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The Man Who Got It Right

Leys has a tendency to overdo his expressions of humility, a bit like Chinese mandarins in old comic books: “My little talk,” “My readers will naturally forget this article,” and so on. But he is surely right in claiming that his insights into the Maoist terrors inflicted on the Chinese people owed very little to superior expertise. Famous apologists for Mao’s regime, such as the filmmaker Felix Greene, the once-popular author Ross Terrill, or indeed Han Suyin, had traveled far more extensively in China than Leys had. He hadn’t even set foot there between 1955 and 1972. All he did was listen to Chinese friends and “every day…read a couple of Chinese newspapers over breakfast.” The information he gleaned was freely available in English as well, in the superb China News Analysis, for example, published weekly in Hong Kong by the Jesuit scholar Father Laszlo Ladany, to whom Leys pays tribute in one of his essays. Ladany’s publication was read by every serious follower of Chinese affairs at the time.

So why were the “China experts” (we might as well leave other famous dupes, such as Shirley MacLaine, aside) so obtuse? As in the case of the man who couldn’t tolerate Mozart, Leys dismisses ignorance as an explanation. His answer: “What people believe is essentially what they wish to believe. They cultivate illusions out of idealism—and also out of cynicism.” The truth can be brutal, and makes life uncomfortable. So one looks the other way. This aspect of dealing with China, or any other dictatorship where interests might be at stake, has not changed.

In an essay written after the “Tiananmen Massacre” in 1989, Leys remarks that the mass killings of demonstrators all over China offered everyone, even the most thickheaded, a glimpse of truth; it was so glaring that it was impossible to avoid. But this, too, would pass: “Whenever a minute of silence is being observed in a ceremony, don’t we all soon begin to throw discreet glances at our watches? Exactly how long should a ‘decent interval’ last before we can resume business-as-usual with the butchers of Peking?”

Well, not long, as it turned out. Businessmen, politicians, academics, and others soon came flocking back. Indeed, as Leys says, “they may even have a point when they insist, in agreeing once more to sit at the banquet of the murderers, they are actively strengthening the reformist trends in China.” Then he adds, with a little flick of his pen: “I only wish they had weaker stomachs.”

Which brings me back to Orwell and Chesterton, so much admired by Leys and Christopher Hitchens. Orwell has served as a model for many soi-disant mavericks who like to depict themselves as brave tellers of truth. The case for Chesterton, as Hitchens acknowledged in his very last article, is a little more complicated. Chesterton’s opinions on Jews and “negroes,” though not uncommon in his time, were not entirely in line with the great wisdom Leys attributes to him. The much-vaunted “common sense,” claimed as the prime virtue of Orwell and Chesterton by their admirers, might sometimes be mistaken for philistinism. And Leys’s love of Chesterton occasionally leads him down paths where I find it hard to follow. When Chesterton huffs and puffs that modern people, especially for some reason in Manhattan, “proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility,” Leys adds, as though his hero’s statement were the pinnacle of prophetic sagacity, that it is surely no coincidence that people in our own time are supporting euthanasia as well as homosexual marriage. Whatever one thinks of euthanasia or homosexual marriage, lust surely has very little to do with it.

Still, the reasons why Leys finds Orwell attractive might be applied in equal measure to Leys himself: “[Orwell’s] intuitive grasp of concrete realities, his non-doctrinaire approach to politics (accompanied with a deep distrust of left-wing intellectuals) and his sense of the absolute primacy of the human dimension.” Both Orwell and Chesterton were good at demolishing cant. Leys is right about that: “[Chesterton’s] striking images could, in turn, deflate fallacies or vividly bring home complex principles. His jokes were irrefutable; he could invent at lightning speed surprising short-cuts to reach the truth.”


When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples what he would do if he were given his own territory to govern, the Master replied that he would “rectify the names,” that is, make words correspond to reality. He explained (in Leys’s translation):

If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language is without an object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless.

Leys comments that Orwell and Chesterton “would have immediately understood and approved of the idea.”

If this reading is right, Confucius wanted to strip the language of cant, and reach the truth through plain speaking, expressing clear thoughts. But Leys believes that he also did more than that: “Under the guise of restoring their full meaning, Confucius actually injected a new content into the old ‘names.’” One example is the interpretation of the word for gentleman, junzi. The old feudal meaning was “aristocrat.” But for Confucius a gentleman’s status could be earned only through education and superior virtue. This was a revolutionary idea; the right to rule would no longer be a matter of birth, but of intellectual and moral accomplishment, tested in an examination system theoretically open to all.

