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Chinese Shadows

Note: Simon Leys is the pseudonym of a Belgian art historian and Sinologist who has lived and worked in China and other parts of the Far East for more than a decade. His book Chinese Shadows—from parts of which the following article is drawn—was the result of a six-months stay in China during 1972. His aim, as he writes, is “not to question the achievements” of the regime, “which, if not always revolutionary as their Western supporters would claim, are still considerable in many fields.” Rather he wanted only to add “some shadows, without which even the most luminous portrait lacks depth, offering a few notes—in counterpoint as it were—about some details that have been omitted for some reason or another by…prestigious witnesses.”

In handbooks on Chinese traditional painting, an advice commonly given to the artist who wishes to learn to paint trees is to sketch them in winter, for then, without the seductive yet confused and blurry effect of their leafy masses, through their stark nudity they can best reveal their inner structure and specific character. These sketches of the People’s Republic of China were made at the end of one of its most rigorous political winters. Faint stirrings of a timid spring were beginning to make themselves felt, here and there, but this did not much alter the drab outline of the scenery.

I have no doubt that a superficial observer visiting China this year might discover a certain amount of quantitative discrepancies between his experiences and mine: since I wrote this book, things have evolved a bit—I mean, the free zone for foreigners around Peking may have been enlarged by a few miles, a few more museums, monuments, and temples may have reopened, a little more variety may have been introduced in the theaters, bookshops may display more books, and so forth. And on the whole the atmosphere may be more relaxed and pleasant. Yet these appearances could be quite misleading if the visitor were to take them for permanent features of the regime. Beneath this welcoming veneer lies, unchanged, a harsh and dour reality, the reality I saw before most of its present cosmetics had been applied—and foreigners who had stayed in Peking two or three years before me had seen it in the raw. It may be useful to know what China actually was like when I was there, since it can and will be like that again at any time. If you do not believe me, wait until next “winter,” and you will find that my book deals not so much with the past as with the future.

Not that I claim for myself any prophetic insight: it is simply that totalitarian regimes have very little capacity for change, and the validity of whatever truths one may gather about them is bound to endure as long as the regimes themselves. (This applies even beyond ethnic and cultural frontiers: I was privileged to work in Peking with a man who had a long and thorough experience of Stalinist Russia, and despite his lack of any previous knowledge of China, he quickly felt at home with the Maoist regime.) Thus, most of what I wrote belongs to a category of observation that, bearing as it does on the basic, permanent nature of the system, should have a kind of timeless relevance.

Other notations here and there may seem to be about less permanent features of China; yet I believe that the passage of time will not make them irrelevant. “Any fool may write a most valuable book by chance if he will tell us what he heard and saw with veracity,” said Thomas Gray,1 and indeed any faithful record kept by a resident of a foreign enclave under the Ch’ing dynasty, for instance, even if full of ephemeral trifles, would yield today a considerable measure of historical interest. Thus I feel that any attempt to update this candid account—like indicating what new embassies have been established in San-li-t’un since I left that ghastly diplomatic ghetto, or mentioning that K’ang Sheng and Chou En-lai and Mao Tse-tung have since died, or that Chairman Mao perpetrated another lousy poem and other equally worthy news items that are in your daily newspaper anyway—far from enhancing its interest would compromise its only asset, which is not that it provides a journalistic report of events but that it confesses a certain human experience, an admittedly subjective yet genuine and deeply felt response to a phenomenon of world significance.

1. Follow the Guide

The Maoist authorities have accomplished a strange tour de force: they have managed to limit China—that immense and varied universe, for the exploration of which, however superficial, a lifetime is inadequate—to a narrow, incredibly constricted area. China has hundreds of cities; only about a dozen are open to ordinary foreigners. In each one, the foreigners are always put in the same hotel—usually a huge palace, set like a fortress in the middle of a vast garden, far away in a distant suburb. In these hotels, the guests enjoy a restaurant that offers the best cooking available in the province, a barbershop and hairdresser, a bookstore that sells luxury editions and art reproductions unavailable in the city itself, an auditorium where films are shown and where artists sometimes come to give special performances for the foreign guests. Needless to say, the local public is not admitted: watchmen at the gate check the identity of all Chinese visitors. In this way, the only contact the travelers have with the towns they “visit” is as they speed past along the boulevards, driving to factories and hospitals in the routine way.

