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The Man Who Got It Right

Ray Strange/Newspix
Pierre Ryckmans, who writes under the name of Simon Leys, Canberra, Australia, June 2009


Near the beginning of Simon Leys’s marvelous collection of essays is an odd polemic between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens, fought out in these very pages. Leys takes Hitchens to task for attacking Mother Teresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. He writes: “Bashing an elderly nun under an obscene label does not seem to be a particularly brave or stylish thing to do.” Hitchens replies: What do you mean, obscene? You know perfectly well, answers Leys. And so on and on.

What interested me about this exchange was not the relative merits of the arguments put forth by two writers who had at least one thing in common—a love of George Orwell and G.K. Chesterton, possibly for the same reasons, to which I shall return a little later. The most interesting thing, to me, was the anecdote related by Leys at the end of his account, about sitting in an Australian café minding his own business while a radio is blaring musical and spoken pap in the background. By chance, the program switched to a Mozart clarinet quintet, for a moment turning the café “into an antechamber of Paradise.” People fell silent, there were looks of bafflement, and then, “to the huge relief of all,” one customer “stood up, walked straight to the radio,” turned the knob to another station, and “restored at once the more congenial noises, which everyone could again comfortably ignore.”

Leys describes this event as a kind of epiphany. He is sure that philistinism does not result from the lack of knowledge. The customer who could not abide hearing Mozart’s music recognized its beauty. Indeed, he did what he did precisely for that reason. The desire to destroy beauty, according to Leys, applies not just to aesthetics but as much, if not more, to ethics: “The need to bring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us, is probably the saddest urge of human nature.”

I’m not sure whether the deeds of Mother Teresa can really be compared usefully to Mozart’s music. An alternative explanation for the behavior of the man in the café might be that he disliked Mozart’s music out of class resentment. The “philistines” wouldn’t put up with something they associated with people who might sneer at their lack of refinement. Perhaps. In fact, there is no way of knowing what really went through the man’s head. But the idea that art, ethics, and matters of the spirit, including religious faith, come from the same place is central to Leys’s concerns. All his essays, about André Gide or Evelyn Waugh no less than the art of Chinese calligraphy, revolve around this.

Leys once described in these pages the destruction of the old walls and gates of Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s as a “sacrilege.”1 The thick walls surrounding the ancient capital were “not so much a medieval defense apparatus as a depiction of a cosmic geometry, a graphic of the universal order.” Pre-modern Chinese politics were intimately linked with religious beliefs: the ruler was the intermediary between heaven and earth, his empire, if ruled wisely, a reflection of the cosmic order. Classical Beijing, much of it built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was deliberately planned to reflect this order. It survived almost intact until the 1950s. Apart from a few pockets, such as the Forbidden City, nothing of this old city remains.

Critics over the years have attacked Leys for being an elitist, a Western mimic of Chinese literati, an aesthete who cares more about high culture than people, more about walls and temples than the poor Beijingers who had to live in dark and primitive alleys, oppressed by absolute rulers and feudal superstition. But this misses the point. It was not Leys’s intention to defend the Chinese imperial or feudal system. On the contrary, he lamented the fact that Maoists decided to smash the extraordinary artifacts of the past instead of the attitudes that made feudalism so oppressive in the first place. The stones were destroyed; many of the attitudes, alas, remained, albeit under different rulers.

Iconoclasts, not only in China, are as enthralled by the sacred properties of the objects they destroy as those who venerate them. This much we know. But Leys goes further. In his view, Maoists didn’t just reduce the walls of Beijing, and much else besides, to rubble because they believed such acts would liberate the Chinese people; they smashed Yuan and Ming and Qing Dynasty treasures because they were beautiful. Yet beauty, as Leys himself insists, is rarely neutral. His use of the term “sacrilege” suggests that there was more to Maoist iconoclasm than a philistine resentment of architectural magnificence. Leys quotes Guo Moruo, one of the most famous mandarins of the Chinese Communist revolution, on the city walls in Sichuan where the scholar and poet grew up. People approaching a town near Guo’s native village felt a “sense of religious awe when confronted with the severe majestic splendor” of the city gate. Guo notes the rarity of such superb walls outside Sichuan—“except in Peking, of course, where the walls are truly majestic.”

Guo was a Communist, but not a vandal. He paid a common price for his love of the wrong kind of beauty. Persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to declare that his books were worthless and should be burned. Two of his children were driven to suicide, and Guo had to write odes in praise of Chairman Mao for the rest of the Great Helmsman’s life.

The point about the walls is, of course, not merely aesthetic, nostalgic, or even to do with awe. Heinrich Heine’s famous dictum—“Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people”2—applies to China too. It wasn’t just buildings that were shattered under Chairman Mao, but tens of millions of human lives.

