East Egg

Teaching ‘The Great Gatsby’ in Chengdu, China

What can F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel tell us about present-day China? Matt Lombardi teaches the American classic in the city of Chengdu.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Danghao Geng, the sophomore class president at Southwestern University in Chengdu, China, stood at the front of a cinder-block classroom before a crowd of eager students—and sold books. The university had failed to acquire the course texts in time for the first class, but Danghao, an industrious Insurance major who prefers to be called Harry (“like Harry Potter”), had solved the problem at a local copy shop. As Harry watched stacks of his bootlegged books diminish and the stack of yuan in his hand grow, he joked, “I could really be making a lot more money right now.” That seemed fitting, considering one of the novels he was selling told the story of American fiction’s most notorious bootlegger. In inky black letters across a stark mint cover, the title read, “THE GREAT GATSBY BY F,” followed by a line a few inches below in smaller type: “Scott Fitzgerald.”

The Great Gatsby is one of those taught-to-death novels in America, due in part to its critique of the American Dream. Most students meet Fitzgerald’s glittery gang of socialites and big reader-friendly symbols in high school, if not sooner. Last fall, Baruch College at the City University of New York sent me to Chengdu, in southwestern China, to teach English 2150, a writing course that I titled “Strangers in Strange Lands.” One of the books that I taught was The Great Gatsby, and I was curious to see how one country’s sacred classic played out in another. The parallels between post–World War I America and present-day China seemed relevant. Chinese youth culture is not “roaring,” but the country’s prosperity, industrial growth, rampant consumerism, new technology, and thriving cities resemble the American 1920s.

But as China’s new president, Xi Jinping, touts the “Chinese Dream” despite dire rural poverty, what is the “dream” for a technologically savvy Chinese generation born in the booming 1990s, with only vague notions of the Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989?

If we look to The Great Gatsby for answers, it wasn’t Nick Carraway, the novel’s conflicted narrator, with whom students sympathized. As one student stated in an essay, “Gatsby’s unyieldingness to the gauntlet lay down by the sham world acted like a shooting star in the darkest night, giving the darkness dawn, the sorrow comfort, and the desperation hope.”

When Harry was not copying my entire reading list and selling it at a bargain, then he was giving a TED Talk–like PowerPoint presentation to a packed house of more than 80 students on how to live in New York, where he has never been before; or he was presiding over the “English Club” he headed, where they have met to discuss such texts as the Gettysburg Address and the script for the pilot episode of Friends; or he was acting as class president, an unelected position to which he was appointed by the preceding class president and friend of the family. Harry’s dream is to become a wealthy CFO of a large company in Switzerland, where he once visited on a business trip with his father and was impressed by the friendly people, cleanliness, and beauty of its cities, though he believes Canada or the United States to be more realistic options. Like Jay Gatsby, and many of my students, Harry’s family came from rural poverty. His father grew up a poor sheep farmer in Inner Mongolia, but as the youngest child he managed to attend college at Xi’an Jiaotong University, where he met his first girlfriend and later his wife. Harry’s parents worked as engineers for the government in Beijing and lived in a cramped, leaky sixth-floor walk-up with no heat or air conditioning, until Harry’s father was sent on a business trip to Italy to study some new machinery. It was there he was offered a job with a Swiss company looking to expand in China. After that, Harry grew up away from home at boarding schools in China.

On a cool fall Saturday afternoon between classes, Harry and I sat on low stools at a long greasy table in a packed open-air restaurant, drinking peanut milk from glass bottles to cool our tongues from the enormous metal pan of chili wheat noodles we shared. Harry was 19, short, with a broad face and thick eyebrows above his glasses. A few days prior, the Chinese writer Mo Yan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Harry was still surprised. “I really thought it would be Haruki Murakami,” he said.

I brought up Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese writer and human-rights activist who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, but was and still imprisoned in China for criticizing the government. Harry shook his head and smiled wider, “Why would someone who causes disruption to his own country get a ‘peace’ prize? This does not make sense to me.”

While the majority of students rolled their eyes at the Communist Party’s severe control (they refer to the government’s online censorship as “The Great Firewall”), Harry always gave me the party line. Like a self-conscious but loyal child covering for the detrimental parent, he often assured me the government only did what was best for its people. Harry wanted to be proud of his country, but I got the impression he was curious to try the government’s talking points out on an outsider for his own clarification. As Harry explained regarding North Korea (a country he described as China’s “annoying little brother”), “China does not have many friends in this world,” and Harry wanted to understand why. Despite the government’s attempt at creating its own narrative through censorship and state-controlled news, young adults in China are perhaps more aware of the world than any generation that preceded them, thanks to the Internet and stories passed around from friends who have traveled abroad.

Like Harry, Antonia is a 19-year-old sophomore. Her legal name is Mengting Yuan, and like Gatsby, whose real name is James Gatz, she understands image-making and plans on using the name she picked herself when she arrives in New York this summer to finish her undergraduate degree. Antonia told me she chose her name because of the Dutch film, Antonia’s Line, a 1996 Oscar winner often described as a feminist fairy tale. “Mengting,” the name her mother gave her at birth, which Antonia said means “dream and beauty,” is the name of a character in a popular romance novel by the Taiwanese writer Qiong Yao. But Antonia feels her new name makes her more of an independent woman. Other students agreed. In my classes I had a Jolie who named herself after Angelina Jolie, a Scarlett after Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara, and an Oceanid in reference to Greek mythology.

