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…

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