resigned about it; there were many instances in China when I was turned away or treated “specially” because I have round eyes.

Former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing John Pomfret succeeded where I failed in 1981 when, at the tender age of 20, he was permitted to actually live in a student dorm at Nanjing University. He was one of the very first American students to study in post-Cultural Revolution China, and how he pulled it off is a story in itself, involving tremendous determination plus lots of guanxi. His new book, Chinese Lessons, tells the story of how Pomfret first came to China to study, the students he lived with, the women he fell in love with and the extraordinary and at times shocking things he saw and experienced along the way. The glue that holds it all together is Pomfret’s tracking of the lives of four of his classmates. Like a classical rondo, the book goes off in different directions at times, but keeps coming back to these students’ lives, anchors that give this sprawling book its form and organization. And the students’ lives, so very different, offer up a living, breathing microcosm of China in all of its volcanic and unpredictable magnificence. So intimate, and yet so sweeping.

Like Simon Winchester in River at the Center of the World, Pomfret is a great spinner of yarns. The book is basically one story after another, jumping back and forth through time – both through Pomfret’s own time in China, and the lives of the four students, from their early years to the present. (His depiction of their childhood during the height of the Cultural Revolution makes for some of the most poignant and harrowing copy on China I’ve ever read). Chinese Lessons is hard to categorize, as it’s part memoir, part history lesson, part biography (of the four students) and part political/social analysis. No matter. Pathos pervades every page as the book moves ahead with its own seamless logic. Pomfret takes us on an unforgettable journey, sharing a bird’s-eye view into a China precious few Westerners ever saw, a China that bears little resemblance to the behemoth we know today. (When he first visits Shenzhen in 1980, it’s nothing more than a series of villages dotted with rice paddies, and no building higher than five stories.)

The chains of the Cultural Revolution were still clanking when Pomfret arrived at his new home, the dorm in Nanjing. The lives of his students were all indelibly shaped by mankind’s most depraved social experiment. His description of the brutality his classmates experienced and, alas, participated in, will shock and horrify even those of us who have “read it all” when it comes to the CR. The image that will stay with me forever is his classmate’s depiction of how his mother was branded a class enemy during the CR, and the boy was forced to savagely denounce her in public, heaping abuse on her and leading others to physically and verbally assault the poor woman who, needless to say, had done nothing wrong. And then, at night, the student tells Pomfret how at dinner time his mother cooked the meals as she always did, and the family ate together in tortured silence, no one saying a word about the horrors in which they had participated hours earlier, and which would continue the next day. I sat there trembling as I read this, and all my hatred of Mao and the sickness he represented came to life, as it did many times during my reading of Chinese Lessons.

So much, there’s so much I want to reproduce here. I own no other book with as many dog-eared pages as this one. Pomfret tells of a class visited by a party official that sums up the insanity of the ongoing reverence for the party.

The party secretary spoke up, and with perfectly twisted reasoning, offered the students a lesson laced with evasion and threats. “It’s natural to have doubts,” he began, “but this doesn’t necessarily have to shake our belief in Marxism.

The secretary’s argument was as simple as it was warped. Look at what the Communist Party has done to China: killing 30 million people during the Great Leap Forward, ruining the lives of millions during the Cultural Revolution. Despite these disastrous failures, he said, it remains in power. That’s proof of the party’s superiority….

No matter what the party would do to China, no matter how many lives it crushed, it remained unaccountable and always strong enough to rout any challenger. The Communist Party will stay in power because the party will do anything to stay in power.

So much. I can’t go into the lives of the students Pomfret tracks through their astonishing transformation into business people, corrupt party leaders and refugees – you have to read the book. (Repeat, you have to read the book.) Then there’s Pomfret’s first-hand account of Tiananmen Square and how he was thrown out of China for aiding and abetting a student leader. (Pomfret’s guilt at the misery this caused the young man is palpable today, 16 years after the fact.) Reading his account of the bullets flying and the blood pouring, I thought of all the trolls who insist there was no massacre and that the party did “the prudent thing.” I think of those who now say, Thank God Deng took such assertive action. And I wonder if there really are two realities, distinct and separate. One thing is clear: John Pomfret hates the party with every ounce of his being, precisely because he loves the people of China with such passion. I know my friend Joseph Bosco and his friend Philip Cunningham and their friends who I also know and respect truly, truly believe it all turned out for the best, and the party saved China from ruin and chaos. But in Pomfret’s reality and in my reality, the party is malignant, erasing all of China’s great traditional values and leaving so many of its people morally bankrupt.

One of his former classmates tells Pomfret in a recent conversation his thoughts on Mao, and it struck home with me.