Antonia wore black plastic-framed eyeglasses and parted her long dark hair down the middle. She often dressed casually in button-down shirts, sweaters, and skinny jeans. Being a strong woman in a country run by men is not easy, Antonia often pointed out in class. Between familial pressure, a six-day academic schedule, a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend, and worrying about her future career, she found life to be very stressful. “Whenever I get sick, or miss my home, or family, or am so stressed,” she said. “I watch Friends.” The American television show is already regarded in China as “a classic.” It’s Antonia’s favorite because six “completely different” people from various educational backgrounds, who all want different things out of life, can hang out together. Her eyes teared up a little. “They don’t care what their parents tell them to do and they follow their hearts and their dreams,” she said. “This cannot happen in China.”

To a generation of young Chinese, Friends serves as a liberating life fantasy. Young people don’t expect to live this fantasy at home. They want to transform themselves in another place, like Gatsby did. But there is a Friends-themed “Central Perk” novelty café operating in Beijing.

An oft-cited statistic about China is that it is the world’s largest purchaser of luxury goods. This is almost true. Currently, China is in second place, but by 2014 it is expected to surpass Japan. After my class read the famous scene in chapter five when Gatsby gives Daisy a tour of his Long Island mansion, and Daisy breaks down crying on a pile of extravagant dress shirts, we had a discussion of the tensions and identities regarding luxury and status. Students were well aware of China’s aggressive consumerism, as well as the irony it poses for a communist country, but viewed this trend with simultaneous concern and pride. A student who went by Victor wrote:

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There are many cockbrain in American society now, and they reach after personal fame and gain, they spend their wealth on the pleasure or something like that. As a matter of fact, I have to say there are much more wheeler-dealer in China. As a developing country, China is second populous area of the world and it has great development potential, but there is still a number of issues exist in our development of economy, such as the large gap between. It is well known that Chinese always pursue the luxury goods.

Victor, who had stylish spiky hair he sculpted forward and a pouty expression that gave him the hip, brooding appearance of a keyboardist in an ’80s new-wave band, is also headed to New York this summer to complete the second half of his degree as an accounting major. He comes from a family of poor farmers on his mother’s side. His grandfather on his father’s side was a landowner, but was forced to hand his property over to the government during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and to live in poverty. Victor’s mother is a university professor, and his father, a former professor, is described by Victor as a businessman who now runs two companies. I asked Victor how his life differed from his parents’, who had to work their way through college. “I never suffered,” Victor told me. “The economy boomed rapid[ly], so my life was getting better and better all the time.” He has a collection of 25 pairs of brand-name basketball sneakers that he proudly showed me on his iPhone, the gem being the Nike Airmax 360 for which he paid more than $200.

The large gap between the classes is ubiquitous in China. Near the Wenjiang campus in Chengdu, peasants farmed the narrow plots of land along highways outside of new shopping malls, while bicycle rickshaw drivers jostled for position at traffic lights beside gleaming SUVs. Just below my 18th-floor apartment window I watched a swath of farmland prepped for high-rise development in a matter of two weeks. Vegetation, large trees, and a series of small farm buildings were cleared, and massive holes were dug for the foundations. A destitute farmer can abruptly find himself neighbors with a wealthy condo dweller in the kind of sudden and expansive urbanization the government is enacting.

But many people told me that the biggest culprits of the extravagant Gatsby lifestyle in China were government officials. Many accused party leaders of excessive wealth and decadence filled with liquor and women. The government banned The New York Times in China last fall due to its exposé on former prime minister Wen Jiabao, whose family reportedly controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.

Is this the communist dream that Karl Marx envisioned? I asked the class if they thought China was still a communist nation. Someone let out a definitive “Nope,” to which another student replied, “But don’t tell the government that.” The class burst into laughter, but composed themselves quickly. After all, a camera was mounted at either end of the room.

Some have hoped that China’s economic boom could push the country toward democracy. But it seems to have only resulted in political complacency. Couple this with a life increasingly lived on the Internet (Facebook and Twitter are banned in China, but “QQ” is the social network of choice) and many young people in China are content to just roll their eyes and humor the oppressive government while attempting to pursue a life outside the Chinese system. China’s new middle-class college students don’t see themselves as primarily Chinese, but as part of a broader world culture their parents never knew. They dress nearly identical to the students I teach in New York, watch the same media, and see politics at home as a lost cause. Like the people in Fitzgerald’s Roaring ’20s, China’s growing urbanization, corruption, and newfound love of luxury has left its young citizens both aspirational and disenchanted. Their pursuits are individualist, and many seek to be expatriates. President Xi Jinping urged citizens to “achieve prosperity, revitalize the nation, and bring about the happiness of the people,” but he may be creating China’s own Lost Generation.

My students didn’t only see Jay Gatsby as a naive idealist, whose refusal to acknowledge reality in the face of his dream leads to his tragic demise. They saw him as free to do so.