In one of his essays, Leys refers to the first Communist decades in China as “thirty years of illiterates’ rule,” which might be construed as snobbish; but the relative lack of education among the top Communist cadres is not actually the main issue for Leys. His targets are never uneducated barbarians, people too ignorant or stupid to know what they are doing. The objects of his devastating and bitterly funny barbs are fellow intellectuals, often fellow academics, most often fellow experts on China, people who faithfully followed every twist and turn of the Chinese Communist Party line, even though they knew better. Such people as the writer Han Suyin, for example, who declared that the Cultural Revolution was a Great Leap Forward for mankind until she observed, once the line had changed, that it had been a terrible disaster.

I recognize the type, since they were to be found among the Dutch professors who taught me Chinese literature and history at Leyden University in the early 1970s, when the Cultural Revolution was still raging. None of them was a Maoist, in the sense that they would have advocated Mao’s politics in their own country. But China, whose unique culture my professors spent their lives studying, was different. Ordinary Chinese, one world-famous expert of early Chinese Buddhism explained to us, loved the revolutionary operas that replaced the popular classical operas, which were banned. Presumably, they also didn’t mind being cooped up in rigidly controlled state communes, and believed in the justice of “struggle sessions” against “revisionists,” “bourgeois splitists” and other “enemies of the people” who were humiliated, tortured, and often murdered in public. In any case, was it not a smug illusion to think that we were so free in our Western democracies? And apart from anything else, it was important not to ruin one’s chances to visit China. It really wouldn’t do to upset the Chinese authorities.

So when Leys first published his scorching polemical essays against the idiocies of Western apologists for Mao’s misrule in the 1970s, some of my professors were very annoyed. And yet, in the fierce debate that followed, they kept curiously aloof. They simply dismissed Leys.3 His writings on China did, however, spark strong arguments among journalists and intellectuals, which had less to with China itself than with local concerns with student protest, ideological conflict, and the colonial past.

If Leys’s views were unwelcome in Leyden, this was even more true in France, where Maoism had captivated the minds of many more intellectuals. One conspicuous feature of the European Maoists in the 1970s was their obliviousness to actual conditions in China. The Chinese were discussed almost as an abstraction. Leys, who cared deeply about the Chinese, became a hate figure in Paris. I remember watching him on a French television chat show. The host, Bernard Pivot, asked him why he had decided to take on what seemed like the entire Parisian intellectual establishment. Leys replied with one word: chagrin—grief, sorrow, distress.


Simon Leys is actually the nom de plume for Pierre Ryckmans, a French-speaking Belgian with a Flemish name. He fell in love with Chinese culture when he visited China as part of a student delegation in 1955. After studying law at the Catholic university in Louvain, Leys became a scholar of Chinese, living for several years in Taiwan, Singapore, and in Hong Kong, where he made friends with a young Chinese calligrapher who, in a traditional flourish of stylish humility, named his own slum dwelling the Hall of Uselessness. Ryckmans spent two “intense and joyful years” there, “when learning and living were one and the same thing.” The name Leys is a homage to René Leys, the wonderful novel by Victor Segalen (1878–1919) about a seventeen-year-old Belgian who penetrated the mysteries of the Chinese imperial court just before the revolution of 1911.4

Ryckmans/Leys went on to become a highly distinguished professor of Chinese literature in Australia, where he still lives today, writing essays and sailing boats. Few, if any, contemporary scholars of Chinese write as well about the classical Chinese arts—calligraphy, poetry, and painting—let alone about European literature, ranging in this collection from Balzac to Nabokov. None, so far as I know, have written novels as good as his Death of Napoleon. Leys is perhaps unique in that his prose in English is no less sparkling than in French.

Unlike in the 1970s, few people now dispute that Leys was right about the horrors of Mao’s regime. Even the Chinese government admits that more than fifteen million people died of starvation as the direct result of Mao’s deranged experiments in the late 1950s. Recent scholarship shows that the real figure might be as high as forty-five million deaths between 1958 and 1962 (see Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, 2010). The Cultural Revolution, although Mao’s own leading role in it can still not be discussed openly, is commonly referred to as the “great disaster.” One of the questions raised by Leys is why most people got it so wrong when Maoism was at its most murderous. Was it a matter of excusable ignorance about what was then a very closed society?

  1. 1

    Chinese Shadows,” The New York Review, May 26, 1977; reprinted in Simon Leys, Chinese Shadows (Viking, 1977). 

  2. 2

    This line, from Heine’s play Almansor, actually refers to the burning of the Koran by the Spanish Inquisition. 

  3. 3

    Although rumor had it that at least one tried to sabotage a Dutch translation of Leys’s first book on modern China, Les Habits neufs du président Mao [ The Chairman’s New Clothes ] (Paris: Champ libre, 1971). 

  4. 4

    New York Review Books, 2003. 

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