Let’s look at China from the Maoist perspective,” Zhou said. “Let’s give the Chinese government the benefit of the doubt. Why did the slave society overthrow primitive society? Because its economy was more advanced and it was richer. The same is true for why feudal society overthrew slave society and why capitalist society replaced feudal society. But then we come to Mao. Who was Mao? What did he represent?

…Did Mao represent economic forces stronger than capitalism? No. He represented the most backward forces in China. He didn’t even represent the working class. He represented thugs. It wasn’t a Communist revolution. It was a thug’s revolution. That’s our real history.”

Go and defend Mao to your heart’s content, my trolls. I say – and I believe Pomfret is saying as well – that Mao was in every way a bad and sick thing, as vile and as unforgivable as any other mass murdering bully. 100 percent bad, zero percent good.

Let me add that John Pomfret is one of my heros. Do a search of this Web site and this will become instantly clear. When I lived in Beijing, it was Pomfret who called the CCP on their SARS cover-up, creating a nuisance at a time when the CCP wanted to enjoy their annual congress without annoying stories of death and disease. It was Pomfret, and later his replacement Phillip Pan, who kept exposing the party for what it is, and I am forever grateful for his honesty, his fortitude and his courage. All those things come across in Chinese Lessons, though nothing comes across as clearly as his deep and undying love for the Chinese people, and his heartache at what the beloved party did to them and does to them to this day.

So much. Pomfret’s descriptions of the dorms are so vivid, you can feel and smell them as you read. He brings you right there. One of his descriptions of a scene in 1981, when the Chinese girl’s volleyball team won against the Japanese team, made me cringe and smile at the same time – I could see something similar happening today. Pomfret was having lunch with friends when the news broke.

…[W]e heard a cacophonous roar that accompanies the news: this was the country’s first world championship in any sport. We dropped our chopsticks and headed to the main road, where we were confronted with a moving mass of tens of thousands of young people bearing Chinese flags…The victory was all the sweeter for the people of Nanjing because it was inflicted on the Japanese in Tokyo. Hatred of Japan was the deepest, most persistent feature in China’s approach to the outside world.

Along the way we bumped into several more classmates. I turned to look at several of them, and they were crying. “The Chinese have stood up,” one of them kept yelling, the same expression Mao used in 1949. Indeed, all around me, young men were weeping. I was dumb-founded. One volleyball victory was enough to release years of pent-up passion?

Yes, please read this book if you want to understand the forces that have shaped the psyches of today’s young Chinese, if you want to really understand the ongoing loathing of the Japanese (believe me Yasukuni Shrine is all but irrelevant) and if you want to understand just how deep and institutionalized China’s corruption is. On the Japanese, this was my favorite gem:

The Communist Party has also encourage Japan-bashing as part of a policy to replace the discredited ideology of communism with a resentful nationalism designed to keep the Chinese united through hatred or fear of the outside world. Since the 1970s, partly out of guilt, the Japanese have poured tens of billions of dollars in low-interest loans and donations into China – building airports, highways, factories, and ports as well as planting forests. These contributions have never been publicly acknowledged by the Communist Party. After years of complaints by the Japanese government, China finally allowed a plaque to be erected at the gleaming new Beijing International Airport acknowledging that it was built with a low-interest Japanese loan. The plaque was hung in a hall in the administrative wing at the airport, where no traveler would ever see it.

Last point (and I could go on for days – I haven’t even touched Pomfret’s horror stories of the TS massacre). Pomfret proves something I’ve long suspected: that the hysteria over the fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing deification of Deng-like leaders who would save China from the “chaos” that comes from democracy and reform – it was all manufactured by the state. Nothing scared the Party shitless like the fall of the USSR, and they instantly made “peaceful evolution” – Gorbachev’s great legacy – “the new bogeyman,” as Pomfret says.

“Peaceful evolution, the party feared, would certainly bring to an end its monopoly on state power. In 1990, the Communist Party organized a series of seminars called the Anti-Peaceful Evolution Class, where questions such as “Who was going to be China’s Gorbachev?” were raised to prepare against that possibility, not welcome it.

Now, when we hear the chorus in the China Daily forums going on about how the party saved them from Russian-style chaos, anarchy and corruption (hah), we all know where it came from (not that there was ever any doubt).

Chinese Lessons
is full of insights, surprises and frequent shockers. To those who have never lived in China, it will be an eye-opener. To those who have lived there, it will provide many smiles (often ironic ones), many bittersweet memories and many “Aha” moments. (“So that’s why they always…”) The book isn’t perfect. It seems to wander at times, and you can easily lose your bearings as the narrative weaves from one person’s life into another, sometimes with no apparent chronological order. But those are very small things. Chinese Lessons is a beautiful book, a page-turner, and it’s destined to become required reading for those who want to understand how the China we know today came to be, and why the Chinese people, despite being royally screwed (and tortured and murdered and plundered) by the party for more than half a century, will keep on giving them “the benefit of the doubt.” It’s a painful story, one of resignation, frustration and heartache, with the light at the end of the tunnel being the sheer resiliency and industriousness of the Chinese people themselves, who, though they don’t know it, could achieve greater heights of accomplishment if the party never existed.

