TRIBUTE by Jeffry BabbNews Weekly
'Simon Leys', the China-watcher who couldn't lie
, September 27, 2014
Dr Pierre Ryckmans (‘Simon Leys’), Belgian-Australian writer, Sinologist, essayist and literary critic. Born in Brussels, September 28, 1935. Died in Canberra, August 11, 2014.
The late Belgian-born Pierre Ryckmans, writer, essayist, academic and literary critic, was one of the world’s greatest authorities on China.
Pierre Ryckmans (1935-2014)
Among his many works, he translated, and provided a commentary on, The Analects of Confucius. Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, whose honours thesis on Chinese dissident Wei Jing-sheng was supervised by Ryckmans, recently paid tribute to him as “one of the world’s leading China scholars”.
Ryckmans spent most of his working life at the Australian National University in Canberra. In 1996 he delivered the prestigious Boyer Lectures. He died on August 11, 2014, age 78, in Sydney.
He was best known by his pen name “Simon Leys”, under which he wrote books exposing the truth about communist China under Mao Zedong, when most Sinologists at best kept their heads down or, more usually, kowtowed to the communist regime. Those who criticised the regime were not allowed into China.
The appearance in the 1970s of two of his classics, The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution and Chinese Shadows, scandalised the West’s left-wing intelligentsia and set off a feverish search for the true identity of the “Quisling” and “enemy of the people”, Simon Leys.
Inevitably, the quiet-mannered Sinologist and academic Dr Pierre Ryckmans was unmasked as the author, and was barred by Beijing from ever visiting China again.
To understand Ryckmans, one must understand the nature of Sinology. To be a true Sinologist, rather than a journalist, requires years of arduous study.
To borrow from the title of C.P. Snow’s influential 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures, modern scholarship can be broken down into two cultures, namely science and the humanities.
Snow, an English academic, was both an acclaimed novelist and a scientist. He contended, correctly I believe, that the only course of studies in the humanities that approached the intellectual rigour of a science course was the study of a difficult foreign language.
Now, I do not mean any foreign language. If you study high school Bahasa Indonesian conscientiously for five or six years, you are likely to acquire a command of that language that is all you might reasonably need for day-to-day interaction with Indonesian people.
With Japanese or Mandarin Chinese (which, by the way, is the easiest Chinese dialect for Western learners) — or even a Slavic language, such as Russian, for that matter — after a high school course, one has hardly scratched the surface.
Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai
To gain an adequate command of Mandarin Chinese, even a good scholar will require 10 years of sustained and arduous intellectual effort. Even then, assuming a good honours-level pass in Mandarin, translating newspaper-level Chinese into written English will still require frequent use of a dictionary and probably access to a tutor with a superior command of Chinese.
Now, the level of competence required to be a Sinologist of Ryckmans’ stature is far beyond my humble efforts. After almost two years of daily classes at the Mandarin Training Centre in Taipei, in a Chinese environment, I had a fair command of Mandarin.
This was equivalent to what the Indonesians call bahasa pasar (“market language”), which, incidentally, took me about 10 weeks to achieve at a university in Central Java.
It should thus be obvious that, to become a Sinologist of Ryckmans’ standing, one needs not only a talent for languages but the dedication to spend at least a decade of sustained intellectual effort.
These days, many people have enough Mandarin to “get around” China, but true Sinologists remain rare. One must have both a certain fascination with the Chinese people and their culture, and persistence in acquiring mastery of the language.
Ryckmans first became fascinated with China on a visit to the country in 1955 with a group Belgian students. There they met Zhou Enlai, Mao’s second-in-command, reputed at the time to be “the human face of Chinese communism” and “the worker’s friend”.
Recent scholarship has exposed him as a slippery courtier who would endure any humiliation and undertake any act of bastardry in order to retain his position and stay alive.
Ryckmans was not fooled by Zhou. He later described him as “one of the greatest and most successful comedians of our century”.
According to The Economist magazine: “Mr Ryckmans described, with wit and anger and mordant humour, the skilfully choreographed shadow play that the regime presented to the world. Behind the talk of the victory of the proletariat and great leaps forward lay repression, famines and the terrorising of a nation” (The Economist, September 7, 2014).