The question of language and truth is the main theme of Leys’s fascinating essays on classical Chinese poetry and art. We commonly assume that speech preceded the written word. In China, however, the earliest words, carved into “oracle bones” some 3,700 years ago, could have been read by people who would not have understood one another in any spoken language. Since these earliest Chinese ideographs, still recognizable in Chinese script today, had to do with forecasting harvests and military affairs, they were, as Leys puts it, “intimately associated with the spirits and with political authority.”

In a way this is still true. Chinese rulers, including the Communists, all like to display their prowess as calligraphers; banal maxims, supposedly written in their hand, are plastered all over public buildings, and even mountainsides, to show the rulers’ mastery of the word, and thus of civilization. The same custom persists not only in Japan but even in North Korea, where words of the Great Leader, or his son, the Dear Leader, or soon, no doubt, his son, General Kim Jong-un, are to be seen everywhere. The magical properties of the word were plainly believed by Red Guards who were quite ready to kill someone “sacriligious” enough to soil one of Mao’s Little Red Books.

To be sure, words are used to obfuscate and lie, as well as to tell the truth. Leys believes that grasping the truth is largely a matter of imagination, poetic imagination. Hence his remark that the “Western incapacity to grasp the Soviet reality and all its Asian variants” was a “failure of imagination” (his italics). Fiction often expresses truth more clearly than mere factual information. Truth, Leys writes, referring to science and philosophy, as well as poetry, “is grasped by an imaginative leap.” The question is how we contrive such leaps.

Leys identifies a basic difference between the Chinese and what he calls, perhaps a bit too loosely, the Western traditions. Classical Chinese poetry or paintings do not set out to mimic reality, to make the world look real in ink, or in poetry to express new ideas or come up with fresh descriptions. The aim is, rather, to make art into a manifestation of nature itself, or indeed vice versa—the found object in the shape of a perfect rock, for instance. The best traditional Chinese artists express themselves by breathing new life into old clichés—the mountains, the rivers, the lonely dwellings, etc. For poets, in Leys’s words, “the supreme art is to position, adjust and fit together…well-worn images in such a way that, from their unexpected encounter, a new life might spark.”

This is almost impossible to convey in translation, because the same images expressed in another language can lose their spark and easily become banal or incomprehensible. For that reason, Leys praises Ezra Pound’s efforts to render classical Chinese poetry in English, despite Pound’s gross linguistic misunderstandings. Pound understood that a Chinese poem “is not articulated upon a continuous, discursive thread, but that it flashes a discontinuous series of images (not unlike the successive frames of a film).”

Western artists often arrived by instinct at a similar understanding of art. Picasso, for example: “The question is not to imitate nature, but to work like it.” Or Paul Claudel: “Art imitates Nature not in its effects as such, but in its causes, in its ‘manner,’ in its process, which are nothing but a participation in and a derivation of actual objects, of the Art of God himself.”

Claudel was a devout Catholic, and thus perhaps (like Chesterton) especially dear to Leys, who makes his attachment to the Roman Church quite clear. But in this, as in other matters, Leys has a cosmopolitan spirit. Although keen to stress Chinese uniqueness in many respects, Leys also stretches himself as far as he can to find common spiritual ground between East and West. He is sensitive to the spirituality of many other traditions (though perhaps not so tolerant of people who reject organized religion per se, hence his spat with Christopher Hitchens). Classical Chinese art, in painting and in poetry, constitutes, as Leys puts it, “the visible manifestation” of “China’s true religion, which is a quest for cosmic harmony, an attempt to achieve communion with the world.”

This would seem, however, to take us a long way from George Orwell’s trust in plain speaking. Or at least, when it comes to spirituality, plain speaking clearly reaches its limits. The spiritual truth of Chinese art—and not only Chinese art—often lies in what is left unsaid or unpainted, the spaces deliberately left blank. In modern Western art, one thinks of the early paintings (White on White, say) by Malevich. But then he came from a Russian tradition, which also sees artworks as spiritual objects. Leys does not mention Russian icons; perhaps they are not part of a “Western” tradition. In any case, he quotes a modern Chinese critic, named Zhou Zuoren, to illustrate an essential part of classical Chinese aesthetics that would apply to many Western modernists as well: “All that can be spelled out is without importance.”

And yet the word remains. In one of Leys’s most interesting and provocative essays on Chinese culture, he tries to find an answer to an apparent paradox: why the Chinese are both obsessed with their past, specifically their five thousand years of cultural continuation, and such lax custodians of the material products of their civilization. India and Europe are full of historic churches, temples, cathedrals, castles, forts, mosques, manor houses, and city halls, while contemporary China has almost nothing of the kind. That this cannot be blamed entirely on Mao and his vandalizing Red Guards is obvious; far more of old Beijing disappeared at the hand of developers after Mao’s death than during the Cultural Revolution. European travelers already complained in the nineteenth century of the fatalistic indifference displayed by Chinese toward their ancient monuments.

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