Note: This is a review of a pre-publication copy I was sent. The book will be available soon. The sooner the better. You can order it here.

The Discussion: 34 Comments

Richard, Kudos to you, for this.

There’s so much in it to respond to, but I’ll start with my area of expertise – which in this forum has often been my area of exasperation, whenever I try to talk about it, followed by my being descended upon swiftyly by the CCP-Apologist Harpies: How the CCP meme about Russia becoming “chaotic” after the collapse of Communism, is a Big Lie concocted by the CCP, because the import of the death of Russian Communism is what terrifies the CCP more than anything.

So, on that note, let me take this opportunity to repeat something I’ve often tried to raise here – and the inevitable response from the CCP trolls is to dismiss it as ludicrous or irrelevant, because they HAVE NO ANSWER FOR IT:

…one of the DIRTIEST, and most embarassing truths about the CCP, is that its original claim to absolute power – and indeed, the very origins of its power – stem entirely, categorically, from the authority of Lenin and the Russian Communist Party.

When Russian Communism died, so did any rational, coherent claim of the CCP to represent the “tide of history”, the “correct, INEVITABLE path of Marxist-Leninism”.

Of course, China’s claim to be a legitimate representative of “Marxist-Leninism” began to crumble over 40 years ago, after the Sino-Soviet split. That was (or should have been) deligitimising enough. But still, yes you could make a weak case – but an almost plausible one – for how Communist Russia became “revisionist” while Communist China assumed the true mantle of the “correct path of Marxist-Leninism”.

But when Russian Communism (and all other Communist regimes in all of Europe) DIED COMPLETELY in the span of just two years, it proved to the world that Marxist-Leninism was always a Lie. Communism is a lie. And so is the claim of ANY Communist Party, to represent any “correct, scientific” tide of history.

It was bad enough for the CCP, for Russia to come to its senses after Stalin died, and slowly to grow out of the lies and depredations of Communism. This began long before Gorbachev, although most Americans did not see it. As early as the 1950s, under Kruschev, Russia began to prosper again and in many ways to become a “normal” country. A thousand times more normal than China under Mao, at any rate.

And I’ve written a lot about that as well, on this site: How, while China descended into chaos and barbarianism in the 1960s, the arts and literature were actually flourishing in Russia.
Some of you know I’m a great cinophile, a movie buff, and among other things, one of the MOST SALIENT contrasts I can draw between Russia and China in the 1960s and 70s, is the GENIUS of so many Russian filmmakers in those years – even in the “years of stagnation” under Brezhnev, Russia was producing BRILLIANT works of art in the cinema – WITH STATE SUPPORT, mind you – including:

1. “War and Peace” by Bondarchuk, 1965-1968 (won Academy Award),

2. The works of Tarkovsky, including “Ivan’s Childhood” (no relation to me :-), and “Andrei Rublev”, which was FULL of Christian imagery and religious concerns, precisely because it was about the life of Russia’s greatest icon-painter

3. I’ll list some others later

Not to mention, how Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was published IN RUSSIA in 1961, again with state approval. (And yes Solzhenytsin kept pushing, and so he was exiled in 1974 after publishing “Gulag”, but in Mao’s China, a Solzhenitsyn wouldn’t even have survived to write his book.)

In the 1960s, while the Chinese were beating the shit out of their best teachers and destroying their ancient works of art, the Bolshoi Ballet carried on in Moscow, and the Tretyakov Art Museum remained not only undamaged, but revered and promoted by the state.

So, yes, the Sino-Soviet split started long before Russia very sensibly abolished the Soviet Communist Party. Russia’s gradual reclamation of its culture and its dignity and its freedom, has been a reproach to the PRC ever since Stalin died in 1956. But the TOTAL DEATH of Communism in Russia and all of Europe, was the final blow, it was History’s Coroner’s verdict of “death” of ANY claim the CCP ever had to represent the “tide of history”.

And the result today, is the CCP’s Frankensteinian, utterly senseless, chimerical fantasy of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” a phrase which would have Karl Marx turning over in his grave.

And finally, just a few days ago, President Vladimir Putin made a public statement about how opposition parties (ie, parties other than his majority Yedinstvo Party) NEED equal access to Russian mass media, for the good of the state.
Imagine Hu Jintao saying the same thing on CCTV. That’s as likely as pigs flying.

Finally, to any CCP apologists who chime in here to talk about Russia’s “chaos”: Today, Russia is NOT experiencing tens of thousands of peasant riots every year, like China is.