One would be naïve to expect that other Western-educated chroniclers of communist China shared Ryckmans’ moral scrupulousness. Members of Beijing’s claque and other hired applauders made more than enough noise to partially drown out the voice of “Simon Leys”.
As for the “China expert”, Han Suyin, who had a preternatural instinct to sniff out every twist and turn in the official line, he observed that she “knows China inside out, [but] seldom lets her intelligence, experience and information interfere with her writing”.
Most Western intellectuals, including Sinologists, at best kept their heads down to avoid jeopardising their prerequisites and contacts, and at worst were apologists for the Beijing regime.
The few Sinologists who did not kowtow, such as Professor Leslie Marchant of the University of Western Australia, were shunned; but in the long-run they, like Ryckmans, were vindicated.
Ryckmans knew that, when he exposed the horrors of Mao’s 1966-67 Cultural Revolution, principally in The Emperor’s New Clothes and Chinese Shadows, in all likelihood he would be blacklisted by the communist authorities in Beijing. So he chose the nom de plume, Simon Leys.
His chosen surname, Leys, held a subtle clue to his real identity. It was an act of homage to French author
Victor Segalen’s posthumously published novel, René Leys (1922). In this story, a Belgian teenager in old Beijing entertains his employer with stories of conspiracies and intrigues in the
Emperor’s palace behind the walls of the Forbidden City.
Ryckmans was not a conservative. He was a socialist in a democratic, anti-totalitarian mould, rather like George Orwell, whom he admired. He once quoted Orwell’s evaluation of Jean-Paul Sartre approvingly: “Sartre is a bag of wind.”
Ryckmans was also a Catholic and admirer of Catholic journalist, poet and man of letters G.K. Chesterton. Like Chesterton, Ryckmans had little time for elites; he put more trust in the common sense of the ordinary man and woman.
History has, again, proved him right. China has been lifted out of poverty, not by giant corporations, but by the diligent efforts of hundreds of millions of men and women working in small and medium-sized enterprises.
Ryckmans never shrank from controversy, nor did he fail to stand up for common decency. He wrote a withering and unforgettable review, headlined “An empire of ugliness”, of atheist Christopher Hitchens’ smuttily-titled biography, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (New York and London: Verso, 1995).
In his review he observed: “We live in an age of hyperbole. Plumbers are now called ‘sanitation engineers’, waiters have become ‘food and beverage attendants’, barbers devote themselves to the cultivation of ‘creative coiffure stylism’, garbage collectors are turned into ‘solid waste disposal officers’ — and Christopher Hitchens’ own little piece of solid waste is called ‘a book’.”
Perhaps it was too much to expect that a man like Hitchens, who made his living by being the world’s most controversial atheist writer, would refrain from maligning a woman regarded by many as a living saint. Perhaps the book he wrote was a measure of Hitchens the man, or just of our age.
The Australian’s obituary of Ryckman described him as “an accomplished man of letters … [an] anti-authoritarian, a lover of tradition and a deep humanist. He mixed obstinacy with integrity, perhaps a necessary combination” (The Australian, August 12, 2014).
What has been insufficiently emphasised in the many recent tributes to Ryckman was his deep Christian faith and personal integrity. As one of the towering authorities on China, he resembled Wei Jing-sheng, leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, who had the “courage to stand alone.” Ryckmans had the courage to expose the Maoist regime, even with the foreknowledge that he would subsequently be banned from China, the land he loved.
China has changed, mostly for the better; but the Communist Party has not. China is not a free country. It is still ruled by the Party, which remains much as it was when Mao was alive. It remains an exclusive club.
Localised famines still occur in China, but these are seldom reported. Had Ryckmans not had the courage in the 1970s to reveal that Emperor Mao had no clothes, fewer people in the West would be intellectually equipped to appraise China realistically.
Ryckmans’ attitude to China is perhaps best summed up in his essay “The Chinese attitude towards the past” (from The Hall of Uselessness [Melbourne: Black Inc., 2012], pp.239-258).
