Simon Leys — the cosmopolitan scholar who broke the rules of Sinology

The spiritedly rebellious work of the scholar and aesthete remains an invaluable guide to the politics of China half a century after he first challenged the bland orthodoxies of Sinology.

Simon Leys (aka Pierre Ryckmans), 1935-2014. Credit: Belga News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo.
Simon Leys (aka Pierre Ryckmans), 1935-2014. Credit: Belga News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo.

‘There’s a new book about China by a fellow called Simon Leys,’ said my history tutor, the late Norman Stone, at the end of one testy supervision in the 1970s, ‘you should go and get it.’ Professor Stone, who seemed to think he had a teenage Maoist on his hands, felt it would improve his student’s perspective.

The book was Chinese Shadows. I hurried back from Heffers bookshop clutching the Penguin paperback, a mere 80 pence, and as I settled down in my college room Habsburgs and Ottomans receded into the Cambridge mists and a strange civilisation crept into view, captured on the book’s cover in a blurry picture of cyclists, red flags and monumental buildings.

Chinese Shadows could not be categorised. Politically pungent, full of asides on an unknown world (to me) of painting, literature and poetry, it mixed the essay, the travelogue and the pamphlet. It was one of a trilogy on China published first in French, then in the author’s own translations (such was his polymathy) to both criticism and acclaim.

At the time Western readers had a stream of anti-Communist literature out of the Eastern Bloc. But there was no Chinese Solzhenitsyn. Such was the isolation of the People’s Republic that few writers got in and none got out. Its drama was left to a handful of outsiders to chronicle, a task this new author took up with vigour.

It was not easy. Schisms in the United States over ‘who lost China’ and the war in Vietnam meant ignorance got mixed up with ideology. Then, after President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, the sheer fascination of the place obscured the crimes of its rulers. On balance, until Simon Leys came along, the Chinese revolution had a good press.

The author was not, in fact, called Simon Leys. The nom de plume was chosen to conceal the writer’s identity in an age of comparative technological blindness. He was born Pierre Ryckmans to a Belgian family in Brussels in 1936, attended the Catholic University of Louvain, served as a diplomat in Peking (as he always called it) and taught at universities in Hong Kong and Canberra until his death at the age of 78 in 2014.

That does not do justice to the range and quality of his output. His passion for sailing, for example, led him to translate into French Richard Henry Dana’s nineteenth century American classic Two Years Before the MastA Catholic intellectual training made his moral judgements as sharp as his handwriting. He had an open, roving mind. Yet, having read the China books, by the mid-1980s they began to feel outdated. Wasn’t China changing? Was the ‘reform and opening up’ championed by Deng Xiaoping not a refutation of the totalitarian experiment led by Mao Zedong? Surely ideology was withering in the People’s Republic and politics evolving in a pragmatic way?

So it could be claimed until the summer of 1989, when huge protests led to the massacre at Tiananmen Square and the defeat of political reform in China. Here was irony on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, for it was a turning point at which history failed to turn. Vindicated in his pessimism, Ryckmans turned back from his main fields of interest (he listed them for me in a letter as ‘classical studies, literature and art’) to write a few commentaries. But he was reluctant to do contemporary political analysis and felt that his foundational work on China was complete.

In the monochrome years after Tiananmen, journalists, scholars and diplomats found it ever more difficult to make sense of the world’s most populous nation. Events and figures came and went like Chinese shadows. Then around the end of the century I found in a bookshop in Hong Kong a French language edition of the complete works of ‘Simon Leys,’ beautifully printed by Èditions Robert Laffont as a compact paperback under the title Essais sur la Chine. On its cover, a verse written in 1933 by the poet Lu Xun:

Having got involved in writing, I was punished for my impudence

A rebel against fashion, I offended the mentality of my age

The heaped-up calumnies may get the better of my carcass

Useless as it is, my voice will survive me in these pages

It became a companion on my typical assignments to Beijing as a foreign correspondent — appointments ungranted, contacts absent, early meals consumed alone in hotel dining rooms, the watchful minions of state security and the grinding tedium of a closed political system. Dipping into the book on, say, a golden afternoon in a park near the Forbidden City, may not have represented the journalistic urgency expected by editors in London but it was a good use of their time and money.

It yielded up its treasures by degrees. First, the sparkling clarity of Ryckmans’ prose which made the most intricate sentence a pleasure. Although he wrote fluently in English, it is only on reading the works in French, where the subjunctive can be a rapier, that one understands why Mary McCarthy compared him to Voltaire and Montesquieu in the pamphleteering tradition. He spared neither tyrants nor fellow-travellers.