And as far as “economic development” goes, I’ve known many MIDDLE CLASS Russians who can buy and sell 99.9 percent of Chinese people several times over.

Go to Moscow. (Preferably for more than a short whirlwind tour.) Go see what it’s really like. Go and actually GET TO KNOW some Russians, INTIMATELY, in their own homes and dachas and cafes and museums or wherever they gather.
(Gloss: If the only Russians you ever meet are those in China, you will not be getting a representative picture of what Russians are like, or how they think.)

Go and get to know some TYPICAL Muscovites, and yes you’ll hear them complaining about Russia. It’s their hobby. And you know what you WON’T hear from MOST Russians? Any knee-jerk defense of Russia, like you hear from even the best educated Chinese. A Russian will NOT tell you “You don’t understand Russia”, if you take a position contrary to his…

….no, if you argue with a typical Russian (of ANY class) today, yes he’ll defend Russia if you talk nonsense about it, and he may (or may not) be a chauvinist about Russia. But what he will NOT do, is reply to you with any pre-fabricated lines which any Ruling Party brainwashed him with.

And that’s because – well, actually, the MAIN reason, is because Russians LOVE TO DEBATE!
They love a good argument. (All the more reason to drink more with their opponents! ๐Ÿ™‚
Most Russians will NOT end any argument with any prefab phrase like “You don’t understand Russia.” No, because that wouldn’t be as much fun as arguing with you all night. ๐Ÿ™‚

And if THAT is “CHAOS”, then I say, “BRING ON THE CHAOS!”

And the vodka. And then we will have some tea in the morning, and meet again to carry on the argument later. So I think that’s the best way to end this comment: The principal difference between Russia and China today, is that in Russia, the arguments just go on and on and on.
And that is the mark of a Great Nation – and that is exactly what the CCP fears most.

July 8, 2006 @ 11:28 am | Comment

The following statement is plain wrong, as the Chinese already had won world hampionships at least in ping pong prior to a series of victories in women’s volleyball.

“this was the country’s first world hampionship in any sport.”

July 8, 2006 @ 12:15 pm | Comment

I got a pre-pub copy too. Enjoyed it – I presume there’ll be a group Danwei review forthcoming, since we all got sent copies – with the exception of the very end. Foreigner-in-China yarns seem all to get spun up, to some degree or another, in the “…and meanwhile, I was…” thing. It’s to Pomfret’s credit that he mostly avoids this until the end; it’s a shame that he uses it as a coda to a fascinating book about other people.

July 8, 2006 @ 12:52 pm | Comment

I got a pre-pub copy too. Enjoyed it – I presume there’ll be a group Danwei review forthcoming, since we all got sent copies – with the exception of the very end. Foreigner-in-China yarns seem all to get spun up, to some degree or another, in the “…and meanwhile, I was…” thing. It’s to Pomfret’s credit that he mostly avoids this until the end; it’s a shame that he uses his personal life as a coda to a fascinating book about other people.ร‚ย 

July 8, 2006 @ 12:54 pm | Comment

(D’oh – forgive the double comment.)

July 8, 2006 @ 1:15 pm | Comment

MOST SALIENT contrasts I can draw between Russia and China in the 1960s and 70s, is the GENIUS of so many Russian filmmakers in those years – even in the “years of stagnation” under Brezhnev, Russia was producing BRILLIANT works of art in the cinema – WITH STATE SUPPORT, mind you – including:

This is true. I have many CD’s of Russian operas and ballet. They are true masters of Western Arts. But what about today? Most of those great music and ballet were during dictatorship in USSR. Today, after USSR is game over, then the arts in Russia is also game over,haha.

I’ve known many MIDDLE CLASS Russians who can buy and sell 99.9 percent of Chinese people several times over.

Do you have their bank accounts, otherwise how do you know? What is your evidence?

I can also say that there are many rich Chinese who can buy 100 percent of Russian people 100 times. So what is the meaning of this sentence if you have no evidence?

July 8, 2006 @ 6:02 pm | Comment

MOST SALIENT contrasts I can draw between Russia and China in the 1960s and 70s, is the GENIUS of so many Russian filmmakers in those years – even in the “years of stagnation” under Brezhnev, Russia was producing BRILLIANT works of art in the cinema – WITH STATE SUPPORT, mind you – including:

This is true. I have many CD’s of Russian operas and ballet. They are true masters of Western Arts. But what about today? Most of those great music and ballet were during dictatorship in USSR. Today, after USSR is game over, then the arts in Russia is also game over,haha.

I’ve known many MIDDLE CLASS Russians who can buy and sell 99.9 percent of Chinese people several times over.

Do you have their bank accounts, otherwise how do you know? What is your evidence?

