As compared to the China of a quarter century ago, what has since changed — and what remains the same?
August 21, 2008
By my junior year at Stanford, I had chosen to major in East Asian Studies and had committed myself to finding a way to get to China. At the time, just a handful of Chinese universities had programs for exchange students, and most of those were summer courses, while I wanted to go for a year or more.
Through a friend, I contacted a Chinese-American professor working at Stanford’s linear accelerator who agreed to write a letter on my behalf to his former classmate, the dean of the Beijing Languages Institute. My plan was first to study language in Beijing and then apply to a Chinese university.
In December 1979, I received a letter from the People’s Republic, written on rice paper in the curlicued script of a bygone era, with a postage stamp of a monkey-king cavorting on a cloud. “Dear Friend Pomfret, Salutations!” it began. It went on to inform me that I would be welcome to begin studies at the institute the following September.
Once in Beijing, I made my way, via a rattling Russian-made taxi, from the railroad station to the Beijing Languages Institute, on the northwestern outskirts of town. On the way we passed an enormous square. The driver turned to look at me: “This is Tiananmen!” he shouted, spraying me in his enthusiasm with a mouthful of spittle.
I asked him to drive around it once so I could take in the view and the enormous painted portrait of Mao that dominated its northern side. With their victory over the Nationalists in 1949, the Communists moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing.
They flattened Beijing’s old city walls and bulldozed the courtyard houses and shantytown that stretched for a mile in front of the crimson gates of the Forbidden City — for centuries the residence of China’s emperors, empresses and their eunuch aides and courtesans.
In place of the shantytown, they paved a four-million-square-foot rectangle. It was called Tiananmen — the Gate of Heavenly Peace. After an hour-long drive, the driver deposited me at the school. I dragged my stuff past a series of gatekeepers and under the nose of a 25-foot-tall Mao statue, freckled with coal dust.
The first thing that struck me about Beijing was the vastness of the sky. Hazy blue, it floated above the city in marked contrast to the grayness below — the worn and tired people with their colorless faces, green army trucks, dirty stone houses and omnipresent propaganda posters.
Though Beijing was one of the largest cities in the world, no skyscrapers speared its immensity. The autumn winds were crisp and dry from the north and east, and carried sand and leaves. I learned fast to wrap my head in a scarf before heading out the door.
Half of the students at the institute were foreigners studying Chinese: Italian Communists, Pakistanis seeking secrets to China’s A-bomb, Iranians and Iraqis (they fought continuously), white-robed Arabs, French intellectuals who walked around carrying ashtrays and Germans with their Karl Marx wannabe beards, Americans who crooned Motown loudly and off-key in the common showers and hundreds of Africans — many of them in forced exile.
The rest of the students were Chinese, studying a Babel of foreign languages, from English to Bulgarian.
My first impression of the Chinese at the Beijing Languages Institute was how skinny they were. Foreigners studying at the institute were not allowed to live with Chinese, so for me the best way to meet them was to play pickup basketball, introduced to China in 1896 by American missionaries.
Despite its imperialist pedigree, Mao loved basketball. It was the only Western sport not banned during the Cultural Revolution. Courtside, the Chinese students would peel off layer after layer of clothes — a blue or green Mao jacket, a brownish gray sweater, an off-color white shirt that had not been washed in days.
Finally, a thin, blue long-sleeve cotton sweatshirt came off to reveal the bony body, all ribs and elbows. They wrapped their belts two, sometimes three, times around their sylphlike waists. Caloric intake in China in the early 1980s was at the same level as it was in the 1930s.
Although greatly improved from the decades immediately following the 1949 revolution, the Chinese diet was almost devoid of protein and fat. Perpetually hungry, my friends would jostle in line for access to the best dishes in the dining hall, wolfing down the glop in seconds.
As my Chinese improved and I met more people from within the institute and beyond, I was struck by the deep hostility toward foreigners among Chinese in authority. There was a lot of talk of friendship but very little to be found. My minder at the institute, a diminutive Maoist named Mr. Bi, read my mail and monitored my contacts with Chinese students.