The second prize was the timeless quality of his diagnosis. It is profitable to read today. A student of the imperial mentality, he took his cue from the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, who he quoted thus: ‘Foreign countries have waged wars of religion and fought for freedom; in China for thousands of years there has been a perpetual battle over one sole question: who becomes emperor.’

Thirdly, the collected edition had a trove of gems from Chinese history, literature, philosophy and art, not just scattered throughout the trilogy but in essays, reviews and interviews. One can plunder its pages without end.

Here are just a few of his insights, as valid in the era of Xi Jinping as they were when the young Ryckmans watched the court of Mao. For the chairman, the psychology of power stemmed from a deep knowledge of the Chinese classics. He perused two epics, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin, but according to Ryckmans his true obsession was an eleventh-century work by Sima Guang, A Universal Mirror of History as an aid to Government. Mao took this handbook from the Song Dynasty as his bedside reading and a copy was seen on his desk in an official photograph. ‘Mao felt most at home in this ancient and closed universe,’ was Ryckmans’ conclusion.

But Mao was also instinctively a Lord of Misrule, whose endorsement of chaos endeared him to the Parisian intellectuals of the 1960s, a species for whom Ryckmans nourished a bitter contempt. In the Chinese of reality, Mao despised intellectuals and lured them from their studies to destruction in his purges.

‘The repression he unleashed on all the forces of criticism, of modernisation and opening up recalled the blind political reaction of the Dowager Empress Cixi in the twilight of the Manchu dynasty and her bid to exterminate the tiny elite of progressive intellectuals who were spreading modern ideas,’ the author wrote.

Ryckmans qualified his critique by saying that the empress was no mediocrity: ‘she was endowed with a brilliant political genius; her drama (and the catastrophes she brought upon China) derived from the fact that her genius was perfectly suited to the traditional universe but useless in the new world with which history confronted her.’

He did not excuse Mao. In today’s China, where the leader is glorified in a manner unseen since the high and palmy days of Maoism, Ryckmans’ work recalls both the folly of exalting a supreme guide and the ruin that befalls those around him.

The man-made disasters of Mao’s reign, principally his Great Leap Forward to industrialisation and the ensuing famine, were at first ignored, then excused by admirers abroad; just as such people praise arbitrary and draconian programmes like the ‘one child’ policy and Xi Jinping’s ‘zero Covid’ strategy, both enforced with no humanity and no heed of consequences, then reversed without explanation or apology. Only the punishment of critics is consistent.

As for the acolytes of the present ruler, they would do well to heed the fates, not to say the reputations, of the giants of the Chinese revolution sketched in acid by Ryckmans. Two such figures were Deng Xiaoping, who emerged as paramount leader after Mao, and Liu Shaoqi, the president, who fell from power and died of cancer, untreated, on a bare concrete floor.

Deng sent in the tanks to Tiananmen Square, forever his epitaph, however much his partial economic reforms may have improved the lot of many Chinese. Less known but equally deserving of stricture, Liu was ‘associated with the purest, narrowest and most sectarian forms of Stalinism,’ wrote Ryckmans. ‘Nobody would ever have dreamt of associating the names of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping with any concept of liberal pragmatism,’ he concluded. It was all about gaining and holding power.

Lesser figures in the Maoist constellation received his bile in due measure. The servile Zhou Enlai, admired for his diplomatic skills by Henry Kissinger; the mass murderer Kang Sheng, chief of the secret police, the obscure secretary-propagandist Chen Boda; others long forgotten, and the three opportunists in the ‘Gang of Four’ with their fourth daemon, Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, the impresario of the Cultural Revolution.

This last personality brings us to the most difficult and contentious aspects of Ryckmans’ work; namely his scorn for those he saw as the regime’s foreign apologists and his unflinching refusal to concede that China was different or exceptional.

Madame Mao was the subject of one of the most astonishing documents to come out of the People’s Republic, a book called  Comrade Chiang Ch’ing  (the title used an old transliteration) published in 1977 by a young American historian, Roxane Witke, based on extensive interviews with the most notorious woman in China.

Nobody could doubt its authenticity; few could explain why it had been allowed to happen. The ultra-Marxist had even sent an official plane to fly her amanuensis to a private retreat in the Pearl River delta (this at a time when practically no ordinary Chinese citizen had ever boarded an aircraft).

Witke recorded Jiang Qing’s views on politics, culture and revolution, sympathised with her struggle as a woman at the apex of a chauvinistic male power system and gave her a voice that certainly deserved to be part of the historical record.

Jiang Qing left little else for posterity. After Mao’s death she fell from power, was hauled before a show trial and died in prison, possibly by her own hand, in 1991.

For Ryckmans, the book was ‘a document of exceptional value.’ Since the foundation of the Communist state, he observed, no foreigner had ever had the privilege of meeting for so long and on such intimate terms with a member of the ruling group. His problem was that it amounted to a manifesto for a monster.