I can also say that there are many rich Chinese who can buy 100 percent of Russian people 100 times. So what is the meaning of this sentence if you have no evidence?

July 8, 2006 @ 6:03 pm | Comment

“Last point (and I could go on for days – I haven’t even touched Pomfret’s horror stories of the TS massacre). Pomfret proves something I’ve long suspected: that the hysteria over the fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing deification of Deng-like leaders who would save China from the “chaos” that comes from democracy and reform – it was all manufactured by the state.”

But post-1990 Russia did experience significant structural challenges. Like all accusations of propaganda, there is a semblance of truth to the claim in question.

But I’m going to have to read that book to gain a clearer understanding of how Pomfret arrived at his conclusions. Thanks for posting this up.

July 8, 2006 @ 8:41 pm | Comment

Wow! Great review. Can’t wait. But damn, it’s coming out after my next Asia trip so no reading it on the plane.

July 8, 2006 @ 9:39 pm | Comment

Law Blog, ask Brendan if they can lend you their copy once they’ve written the review.I’d give you mine, but I’m across the straits.

Ivan, don’t expect the usual subjects to engage you on this. This is a notion they hold near and dear to their hearts, and giving up your security blanket and pacifier is never an easy thing.

Brendan, thanks for the fine comment.

July 8, 2006 @ 9:49 pm | Comment

“Pigsun”, I won’t tell you what my “evidence” is
about the wealth of my Russian friends. Do you think I’m as stupid as you are?

And as for how the arts are faring in Russia today, obviously you don’t know anything about it. Today the fine arts (and cinema) in Russia are flourishing far more than they did in Communist times. So let me throw the question back to you: WHAT the FUCK are the CHINESE doing in the fine arts today?

CCTV gala events with hundreds of idiotic (and very unathletic, uncoordinated) dancing girls dressed up like fucking idiots? Soong ZuYing singing about how the Communist Party created the Mountains and the Rivers and the happy peasants dressed in fake “ethnic” costumes?
Even in cinema, what, WHAT the hell has China created in recent years? That RIDICULOUS propaganda movie, “Hero”, which ended with the lesson. “ALL UNDER HEAVEN, there must be only ONE authority and we must all submit to the Communist Party!”

WHAT has China created, since it became a barbarian country under the Communists? Literature? HA! Yes, yes, ONE Chinese person won the Nobel Prize for Literature – AND HE IS EXILED FROM CHINA BECAUSE OF WHAT HE WROTE!

Meanwhile, you say, “GAME OVER” for Russian culture? HA! HAHAHA! Dude, do you know the name of the film-maker, Nikita Mikhalkov? Do you know his movie, “Burnt By The Sun” (c 1994),. which depicted what the FUCKING COMMUNISTS did to Russians? Do you know about Bondarchuk’s son’s movie, “Ninth Company” about the Russian experience in Afghanistan, which is NOW being LAUDED all over the world?

Do you know about the Russian journalist, Yevgenia Albats, who NOW writes regularly about all of the crimes of TODAY’S Russian government WHILE SHE LIVES IN RUSSIA? And do you know that she is FREE to DO so in today’s Russia?

Do you have ANY idea what Russian painters are doing today? What Russian poets and novelists are publishing today, IN FULL FREEDOM?


Meanwhile, what, tell me, WHAT is CHINA giving to the world today, in the fine arts, or in any intellectual provocations?

Soong ZuYing. And ridiculous gala events with idiotic dancing girls who can’t dance at all. And idiotic movies depicting Chinese heroes who stare blankly into the distance, and who look very emotional, and they weep and they look very serious, because they are thinking of China.
And that is all. China is China. China is good, China is correct, and we can all stare into the distance and pretend to be very emotional about that. China. China is China, and it is a very emotional thing indeed…..

…THAT is ALL bloody Communist China is doing in the arts today. Nothing but idiotic, mindless shit. And any Chinese (and there are many of them indeed) who dare to create any arts which do not fit into this IDIOTIC Communist shit, they fail and they fall into oblivion….

…while Russian artists of all kinds, today, continue to create and to prosper, without any fucking Communist Party to smash them down…

July 8, 2006 @ 9:49 pm | Comment

In response to the above post — in many ways, arts and literature are the least important products of a nation, because every nation is convinced that her own poets and writers are the best.

While I do agree that China does not produce independent thinkers — this has been the trend ever since the Warring States Era. A paucity of independent thinkers is characteristic of centralised bureaucracy.

Now, speaking about intellectual provocation. Really I have heard of none of the Russians which Ivan has mentioned. I’m under the impression that Ivan has no good understanding of contemporary Chinese literature either. Ivan has mentioned Gao XingJian. For one thing, that Nobel price winner — while he does produce good work, the popular opinion in China is that there are many authors much better than he is. Only that Gao is exiled and his work is translated, and that Westerners are transfixed by the idea of oversea dissidents — a combination of circumstances resulted in him taking the Nobel price.