If we see little of urban China, what of rural China! The countryside, which constitutes the true reality of China and where the destiny of the country is being decided, is a complete blank for us. Out of the tens of thousands of villages where more than 80 percent of the Chinese people live, foreigners visit less than a dozen (and always the same ones); these are interesting in the limited way of agricultural pavilions at an international fair.

Since the vast Chinese world has thus been shrunk to the size of a pinhead, there don’t have to be many foreign visitors in circulation for them to get the impression that they are all over the place, treading on each other’s toes. Beyond space and time, a kind of Freemasonry springs up among them, the way it does among commuters on a shared little suburban tram line; thus one learns that French Senator F. sprained his ankle on the staircase of this monument; they show you the place where the Danish writer R. bought a shepherd’s whistle and where the American newspaperman B. bought a walking stick; one travels in the limousine that carried the Italian lady M., ideologist of Maoism. This would be funny if it were Liechtenstein, but when one thinks of immense China being reduced to this puny size, to this cozy promiscuity of a small-town Rotary Club, sadness grips the heart.

The same treatment has been given to the Chinese population: out of eight hundred million Chinese, foreigners meet about sixty individuals. The literary world is represented by two or three writers, always the same, who take care of visiting men of letters; the same is true of scientists, scholars, and so on. It would seem that the thousands of foreigners who visit China each year all meet this inevitable handful of people, for whom greeting foreigners is a full-time job. But if by chance you knew some other personalities—artists, writers, or scholars—apart from those few pathetic mummies who have been cleared to be full-time public-relations men, you may well have to wait a long time to see them again.

The chances you have of meeting someone are generally in inverse ratio to the gain you might enjoy from the encounter: for example, a senator from Texas or an Australian farmer is more likely to be allowed to meet a well-known archaeologist or a specialist in epigraphy—especially if he has not asked to—while it will be very hard for a specialist in those fields to enjoy the same privilege. If it appears that you are less ignorant than you decently should be about current changes in the political or cultural life of China, and if on top of that you know enough Chinese to be able to dispense with an interpreter, all your requests to meet various people, or just to know what has happened to them, will sink without a trace in the sands of a timid and fear-ridden bureaucracy.

Friendship between peoples” is always exalted in China: the slogan is repeated in every speech, written in gigantic ideograms on every wall. But friendship between individuals is efficiently discouraged: the reader will find a number of instructive stories about this in the following pages. If the Maoist authorities, welcoming foreign visitors, run China like a restricted club, it is a colonial club, where meeting the “natives” is frowned upon. The only Chinese people one can talk to without getting into trouble are servants (personnel provided by the service section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), bureaucrats one meets at official gatherings, guides and interpreters provided by the government’s travel agency, and “professional friends.” These last are bureaucrats from the Foreign Office on temporary assignment to keep foreigners company; their names—they are few—come up time and again in the many accounts written by travelers who think, naïvely, that they had managed to make friends in China. As long as they are attached to you, you will find them talkative and pleasant, maybe even warm-hearted; but if you try to prolong the friendship beyond the term of their official mission, you risk disappointment.

2. Peking

It is not easy to foresee how future centuries will judge the Maoist rule, but one thing is certain: despite all it has done, the name of the regime will also be linked with the outrage it inflicted on a cultural legacy of all mankind: the destruction of the city of Peking.

For what they wanted to do to their own capital city, the rulers of the People’s Republic would have been better inspired to have a hideous modern city such as Tientsin, for instance; they could have bulldozed whole neighborhoods, laid out grids of those endless straight boulevards they seem to be so fond of; created vast esplanades and exalting deserts of tarmac for their mass manifestations in the best Stalino-Fascist style; in a word; they could have slaked their thirst for destruction without causing irreparable damage to the monumental legacy of Chinese civilization. Moreover, the architectural ugliness of a city like Tientsin, which reaches almost surrealist dimensions, could have inspired the architects of the new regime as it challenged them in the category of delirious kitsch and petty-bourgeois pretentiousness; the competition would have been keen between the imperialist-colonialist and the Maoist city planners; even better, the various monuments given to China by the Soviet Union which now disgrace Peking would have found in Tientsin a background more in harmony with their aesthetic. But alas, from a Maoist point of view Tientsin would not do: it had no imperial tradition.

  1. 1

    In a letter to Horace Walpole about Boswell’s Account of Corsica.

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