He noted that China is the world’s oldest living civilisation, using a written language that has been practically unchanged for 2,000 years. Mao’s Cultural Revolution, in some areas, destroyed almost every historical artefact, yet many had been destroyed previously — and it didn’t destroy China.
Despite spending 44 years in Australia, where he and his Taiwanese wife raised four children, Pierre Ryckmans remained a Belgian citizen.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who spent several years in China and has visited most of the country’s provinces and major cities.
China under Mao: the tragedy and horror
Extracts from the 1970s writings of Pierre Ryckmans (‘Simon Leys’)
The Cultural Revolution represented the climax of 20 years of periodic, sometimes violent purges, 20 years of systematic training in aggression, of legitimising violence and hatred. The daily witnessing of looting, revenge, cruelties, humiliations inflicted by children on their elders under the pretext of “class struggle”; the obligation to be present at, if not to take an active part in, the public denunciation of neighbours, friends, fellow workers and parents — all this must have put its mark on the society as a whole.
The ugliness and sadness of the Maoist cancer that is gnawing away at the face of China 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.
Rereading this book, written before the People’s Republic was founded, one is aghast at its uncanny prophetic quality. Without ever dreaming of Mao’s China, Orwell succeeded in describing it, down to concrete details of daily life, with more truth and accuracy than most researchers who come back from Peking [Beijing] to tell us the “real truth”.
One could compile an enormous volume of the expressions that make up the wooden language of Maoist ideology. The people’s struggles are always “fearless” and “victorious”. The Albanian, Vietnamese, etc., masses are always “heroic”; the Rumanians, Zambians, etc., are always “fraternal”. In his public appearances, Mao always shows a “pink and radiant face”, and the sight of him invariably fills onlookers with “feelings of shining love and boundless enthusiasm”. The Chinese Communist Party is, of course, “great, glorious and infallible”; the class enemy, “ever watchful”, must be exposed “without pity”. The adversary’s designs, always “shameful”, must be opposed “resolutely”; his crimes are “odious and unforgivable”. The successes of the “building-up” of socialism are “prodigious”, “immense”, “always greater” (in case of failure, one speaks only of “new” or “growing” success ).
Those who read the Chinese press only occasionally and when not in China may be tempted to dismiss its inept and unreadable Maoist jargon with an amused smile or an ironic shrug. But for those in China who must read it every day, who must endure simultaneously the whole pressure of visual and aural propaganda that illustrates, explains, organises, that warms up and serves over again and again the same ideological stew, everywhere and all the time (the same slogans are written in gigantic characters on the walls; they are in small print on tickets, calendars, cigarette packs; they are engraved on ashtrays and spittoons, painted on teapots and screens, embroidered on handkerchiefs and towels; loudspeakers moo them in the streets, in the fields, in trains, canteens, factories, latrines, barracks, airplanes, and railway stations), it soon becomes obvious that this gigantic enterprise of cretinising the most intelligent people on earth is animated, beneath the grotesque exterior, by frighteningly rigorous and coherent intention.
The aim is to anesthetise critical intelligence, purge the brain and inject the cement of official ideology into the emptied skull; once hardened, this will leave no room for the introduction of any new idea, and will oppose its compact, amorphous and watertight mass to any intellectual operation that would be autonomous or heterodox.
The kind of function common people fulfil now is at ceremonies welcoming the arrival of foreign statesmen whom the Maoist authorities wish to impress. For each of them the Beijing authorities ration exactly the number of participants — 100,000 for this one, 200,000 for that one and 50,000 for the other — as well as the temperature of the “warm enthusiasm” that must be given.
These demonstrations follow an invariable and well-oiled routine. Early in the morning, workers decorate Ch’an-an Avenue. The participants arrive by truck and on foot in orderly columns. They take their appointed places. Squatting on the pavement, the gigantic crowds wait — one hour, two hours, three hours — in a state of submissive apathy.
Suddenly an order: everyone stands up to take up positions. A whistle sounds: the crowd, tired and listless a moment before, starts shouting: “Welcome! Welcome!” while 30 limousines roar between the two rows, and the foreign visitor has for his memory bank the unforgettable sight of a human sea stirred by a tornado of enthusiasm.