(Really it should be obvious to any thinking man — the Nobel price is not a good index of achievement. Even Kissinger received a Nobel price.)

Again it confirms my thesis — every nation believes herself to produce the most extraordinary literature. Ivan seems awfully proud of contemporary Russian arts. He mistakes his inability to navigate the contemporary Chinese literature scene for its non-existence.

Arts and literature don’t help people. Rational thoughts do. Classicist as I am — I am convinced that all good thinkers died after the fall of Rome. But that’s just me. Criticism of a nation’s arts and literature is never viable. Living in the West, having grown up in the West — well I’ll tell you one thing — people are basically the same everywhere. People are just as narrow-minded and self-righteous in a democracy as they are in an autocracy. In the same way, people are just as narrow-minded and self-righteous in academia (fill in the blank: art-school, hippie commune, the BC marijuana party headquarter) as in the corner gas-station.

As for the idea of world influence as a measurement of arts and literature? That is simultaneous parochialism, naivete, and chauvinism. I’m under the impression that Arab women poets produce excellent work. In fact my current reading is “Arab Women Poets, An Anthology.” But I’m fairly certain they don’t influence anyone much beyond their native communities. The major world influence in arts and literature is the US. The reason is that it is a economic and political superpower.

Furthermore, let me clear up another misconception. Opposition is not the source of creativity. In centralised bureaucracies, both authority and opposition produce sterile literature. Why? Because everyone is focused on the same sterile topics. Only when you are free from dualities can you truely taste freedom. So it is somewhat true that free communities produce better thinkers — their citizens have nothing to fight against. But then again all thoughts have already been thought. Chinese thought reached its zenith in the Warring States. Western thought reached its apotheosis in Greek philosophy. Semitic thought is embodied in the Qur’an and the Pentateuch. Good thinkers exist dispersed throughout time and space. We know who we are, though others may not recognize us. In specialized circumstances, such as classical Athens, our true forms appear, as though the fog is evaporated from the mountainscape. (Please refer to HanFeiZi’s parable about horses).

(By the way, America is entering a deep, deep slumber. Eric Hoffer is the last great American thinker, and he died. Europe and the Americas have produced some good thinkers in the last two centuries. Post-modernists do not believe in thinking. They only believe in semantics. Commercialists do not believe in thinking. They believe in consumption. Entering Fukuyama’s end-state paradise — well, let’s just say we park our brains outside Heaven’s gates.)

End of my brief buncombe. Well now — concerning Mao. Many people find that reading up on the Cultural Revolution engenders within them a dislike of Mao. That is groundless.

The Cultural Revolution was terrible. True enough. Mao started it — also true. But, the fault lies in that we, the Chinese people — we are a terrible people. We permit injustice and we are incorrigible. We acted like buffoons, and when noble men pointed out our errors, we martyred them like a community of apes mobbing an outsider. We refused to believe in nobility, in restraint, in discretion. Don’t blame Mao — it isn’t his fault. Mao was a conqueror on a horseback who didn’t know what he was doing. The real perpetrators are the people — willingly we became the accomplice of evil, and after the fact we point our fingers at men who have left already for the shadow world.

July 8, 2006 @ 11:03 pm | Comment

Did the Trans-Sib last year. Russia was a nightmare. China was a nice surprise. Let’s just say China works, Russia doesn’t.

July 9, 2006 @ 12:03 am | Comment

Law Blog – you in Beijing? Can lend you my copy, no problem. Drop me an email.

July 9, 2006 @ 12:29 am | Comment

By the way, “Pigsun”, whose moronic comment I replied to above, is the racist troll who recently wrote THIS for our “amusement”:

And we’re supposed to take HIM seriously as an analyst of the fine arts? WHAT?

And no that ain’t just ad hominem. When you throw shit around like a monkey in a cage like “Pigsun” has done, you lose all credibility.

July 9, 2006 @ 5:04 am | Comment


Wow, you took a train in Russia? Well obviously now you know all about Russia.

On that note, even your remark about the train makes no sense. Russian trains are far better appointed than Chinese ones (more spacious too).
And as for the train being a “nightmare”, what, compared to CHINESE trains? The ones where the passengers have to wear diapers?

As I predicted, the creepy-crawlies are coming out of the woodwork on this thread, because they just…cannot…bear…the…truth…about…Russia….and about the death of the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to legitimacy.

July 9, 2006 @ 5:39 am | Comment

PS, and Rajesh says, “China works”…..??????

WHAT? WTF? Say that again?

That makes absolutely no sense at all, if you think about it. It’s not even worth responding to in detail.

