Simon Leys Remembered

A ChinaFile Conversation

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.”


No one in the China field has combined profound erudition and stiletto insight as well as Simon Leys. For me he has been the North Star of China watching—equally as constant, and just as brilliant. In January, 1986, I reviewed his book of essays called The Burning Forest for The Los Angeles Times. The North Star quality in his writing shows in the fact that today, nearly three decades later, I find nothing to revise. Here, condensed but not altered, is what I wrote:

Every time Leys publishes a little book on contemporary China, he tells us it will be his last. In each, he openly expresses anguish at what he feels duty-bound to report and then says he must desist, since comment is futile and silence more dignified. "To write is to hope," as he puts it this time, "and what hope is there left?" But later, he writes again.

It is important to distinguish Leys' anti-communism from the garden variety in American popular thought. He is extremely well-informed and is driven more by passion for China than by any advocacy of the West. Indeed he satirizes Western pretensions of superiority, both past and present, with marvelous élan. His heroes are the Chinese people, both intellectuals and common folk. Politically he resembles George Orwell, a warm supporter of socialism—if it had worked—who finds totalitarianism all the more repugnant because it parades in socialist garb.

Leys mixes his political commentary with fond and exquisitely perceptive tributes to Chinese painters, poets and essayists both ancient and modern. These lovely pieces not only moderate an otherwise caustic tone, but, by exemplifying what Maoism has destroyed, also show why the author is so pained.

He notes that China is often misdescribed.“Whoever talks about China talks about himself,” he writes, deftly illustrating the phenomenon in examples that range from Matteo Ricci to contemporary China watchers, including himself.

Does this lead to the paralyzing conclusion that no Westerner should try to comment on China? No, he says, because there are two ways out. One is to learn more. “Naturally,” he writes, “the fantasy element is always in inverse proportion to the amount of factual knowledge the observer may possess.” The second is to be frank about one's own concerns. Here, for his own case, Leys succeeds admirably.We know where he stands and why. The result is not only a clearer lens for viewing China, but increased appreciation of the lucidity of the author’s judgment.

He reserves special venom for China experts who wittingly or unwittingly present happy myth as fact. Having gathered most of his essays under the two headings “Culture” and “Politics,” he archly labels his third section, on China watchers, as "Hygiene." His complaints have significance far beyond the several writers he selects for criticism. Why, he asks, do most Western intellectuals shrink from applying to China the same standards in human rights that they demand of the Soviet Union or El Salvador? Leys catalogues some standard “lines of escape” from this question: that "we just don't know enough" to make judgments; that "it's no longer a problem in the post-Mao period"; that the material benefits of the revolution make tyranny a small price to pay; that China in any case is "different" and cultural differences must be respected. Leys shows how these excuses are signs more of condescension than of true respect or understanding.

One of the perils of scholarly specialization in a particular country or culture is monomania. The monomaniacal China-bore, or any other kind of cultural fetishist, becomes oblivious to anything that doesn't concern the area of study. This acquired provincialism is a form of what in colonial times used to be called "going native." This often includes the adoption of prejudices common to the culture one has chosen to learn about.

When sinophiles or Sinologists talk about Japan, for example, they often reflect the ignorant predispositions of their Chinese interlocutors, and the opinions on China held by many Japan-experts show a similar tendency. (Which is one reason, in my view, why it was a big mistake to abandon Japanese as a compulsory subject in China studies, just as Chinese ought to be part of any serious scholarship on Japan.)

Simon Leys was the opposite of a China-bore. There was nothing monomaniacal about him. If he had any prejudices, they were informed by his Catholic faith, and not by his Chinese learning.

Indeed, I shall miss Leys most, not because he was "right" about Maoism, which of course he was, but because he was one of the last truly cosmopolitan men of letters. His essays on André Gide or Evelyn Waugh are as profound and stylish as his work on Chinese painters or the art of calligraphy. He was literary scholar in the Chinese literati tradition, that is to say, his scholarship was a form of literature.

This is perhaps the only kind of scholarship that will be of lasting interest long after the lifetime of the writer. Academic research will be buried in the work of many others. Scholarly insights will be challenged and revised. Political opinions, however correct and necessary at the time, will lose their freshness and power to provoke.

What lasts is literary style. Few read Gibbon any more to learn about the decline of the Roman Empire. He is read for his English prose. The reason I cherish all my books by Simon Leys (I think I have them all) and turn to them often, is because he wrote so beautifully, in French and in English. Leys was one of the great essayists of his age. His reputation will continue to grow as long as there are people who love language.


I never met Pierre Ryckmans, or Simon Leys, as he came to call himself, but I did correspond with him, and, his handwriting was perhaps the most striking, even lovely, of any other person of my acquaintance. A letter from him was immediately identifiable because the address on the envelope was such a refined throwback to an earlier age when people prided themselves on their “hand.” His own hand writing was like romanized calligraphy, a perfectly composed script whose diminutive letters looked as if they had been done by a classical Chinese calligrapher using one of those special brushes which have one or two bristles, usually of the finest cat hair, to paint the most delicate strokes, gongbi (工笔) in traditional paintings.

There was something about his very humanistic sense of refinement that made him deeply offended by the destruction of China’s traditional cultural patrimony, let alone the destruction of actual human beings, that he encountered in China during the 1970s as a result of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. And he was unremitting and uncompromising in his outrage at what he observed of China’s cultural self-loathing and self-lacerationa that came with the excesses of Mao’s revolutionary agenda during this period.

Leys wrote with almost existential disappointment about what he saw happening to this culture with which he had fallen in love from afar. He was one of the rare people of this period who dared to see and write about, what he described as “the ugliness and sadness of the Maoist cancer that is gnawing away at the face of China, that imposes everywhere the indiscretion of its slogans, the obscenity of its loud-speakers, informing against the people, denouncing and tracking down beauty, grace, and poetry wherever they may be found.”

Many people found such language too harsh, totalistic and condemnatory. But Leys simply could not imagine how a people with such a profound and exquisite culture could turn with such vitriol against their own past to annihilate it so blindly and recklessly. His clarion call served as a reminder to all the wooly-headed true believers who admired radical revolutionary movements abroad (if not always at home) that there was a dark and brutal shadow-side to Mao’s notion of a proletarian utopia as the ineluctable, glorious end of his unremitting “permanent Revolution.”

In early 1975, when Mao still lived and the Cultural Revolution still raged, I vividly remember coming home from visiting China myself for the first time. After writing a long series for the New Yorker about the months I had just spent there working first on a model agricultural work brigade in Shanxi Province and later in a Shanghai factory, I happened upon Chinese Shadows originally published in the French language in 1974 under the title Ombres Chinoises, and then translated into English in 1977. It was like jumping into a cold bath. Whereas for most of us, the experience of being in this errant people’s republic was like staring through a glass darkly, for Leys China appeared as a perfectly resolved image, but one of abject catastrophe. Whatever one thought about the question of balance in his writing, his was a point of view that was both pure in its vision and deeply rooted in a humanistic moral outrage at what he had seen in there.

Henceforth, I looked forward with great anticipation to reading whatever he wrote. While everyone else seemed to endlessly be puzzling through the ambiguities and ambivalences of China’s contrary progress—first toward a halcyon socialist rebirth and then toward Leninist capitalism reincarnation, here was one writer who knew where true north, his true north, lay on the compass rose, his compass rose. His voice as a writer was always with me, making me feel as if I had a Jiminy Cricket sitting on my shoulder. His was a voice of conscience whose existence reminded me that the first and foremost job of a writer is to try and see clearly, speak honestly, and always know where compromises are being made.