Today I have a book recommendation. “Chinese Lessons” by John Pomfret. Pomfret first came to China as a foreign student in the early 80s. Later, he returned as a journalist. “Chinese Lessons” presents the stories of his fellow classmates, among the first students to return to university post-Cultural Revolution. Through Pomfret’s writing, these classmates share their experiences living through the Cultural Revolution, their time in university and life in the new China.
If you are involved in the China expat blogosphere, undoubtedly you have heard of this book before. There is an excellent review here. I brought this book back to China with me last April. I read it. The DH read it. Our coworker read it. His Chinese wife read it. Now it is in the hands of a fellow expat friend. I hope it gets passed around to more friends. It really should be required reading of all expats in China. If you want to know what your neighbors & Chinese coworkers lived through, you’ve got to read it.
I decided to blog about this book after reading this article on NY Times about the first class of students allowed to take the university entrance exams in 1977. For those of you who don’t know, studies of all kinds were suspended during the brutal Cultural Revolution years. When universities opened in 1978, students of all ages flocked to their campuses. (Only if they scored well on the entrance exam – an exam still used to this day.) What happened to the so-called Class of ’77? Some of them are now the country’s leaders.
For Ms. An and a whole generation consigned to the countryside, it was the first chance to escape what seemed like a life sentence of tedium and hardship. A pent-up reservoir of talent and ambition was released as 5.7 million people took the two-day exam in November and December 1977, in what may have been the most competitive scholastic test in modern Chinese history.
The 4.7 percent of test-takers who won admission to universities — 273,000 people — became known as the class of ’77, widely regarded in China as the best and brightest of their time. By comparison, 58 percent of the nine million exam-takers in 2007 won admission to universities, as educational opportunities have greatly expanded.
Now, three decades later, the powerful combination of intellect and determination has taken many in this elite group to the top in politics, education, art and business. Last October, one successful applicant who had gone on to study law and economics at Peking University, Li Keqiang, was brought into the Chinese Communist Party’s decision-making Politburo Standing Committee, where he is being watched as a possible successor to President Hu Jintao or Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
Among those who have assumed positions of power, aside from Mr. Li of the Politburo, are Zhou Qiang, the governor of Hunan Province; Wang Yi, party secretary of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and a former ambassador to Japan; and Jin Liqun, vice president of the Asian Development Bank.
Artistic talent to emerge from the class of ’77 includes the filmmakers Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern”) and Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”), and the writer Chen Cun.
May they never forget the lessons of those lost years!