July 9, 2006 @ 5:41 am | Comment

More about that moronic phrase: “China works.”
Now I remember what it reminds me of. Lincoln Steffens returned from a tour of Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s, and he said:

“I have seen the future, and it works.”

Same shit, different country now. The same kind of meme, same kind of Big Lie about a “Rising Power” with a few skyscrapers in major cities and appalling poverty mostly out of the sight of foreigners.

And for yet another perspective on how China “works”, go to: ๐Ÿ™‚

July 9, 2006 @ 6:28 am | Comment

Ivan, with all respect, I’m hoping this comment thread can return to the subject at hand, Pomfret’s book. I spent many hours reading it and then several more hours preparing my review, and it hurts to see the thread go off on a tangent. Thanks.

July 9, 2006 @ 8:55 am | Comment

I’m interested in this book, though I may wait for the paperback edition – I certainly hope there is one, anyway.

July 9, 2006 @ 10:23 am | Comment

I am Jessica!I don’t have anything better to do than spread puerile nonsense on someone else’s blog! That’s because when I set up my own blog, no one came and visited me!!! I am sooo lonely!!!!!!!

July 9, 2006 @ 11:40 am | Comment

Ivan, it is not reasonable to insult Chinese culture and people. You said “meet real Russians and talk to them in their homes”, but you do not meet real Chinese and talk to them in their homes, how do you know China made no culture in after revolution, how do you know China made no achivements ? It is without proof, just meaningless slogans. If you only want to shout meaningless slogans, you can go to China during culture reovlution, haha.

China and Russia are very good countries and are friendly traditional neighbors. Chinese like Russians much, and Russians like Chinese. Russia also has a lot of traditional culture. This I do not disagree. But Russia’s economic and military became very weak after USSR disspeared, it lost much international status and respect, and the West was happy to see Russia become weak because it is not a big threat anymore. Many people in Russia believe Gorbachov’s pro-West actions are too damaging to Russia. That’s why today Russia suppports Pujing, who is a very strong leader like the old USSR leaders, and who is not pro-west, and who wants to bring Russia’s miltary and international status back to the old USSR’s. He even proposed taking back the old USSR’s nationa anthem for Russia. (That is a very grand song, I listend to it many times and I have many cd’s of it) So do not curse at the USSR all the time, it made RUssia a great bear, and now Russia is trying to become a great bear again. I hope the best of luck to Russia, a great nation!!

July 9, 2006 @ 4:10 pm | Comment

If you want, I can give you a very famous Chinese international relations book called “From USSR to Russia – A Road of Decline”. It is written in 1998 by professional researchers and professors, and is very deep. I think reading it gives you many things to learn.

July 9, 2006 @ 4:14 pm | Comment

I’m not an expert in this area at all, but it seems to me that Russia’s “decline” post-Soviet Union was a direct result of the condition of the Soviet Union, not a collapse that happened after. The Soviet Union had rotted from within; it was economically bankrupt, with huge structural problems. Gorbachev may be resented by many Russians for in their eyes overseeing this collapse, but the system would have collapsed regardless of who had been in charge. Gorbachev’s great wisdom was to get out of the way and let the change happen peacefully.

Conditions in post-Soviet Russia can’t be separated from the Soviet Russia that created them.

It’s analogous, in a way, to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. All of Sun Yatsen’s strategizing and scheming did not cause the downfall of the Qings. The Qing Dynasty collapsed of its own accord; all it took was a little push.

July 9, 2006 @ 5:12 pm | Comment

yes. i agree with what OtherLisa said—” Russia’s “decline” post-Soviet Union was a direct result of the condition of the Soviet Union, not a collapse that happened after”.
If pigsun wants to investigate who should be responsible for the Russian’s decline, he must go to the USSR officials, not Gorbachev.
And, I also wouldn’t

So do not curse at the USSR all the time, it made RUssia a great bear, and now Russia is trying to become a great bear again.
A great bear? for what? because of its military building up and the threat to the entire humanity? USSR is a great bear only in terms of its military building up and a threat to other countries. if you said USSR is a great bear, then this bear is more a bear waving its sharp claws and teeth than a bear with a modest attitude toward other neighbours. this kind of cruel bear is not what Russia and other neighbour want.

