John Pomfret

Overall Rating: 9
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Author: John Pomfret
Title: Chinese Lessons
Time: 1980-2005
Destination: China
Length: two and a half decades
Type: long term stay


The story: JP is a young American student who decides to enroll at Nanjing University in the early 80s. At this point in time, China is still struggling with the early stages of the new policy of “Reform and Opening Up”. JP stays a while, starts a career in journalism, leaves China and returns, covers the June-4th protests of 1989, gets expelled and has to leave China again, only to eventually return and work as a journalist – again. The resulting book is written from the point of view of an “old China hand”. JP tries to tell his personal relationship with China, while at the same time retelling the life stories of some of his classmates at Nanjing University, in order to illustrate the development of the country during the last 30+ years.

John Pomfret’s raw insights

The book is good, very good. Among all the “China literature” that I have read, JP’s quality of writing is only comparable to that of Peter Hessler. JP paints an even larger picture of society, dwelling less on the minor details, while trying not as hard to sound poetic. You could say that his writing is more raw than that of Hessler, and you could certainly say it’s not as literarily refined, but JP has his moments, like the burial scene for example:

“One weekend, Little Guan took her husband’s ashes off the shelf, boarded a bus to Hai’an with the urn in her lap, and buried it near the trees. Before the burial, while she was tidying her hair, her wooden comb split in two. She saved half and buried the other with him.”


Turning to the next page at this point felt almost hurtful.

I liked JP’s style as much as I liked the abundance of background information about everything going on in China. But that’s not what I thought was best about this book.

getting to know the guy

I enjoy reading stories that are personal. To me, an author is best when he or she makes me feel like I get to know the person behind the writing. Most journalist writers have a hard time doing this, because they are too used to distance themselves from their subjects. JP is doing a good job at putting himself in the mix though. When I’m reading his writing, I can feel his happiness and his sadness.

He is rather self-critical, and he is also very critical of the Communist Party and the way the country is being led. Sometimes you might even call him judgmental. But he makes a few very good points in his insights, and I think there’s nothing bad about having an opinion and voicing it. Oh, and there is another thing: you will find hints of shagging and even some romance in this book. So all in all, I thought it was pretty awesome.

A 9/10.

1 thought on “John Pomfret”

  1. Hi Christoph,
    thanks for your comments on “Chinese Lessons”. It seems that you liked it as much as I did.
    You’ve probably heard of the book/ project “Zwei nach Shanghai”. Could you share your view on that with us, as well. From my point of view it’s a very interesting journey and a worth checking it out.



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