“In this age of decadence people love antiques and willingly submit to deception.”
—Cheng Hsieh, 18th-century Chinese poet and painter

Anyone who fondly supposes that the Chinese Communists are the “good” Communists should read this exciting, powerful book by the Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryekmans, writing under his nom de plume, Simon Leys. As far back as 1974, Leys’s book Chinese Shadows (originally published in French; translated into English in 1977) was the first by a Western sinologist to tell the truth about the “Cultural Revolution”: that it represented a chaotic explosion of totalitarianism run amuck, undermining virtually all Chinese values, both moral and aesthetic. It took immense courage for Leys to issue his passionate yet elegant cri de coeur. Why? Because most other sinologists and “China Watchers” were then engaged in the same self-delusory intoxication with the Great Idea that had entrapped so many intellectuals decades earlier with regard to the Soviet Union. I personally know scholars in the China field who would stop talking to a colleague who said anything kind about Chinese Shadows.

But surely, one would think, now that the CCP itself has admitted that horrors were perpetrated during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the way has been cleared for the “China Experts” to step forward and openly acknowledge that they were wrong. Actually, only those unfamiliar with the writings of Solzhenitsyn, Paul Hollander, Raymond Aron, or Jean François Revel will be surprised to learn that nothing could be further from the case. Of course the Experts echo the party line by bemoaning the Cultural Revolution as an unfortunate aberration, but never do they apologize for misleading their public, let alone think through the rather obvious implications of the period now known as the “Ten Years Holocaust” in Chinese: namely, that the ideas which had the Cultural Revolution as their inevitable consequence were those of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.

And so Leys’s scathing indictment of the China Experts in this book—beyond doubt one of the most definitive polemics ever written against the tolerance among Western intellectuals for Marxist totalitarianism—is, sadly, relevant and necessary even at this late date. Small wonder that the doyen of the Experts, John K. Fairbank (for whom Harvard University’s prestigious center of East Asian studies is named), in a recent review of this book in the New York Times, concludes by complaining that Leys’s admiration for the traditional culture decimated by the CCP is elitist and therefore morally suspect. This is equivalent to castigating a scholar who professes admiration for the poetry of Dante or the painting of Rembrandt on the grounds that these artists did not live in “egalitarian” societies! After all, was that culture not built upon the backs of the oppressed peasantry? Besides, Fairbank’s assumption that the CCP has in fact made things better for the peasants is highly disputable. Stephen Mosher’s Broken Earth—The Rural Chinese (1983) paints a different picture.

Leys is, as it happens, a true connoisseur of the rich traditions of poetry and painting in China, and he is a trustworthy guide through the complexities of these arts. The opening essay of the book is as good an introduction to the poetry-painting relationship that was so important in China as has ever been published. Unfortunately, Leys does overstate the vagueness or looseness of syntax in lines of Chinese verse (apparently under the influence of François Cheng’s ill-conceived attempt to impose “semiotics” upon Chinese poetry); in so doing, he goes to the opposite extreme from such scholars as Edward Schafer, who insists on a tight rigidity of syntactic structure in Chinese poetic diction. Leys is on the right track when he emphasizes a certain flexibility but pushes the concept too far. A related mistake is his attempt to rehabilitate Pound’s discredited reputation as a Chinese translator; surely Leys is intelligent enough to’ comprehend that there can be no good translation without a firm grasp of the original language, which Pound by Leys’s own admission utterly lacked! But the essay is redeemed in the end by Leys’s sensitivity and his obviously sincere love for Chinese culture.

There is, however, a serious problem with this book, one which I believe to be of broad significance in contemporary Western intellectual life. For many years, those like Leys and myself who admired the achievements of Chinese culture felt an almost missionary zeal to proselytize on its behalf in a world where the primacy of Western culture was supposedly taken for granted. But as early as the first decade of this century, G.K. Chesterton was describing the bizarre phenomenon of a sizable number of enthusiasts for things Eastern who were actually arguing (explicitiy or implicitly) for the moral and aesthetic superiority of the East to the West! I have reluctantly come to believe that this tendency has grown to a veritable (albeit still partially underground) flood-tide in our time. Underlying it is a deep-rooted belief on the part of many Western intellectuals that their own traditions are spiritually bankrupt, and that one must look elsewhere for inspiration—China, Japan, India, etc. A strong current in this type of thinking is a belief that Chinese thought, for example, is actually more advanced than the Jewish and Christian religious traditions because it is based on striving for harmony, whereas Jewish and Christian creeds are tension-ridden. Buddha’s tranquil smile is preferred to the rabbi’s stern visage, or to Christ’s agonized expression as He hangs upon the cross.