July 9, 2006 @ 8:14 pm | Comment

Yes, our experience of Russia was superficial, based on a short stay in Moscow and the Trans Siberian to Beijing. As non-speakers of Russian we found Russia hard to deal with. Moscow people seem to have some serious attitude problems – maybe it was because we aren’t European looking, someone said they thought we might be Chechens. Russian taxis – go figure! We had to flag down private cars (or rather they flagged us down) and we got shaken down by the cops THREE times on one journey. Visas generally were a nightmare – just ask anyone. I don’t know when you went on the train, Ivan, but food on the Russian was terrible (when it was availble). The menu bore no relation to reality and there wasn’t an English one. We liked the Russians, Ukrainians we met on the train, except the drunk ones (quite a lot). I would say they were nice people despite living in a generally decrepit, alcoholic, mafia-run society.
After all that we expected worse in China but everything worked – no problems with visas, people were friendly and helped us when we got lost. Taxis existed and took us where we wanted, no rip offs, food was great (and cheap) and we didn’t get hassled by vodka-soaked racists.
That’s my superficial view. China seems to have a clear idea where it’s going, Russia seems to be staggering along like a resentful factory worker with a 60 year hangover.

July 9, 2006 @ 9:26 pm | Comment

What struck me most about this book is how the length of time that it covers affects the makeup of the narrative. This is no longer the “impressions of China”-type literature of the Iron & Silk and Coming Home Crazy era (or even River Town); the two decades it spans allows Pomfret to discuss not only his classmates’ past, but their experiences in the 80s and 90s while they happen, rather than filtered through memory. It’s not as if someone arrived in 2003 and decided to interview a party boss, a dissident, a small-businessman, a single mother, and so forth – people whose paths wouldn’t come anywhere near crossing these days all were in the same place in the late 70s/early 80s. There’s something similar going on in Oracle Bones, I believe, though that book covers a much shorter time period. It makes for a more nuanced story of time spent abroad.

At times in the book I doubted the wisdom of the author’s own life intruding into the stories of his classmates, but ultimately his own experiences and tales of personal growth serve to provide a sense of context – these events are common, not exotic, and connected, not isolated.

July 9, 2006 @ 11:41 pm | Comment

Yeah. It’s funny. Being in China as early as I was (79, and of course i mean for a Westerner), when I came home I had people asking me why I wasn’t writing about it. That I should “capitalize” on my experiences. The thing is, I was 21 years old and I knew that I didn’t have the depth of knowledge or the breadth of experience to say anything really worthwhile.

This sounds like a book I need to read.

July 10, 2006 @ 12:06 am | Comment

Richard, congratulations for a very well written piece of review. I just placed an order for a copy of the book. Iโ€™ll post my comments once I finish reading.

July 10, 2006 @ 1:14 am | Comment

It’s my understanding that, decrepit as the old soviet union was, the reason the bottom fell out of the Russian economy was the way the transition between communism and capitalism was so badly handled. It didn’t have to be this bad. Jeffrey Sachs, who is an evangelical believer in neo-liberal laissez-faire economics administered what is called “shocked therapy” — State assets were auctioned off at bargain basement prices on the assumption that as soon as they were in private hands, good stewardship would automatically follow. Of course, what really happened was that what wealth of the nation remained at the end of the regimes were funneled into the pockets of a few lucky oligarchs who greased the right palms. The devastating fall in quality of life and the influence of Russia as a nation tended to deaden the enthusiasm for democracy in Russia. This is the environment in which Putin came in power.

Putin is an ex-KGB man with autocratic tendencies. What lip-service he pays to freedom of the press is laughably superficial. But it is percieved that he has made Russia more stable and prosperous and powerful. We may find Pigsun’s choice of descriptors humerous, but I he is right in the substance — Putin is indeed trying to turn Russia back into the big bad bear it was. This, of course, is not a good thing for everybody else.

I don’t like the CCP either. But to try and talk as if Russia is doing better economically than China is just embarrassing your own side. As for taking Putin’s comment about the importance of the freedom of the press seriously…that’s either disingenuous or hopelessly naive.

Good for you for coming back with a solid reiteration of your own experiences after Ivan, rather presumptuously I thought, dismissed your impressions because they do not jibe with his own.

Sorry for taking the thread even further off-topic with this comment. You have done a good job with the comment and I’m quite likely to check the book out further on the strength of it.

July 10, 2006 @ 10:02 am | Comment

Sorry but I must reply to that last bit. What is “presumptuous” is to make a blanket statement about an entire country like “China works, Russia doesn’t.”

I never cease to be amazed at how many people can’t tell the difference between resisting presumptuous nonsense and propounding it.

July 10, 2006 @ 10:05 am | Comment

Battlepanda – yes, it’s my understanding that Jeffrey Sachs and the free marketers played a role in post-Soviet Union’s difficulties. But what they were working with was also in bad shape economically. The arms race between the US and the Soviet Union had nearly bankrupted the Soviet economy as it was.

And I quite agree with everyone here who cautions about making generalizations about any large group of people.

July 10, 2006 @ 10:15 am | Comment

Just finished it. Took me no time becuase I could not put it down. You are absolutely right. This is a great book. I “recognized” everyone in it.

August 29, 2006 @ 2:41 am | Comment

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