He began an excoriating review with Jiang Qing’s words to the effect that Witke’s role was to write history while hers was to lead the revolution. ‘If we must judge by the destiny of one and by the book of the other, it seems that neither of these two women is particularly competent at their craft,’ he wrote.

Witke saw her interviewee as a substantial thinker, he marvelled, yet how could such an impression come from ‘hours of submitting to the incoherent ramblings of Jiang Qing, her Ersatz-Empress craziness and her petty-bourgeois kitsch?’ That was the mild bit.

In summary, he quoted the writer Guo Moruo, who called Jiang Qing ‘the ghost with the bleached skeleton;’ a person of cruel hatreds who doomed thousands and purged tradition in favour of stilted revolutionary arts, all the while ‘combining an irrepressible predilection for films like The Sound of Music with ranting denunciations of western culture.’

The writer Han Suyin received similar treatment for her sympathetic histories and biographies of the Mao era. In one savage exegesis, Ryckmans compared passages from her work, first glorifying the Red Guards then, when the political winds changed, lamenting their use of murder and torture. It is fair to say that he single-handedly destroyed her reputation. Their feud endured until 2012 when she died, at a safe distance from China, in Lausanne, aged 95.

One could catalogue such personal vendettas for amusement alone but two broader themes of Ryckmans’ work are more useful to us today.

He distrusted ‘the experts who explain China to us.’ Deprived of facts, they lived by the interpretation of minutiae. Quoting Philip Roth, he recalled that ‘in the West everything is allowed and nothing is important; over there nothing is allowed and everything is important.’

Ryckmans compared this to marine biology: ‘If fish could suddenly speak, I suppose that some of the fundamental premises of ichthyology would have to be dramatically revised.’ Orthodox Sinology was based on the ‘reassuring certitude’ that the Chinese might as well inhabit the ocean depths; but if one day they should surface to speak their minds, the message would be so loud and clear as to sow consternation in expert ranks.

That led Ryckmans to his second big theme, which might be called the exceptionalism fallacy, namely: ‘China is different.’ It has become a slogan under Xi Jinping and accepted by a worrying number of people who should know better.

He saw through it in an essay on politics, noting that variations of the fallacy include: ‘human rights are a western concept which is not relevant to China,’ ‘we must respect the right of the Chinese to be different,’ and ‘traditionally, China has always been governed by despotic regimes.’ He dealt with each in turn.

The first is untrue (Chinese reformers were active from the nineteenth century), the second illogical (do we pass off Hitler’s crimes, he asked, by saying they were peculiarly German?) and the third is uninformed (because the Communist regime cannot be compared to the old order).

‘Political life in the Ming dynasty was ferocious and implacable but the terror affected a relatively small fraction of the people who were politically active and had direct contact with the organs of government. In the mid-sixteenth century the machinery of state had only ten to fifteen thousand officials to govern a population of some one hundred and fifty million,’ he observed.

The vast majority of Chinese would pass their lives without encountering a representative of imperial power. Moreover, while the last dynasty, the Qing, which ruled China for three centuries, ‘was certainly authoritarian, it had laws, with an elaborate penal code, whereas in Maoist China there was a legal void allowing local tyrants to rule by caprice.’

The judicial charade in Hong Kong, where prosecutors lodge one charge after another against activists for democracy, illustrates the modern refinement of this principle to ‘rule by law,’ which is laughably represented as progress. ‘Watch the developments in Hong Kong!’ Ryckmans wrote to me in 1996, a time when optimism reigned.

The fate of Hong Kong demonstrates Ryckmans’ ‘fourth variation’ of the ‘China is Different’ fallacy; the claim that ‘respect for the individual is a western characteristic, but in China there is a natural acceptance of the Confucian tradition subordinating individual freedom to collective obligations.’

Writing these words in 1978, the author was ahead of his time in noting that the concept that Chinese people are not like white Caucasians ‘recalls the racist language of the imperial-colonialist era.’ He recalled, too, how the ‘Chinese difference’ let Western businesses of the period exploit a people they saw as faceless hordes — ‘being less sensitive than westerners to hunger, cold and heat, one could therefore beat or starve them.’

Finally, he wrote, it was evident that cultural differences exist, not least because difference constitutes the essence of culture itself. But to construct ‘an order of difference’ which would limit human rights to certain nations alone would be equal to denying the universality of human nature.

In taking leave of ‘Simon Leys’ one can also take leave to doubt whether in today’s nervous world he would receive an academic post, let alone corporate sponsorship or invitations to conferences and seminars which all too often seek to divine the future of China in a haze of suffocating blandness. But teenage Maoists – or anyone else with fixed ideas about China — must bow, as I did, to this rebellious spirit.


Michael Sheridan