The watchman at our dorm forced Chinese visitors to write down their names and addresses, which were then handed over to security personnel. Politically, it was much safer for Chinese to be hostile than to be friendly.
Those brave enough to talk to foreigners were often treated harshly and criticized by fellow Chinese, yet they still took incredible risks just to meet me. Not that I was particularly special, but to them I embodied something — a carefree life and access to a freer world — that many of them wanted.
One evening, I had dinner at a Chinese friend’s house. As I left Liu’s house and cycled back to the language institute through Beijing’s darkened alleys, an electric, irrepressible sense of joy would spread over me.
I felt giddy at being in China, learning to survive and thrive in an alien environment. China was as close as I could imagine to living on another planet. Though it had some of the elements of modern life, even those reflected China’s long isolation and profound weirdness — a nuclear-armed power whose people lived in unheated hovels.
I attended my Chinese language classes at the institute four hours a day, six days a week.
Our teachers were strict matronly types who often seemed bewildered at the prospect of instructing young men and women from countries that just a few years ago had been portrayed as avowed enemies of the Communist regime.
Chinese is a strange language for an American. While it has English’s subject sentence structure, the use of tones to impart diverse meanings makes it completely different.
Mandarin Chinese has four tones, but thousands of words have the same pronunciation and the same tone, and are differentiated only by their written characters, of which Chinese employs somewhere north of 10,000. The sound “li,” for example, can mean 172 different things, among them “present,” “power,” “pear” and “profit.”
To clarify a word’s meaning, speakers would often scribble out the character in question on their palms, using their index fingers, often with a balletic flourish, as an imaginary ink brush. I thought this was marvelously inefficient.
I liked the way it felt to speak Chinese — the elegant rise and fall of the tones, the sensuous way my tongue flitted about my mouth and the economy of a language that needed very few words to say a lot, while speaking good French, for example, demands control of one’s lips.
American English relies on an open mouth, but Chinese can be spoken perfectly even through clenched teeth.
“Picture your tongue as a butterfly,” one of my instructors would say, and there it would be, flapping against my mouth and banging against my teeth as I sought to harness it and speak Chinese. Chinese is full of idioms that refer back to arcane bits of history.
I enjoyed memorizing these and found them a great way to impress my Chinese friends. The idioms also revealed that Chinese shared a barnyard bawdiness with American English. My favorite was “taking off your pants to fart” — wasted effort.
I gave myself over to a compulsive studying style that involved shouting — the only way I could hear my own voice — along with tapes of sentences recorded for me by my Chinese friends.
Each time I came across a character I did not know, I scribbled it down on my palm, transferring it later to a flash card, which I would review throughout the day when I found myself waiting in lines. This happened frequently because just about everything was rationed. After three months at the institute, I took a college entrance test.
I had heard that Nanjing University had a president who was allowing foreigners to live on the “Chinese side,” in other words, together with Chinese students. It was a policy that no other major university had instituted and that the school would end a few years later. I passed the entrance exam and in February 1981 arrived at Nanjing University at the start of a new semester.
To its students, the university was and is known as Nanda, a contraction of the first syllable of Nanjing and daxue, the Chinese word for university. Nanjing, I soon learned, was a far sleepier town than Beijing, its broad, leafy streets lined with French poplars, its buildings made from yellow bricks.
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from CHINESE LESSONS: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, by John Pomfret. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2006 by John Pomfret. All rights reserved.
As my Chinese improved, I was struck by the deep hostility toward foreigners among Chinese in authority.
Nanjing University had a president who was allowing foreigners to live on the "Chinese side," in other words, together with Chinese students.
At the time, just a handful of Chinese universities had programs for exchange students, and most of those were summer courses, while I wanted to go for a year or more.
Mandarin Chinese has four tones, but thousands of words have the same pronunciation and the same tone.
Though Beijing was one of the largest cities in the world, no skyscrapers speared its immensity.
Outlook Editor, Washington Post John Pomfret is the editor of the Washington Post’s weekend opinion section, Outlook. Prior to that, he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years, covering wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, Sri Lanka, Iraq, southwestern Turkey and northeastern Iran. Mr. Pomfret has spent seven years covering China as a journalist — one […]