»  Taki's Magazine

June 20th, 2013

  The Man Who Blew the Lid Off Maoism

The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays
by Simon Leys


I was slow on the uptake in understanding Chinese communism's awfulness. I'd been a lefty in my student days without knowing anything much about China. Toward the end of those days, female Chinese author Han Suyin published The Crippled Tree, an account of her parents' lives in early 20th-century China written from a standpoint of hostility toward all the things Maoists hated: landlordism, urban capitalism, colonialism, Chiang Kai-shek, and "the old society."

The book impressed me so much, I went to see Ms. Han speak at the Friends' Meeting House in London, next door to my college. This was 1966, just four years after the Great Mao Famine, in which tens of millions of Chinese starved to death. The communists had stifled news of the famine — I knew nothing about it — but one audience member had somehow got to know of it and asked a pointed question. Ms. Han fielded the question deftly, in phrases you still hear from Mao's apologists: freak weather conditions … bad harvests … strict but equitable rationing … I am sorry to say I swallowed her bogus explanations.

(In lives lost, the famine was the greatest human tragedy of the century-worse than WW2. It remained unknown to the general Western public for decades, though. In 1996 I went on a book tour to promote a novel in which I had included a passing mention of the famine. More than one thoughtful book-buying American asked me whether such a thing had actually happened. There have since been several good general accounts.)

My ignorance lasted somehow through the early years of the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-76). What woke me at last from my complacent slumbers was a 1971 book titled The Chairman's New Clothes. The author's name was given as Simon Leys. He obviously knew his China, ancient and modern, and wrote in plain, accessible language yet with scholarly authority.

The Cultural Revolution was something of a mystery in the West. There was quite a cottage industry of China experts on TV and in the newspapers, offering explanations of what was going on, but they all contradicted each other. Simon Leys made the whole thing clear and obvious. Mao, far gone in megalomania and having eliminated all challengers in the leadership, was remaking the Party and the nation to fit his own wildly romantic imagination.

Five years later Leys published Chinese Shadows, a withering account of the sterility, cruelty, and cultural destruction of those years (1966-76). By the end of the seventies, in large part thanks to Leys, it was no longer possible for an honest Westerner to be an uncritical admirer of Mao's revolution. To anyone paying attention, the Chinese communists were no longer agrarian reformers, champions of social justice, or heralds of a new age: they were just another lying clique of totalitarian gangsters.

"Simon Leys," we soon learned, was the pen-name of Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian-Australian sinologist. He had published under a pen-name to preserve his access to China: The communists did not issue visas to persons known to be "unfriendly to the Chinese people" — that is, to the Party. His cover was of course soon blown. He went on to produce many more books, some under one name, some under the other. Among them is one of the best translations of the Analects of Confucius.

I am currently reading the latest of these books: The Hall of Uselessness, at present on Kindle only, scheduled in paperback July 30. It is a collection of 39 of Ryckmans' essays, only 12 dealing directly with China. The rest range widely, but literature — mainly French and English — is the principal secondary topic.

On China, Ryckmans is still pitch-perfect. He writes of the peculiar absence of antique structures in China:

The disconcerting barrenness of the Chinese monumental landscape cannot be read simply as a consequence of the chaotic years of the Maoist period. It is a feature much more permanent and deep — and it had already struck Western travelers in the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century.

(It struck me too, a hundred years later.) This leads to a profound and fascinating discussion of China's attitude to her own past, and the relation of that attitude to "the Chinese art of stage-setting and make-believe" which puzzles, amuses, and often irritates us round-eyes.

Ryckmans really hits his stride in his essays on Chinese aesthetics, about which he is erudite and opinionated. If you have ever wondered what calligraphy is all about, this is your man.

To what extent is it necessary to be able to read Chinese in order fully to enjoy Chinese calligraphy? A preliminary (and crude) answer may be provided in the form of another question: To what extent is it necessary to be able to read music in order to enjoy a musical performance?

There, and at many other points, I found myself thinking: Hey, wait a minute … I like books that make me argue back like that, though. If you don't, then Ryckmans is not your man.

His opinions on literature are impressively bilingual: "I read Simenon in English and Greene in French." He is generally charitable, even to writers he doesn't like. After some scathing remarks on Malraux, he allows that: "Malraux was obviously a genius. What exactly he was a genius at, however, is not quite clear." Where his literary knowledge overlaps with my own, I agreed with him: Yes, Orwell was deeply strange, Waugh was dogged by "the fear of incipient lunacy," and Nikolai Gogol is the best thing Nabokov ever did. Ryckmans is handy with an aphorism, too: "What is life … but a long dialogue with imbeciles?"

Chinese history and aesthetics, literature and the art of translation, Christianity and Confucianism … Not everyone's bowl of tea, I guess; but if you don't mind argumentative prose and want to stretch your mind a little, try The Hall of Uselessness.