One might, of course, trace this mentality back to the philosophes of the Enlightenment, whose vision of a harmonious, humanistic nearparadise in distant China was the intellectual equivalent of the chinoiserie that was so modish in the 18th-century decorative arts. There is no mistaking the bitter hatred in those men for what Voltaire called l’infame (existing social conditions? the Church?), which led in turn to a yearning for a better world somewhere else. As it was no longer possible, apparently, for serious thinkers to imagine such a world in Heaven, it had perforce to be located somewhere on earth. Reports of China and early translations from the Confucian classics seemed to indicate that China might be that golden land. The psychological process involved foreshadows that of the “political pilgrims” of a later century so brilliantly analyzed by Paul Hollander. (Unlike some Russophiles in the 1920’s and 30’s, modern sinologists do not have the excuse of inadequate or distorted knowledge; on the contrary, their knowledge of China is accurate and highly detailed, which underscores the degree to which the idealization of other cultures is the result not of misinformation but rather of willfullness.)

It would, I think, be a mistake to trace this complex of ideas still further back to the great medieval travelers like Marco Polo. Marco Polo et al. were indeed fascinated by China—but they never questioned an axiomatic faith in the primacy of Western civilization for them. What is new in the philosophes is the use of China as a foil against which to criticize Western civilization, not merely in superficial details but in quite fundamental ways. They can, therefore, be seen as laying the foundation for a later “Orientalism” diametrically opposed to that described by Edward W. Said in his provocative and controversial book Orientalism (1978). Said identifies what he considers to be the hidden agenda of much Western scholarship on the East (his primary concern is with the Islamic Orient, although his book has stimulated highly emotional debate and even invective among sinologists and japanologists)—namely, a desire to facilitate or justify political domination of the Orient by Western imperialism. Little does Said seem to realize (or perhaps he does but is simply not interested) the seductive power of the opposite phemomenon: Orientalists so far from desiring to dominate the Orient that they are in fact ready to surrender to it—spiritually.

Nowhere in Leys’s book does he openly advocate such a position. But in his otherwise excellent discussions of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and Pere Hue, there is an unmistakable implication that the Western missionary enterprise was ultimately “absurd” (Leys’s own word) because it was face to face with a culture at least the equal of its own, and perhaps even superior. One senses Leys’s delight in contemplating this very absurdity and his further personal belief that modern Western man would be well-advised to learn from the traditional Chinese. What we are to learn from them is apparently the “religion” of “harmony,” best embodied for Leys in the magnificent tradition of Chinese landscape painting.

In taking such a position. Leys at once ignores certain quite unharmonious aspects of Chinese religious practice (e.g., the ecstatic and devotional tendencies in Pure Land Buddhism with its startling visions of heaven and hell, to say nothing of Chinese folk religion, in which the literati were often participants) and aligns himself with the Aestheticism whose role in 20th-century Western intellectual life would be hard to overestimate. Ultimately an outgrowth of Romanticism (itself linked in various ways with the Enlightenment), Aestheticism substitutes art for religion and hence the artist for God. A 1983 article in Apollo by David Park Curry clearly documents the close relationship between the Orientalist enthusiasm of collectors like Charles Freer and artists like Whistler and Aestheticism in fin de siecle America and Europe. The connection continues in Leys.

But to the extent that Leys leans in this direction, is he not actually part of the real problem (like the China Experts) rather than the solution? Whether Westerners idealize the world “over there” politically (as the Experts have done, following in the footsteps of the philosophes) or aesthetically (as Leys seems to be doing), they are still participating in the willful rejection of our society, a rejection out of which such ideologies as Marxism grew in the first place! The modern intellectual likes to believe that his alienation is a natural outgrowth of the moral hollowness of his own society. Ironically, the quintessential modern Chinese intellectual, Lu Hsiin (Lu Xun, 1881-1936), about whom Leys has some intelligent things to say, rejected traditional Chinese culture for many of the same reasons that Western intellectuals have rejected Western traditions. Like them, he looked elsewhere for the answer. So as Western intellectuals have looked East, Lu Hsiin looked West!

Is it not possible that intellectuals actually carry the responsibility for our own alienation? Have we not chosen it, by repudiating the age-old foundations of Western civilization? Is not Leys’s Aestheticism as much an attempt to escape from traditional authority and prescription as the political self-delusion that insists on projecting a Utopian enterprise upon some other part of the globe? And are not both these undertakings refined and sophisticated analogues of the adolescent rebellion against parental and other modes of authority which has now reached crisis proportions among our youth?

Perhaps what we need to do first is to stop trying to escape, and then we can start rebuilding what we have right here. In such an endeavor, knowledge of the wisdom and beauty of traditional Chinese culture and thought could indeed play a most constructive role—Confucianism in particular has much to offer in the formulation of a response to disturbing aspects of political ideology. But let us realize that when we idealize another culture we do it no honor; and let us keep our priorities in line as we strive to reweave the frayed tapestry of civilization.


[The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics, by Simon Leys; New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston]