Isabel Hilton: When I heard the news of the death of Pierre Ryckmans, better known by his pen name, Simon Leys, I began to hunt in my bookshelves for the now yellowing and grimy copies of Chinese Shadows and The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, both published in English translation in 1977. I took them down with the pleasure of encountering an old friend and the guilt of realizing how many years have passed since we first talked.
Chinese Shadows was based on recollections and insights gained by the scholarly Sinologist during a six-month stint as the cultural attaché to the Belgian embassy in 1972. Can there ever have been a bleaker time for a man who was devoted to Chinese culture to be a cultural attaché in Beijing?
I had arrived in Beijing a year later, in September 1973, and, like Ryckmans, spent many frustrating months failing to gain access to Beijing’s battered and shuttered temples, hunting for cultural treasures that had vanished; imagining, too, the vanished majesty of Beijing’s demolished city walls, today miserably memorialized in the route of the second ring road and in the poignant chain of metro stations on line Number 2, a roll call of the magnificent gates for which Ryckmans spent a day in a fruitless search, before his mounting despair and disbelief overwhelmed him.
The contemporary scholars and writers whom Ryckmans admired had been hounded to their deaths or silenced. Beijing, as he wrote: “…appears to be a murdered town. The body is still there, the soul has gone. The life of Peking, which created never-ending theater in its streets and squares, the noisy and enjoyable life of the city has gone, leaving only the physical presence of a mute and monochromatic crowd, oppressed by a silence broken only by the tinkle of bicycle bells.”
He wrote many more books and steady stream of scholarly articles, but for me, Chinese Shadows and The Chairman’s New Clothes occupy a special place. To appreciate their impact, we must recall the binary vision of China that prevailed in the seventies: where western scholars engaged with contemporary China at all – and many in the academy, perhaps understandably, preferred the consolations of classical culture—they tended to divide into warring factions of pro and anti-Maoists, who fought ferocious, polemical battles on ground remote from Chinese realities.
The author of Chinese Shadows was equally animated by his love of Chinese culture and history, and by a fierce engagement with reality, enlivened by an acute satirical sensibility. To me, his insight, wit and forensic judgment crystallized the profound sense of unease that two years in the socialist paradise of the early seventies had generated: the confusion of parallel realities, the frustration of truths forever just out of sight, the suffocating weight of propaganda, made all the heavier by the desire of so many western intellectuals to believe in one last socialist illusion. He was attacked, of course, by the fans of Maoism, but he also declined the embrace of those who attacked China for reasons he did not respect or share. It was his love of China that made him so angry at what had been inflicted upon it.
Ryckmans was not one to join a crowd. In 2012 he began a review in The New York Review of Books of a collection of Liu Xiaobo’s essays with two quotations in tribute to Liu Xiaobo: one from the Gospel of St John, “Truth shall set you free;” the other, which could equally well refer to himself, from the historian Sima Qian, “Better than the assent of the crowd, the dissent of one brave man.”