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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?

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.

People in the Chinese cultural sphere, and perhaps beyond, did not traditionally share the common Western defiance of mortality. The idea of erecting monumental buildings meant to last forever would have seemed a naive illusion. Everything is destined to perish, so why not build impermanence into our sense of beauty? The Japanese took this aesthetic notion even further than their Chinese masters: the cult of cherry blossoms, for example, fleetingness being the essence of their unique splendor. Chinese capital cities in the past were frequently abandoned, and new ones established elsewhere. What is considered to be historic in China is the site, not the buildings that happen to be there at any given time. Buddhist temples and Taoist halls, built a few years ago in concrete, on the same site where older buildings once stood, are still called “ancient” in the tourist guides.

But if even the strongest works of man cannot in the end withstand the erosion of time, what can? Leys’s answer: “Life-after-life was not to be found in a supernature, nor could it rely upon artefacts: man only survives in man—which means, in practical terms, in the memory of posterity, through the medium of the written word.” As long as the word remains, Chinese civilization will continue. Sometimes memories replace great works of art. Leys mentions the legendary fourth-century calligraphy of a prose poem whose extraordinary beauty was celebrated by generation after generation of Chinese, centuries after the original work was lost. Indeed, it may never even have existed.

With a civilization built on such an adaptable, supple, constantly self-replenishing, and indeed beautiful basis, who needs big city walls? But I would not wish to end my tribute to a writer I much admire on such a note of sacrilege. Better to end with a line from a poem by Victor Ségalen, deploring the barbaric Western habit of building monuments for eternity, which might equally apply to the modern Chinese habit of building dreadful kitsch on the ruins of their past:

You, sons of Han, whose wisdom reaches ten thousand years, no tens of tens of thousands of years, beware of such contempt.
  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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