The thought of hearing back from Simon Leys filled me with dread. It was late 1976 and I was an exchange student at a university in Shenyang, in northeast China. I’d only recently learned that Pierre Ryckmans, the man who had taught me Chinese, was none other than Simon Leys, a writer both celebrated and reviled in the French-speaking world.
Mao Zedong had died in September. Not long after, Leys published an obituary in the Australian press. Mao, he said, had
outlived himself by some twenty years. If he had died a few years after the Liberation, he would have gone down in history as one of China’s most momentous leaders. Unfortunately, during the last part of his life, by stubbornly clinging to an outdated utopia, by becoming frozen in his own idiosyncrasies and private visions…he became in fact a major obstacle to the development of the Chinese revolution.
For nearly thirty years Mao had been the only fixed point in the tumultuous life of China. In the mid-1960s the uprising of the Red Guards, zealous high school students who attacked Mao’s enemies, had made the People’s Republic an epicenter of youthful rebellion, and although my original interest in China was inspired by Taoism and classical literature, I was also enamored of contemporary politics.
During my third year as an undergraduate at the Australian National University, Pierre had encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to study in China. After two years in Shenyang, and despite mounting misgivings—every day in the People’s Republic offered grim new revelations—I remained sympathetic to the Chinese Revolution in the abstract. When Mao died, he was mourned around me on a pharaonic scale. Yet here was my teacher—the scholar who had taught us that China was “a concept of universality, a way of achieving humanity, an intermediary between man and cosmic harmony”—saying that the recently dead Chairman was “both the architect and the cornerstone of the most gigantic totalitarian bureaucracy this planet has ever known.”
We were still in contact by mail, and our student–teacher bond made me feel like a foreign traitor, something the cadres and our teachers darkly warned us about. I felt compelled to say something. In doggerel literary Chinese scrawled with my best calligraphic flourish I sent Pierre a note saying that he was a reactionary, complicit with the autocratic Nationalist regime on Taiwan, so-called Free China.
After weeks of anxiety, one day the concierge-warden of our student dorm handed me a letter addressed in the sinuous Chinese hand that I knew so well. I can recall my embarrassment: I was ashamed at having sent an intemperate letter to someone who had been unfailingly encouraging. By then the “Gang of Four”—Mao’s powerful faction, led by his wife,…
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