Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Book Review - Chinese Shadows by Simon Leys

Chinese shadows by Simon Leys

New York: Viking Press, 1977                 ISBN 0670219185

A few years ago I really enjoyed reading Hall of uselessness by Simon Leys  (the pen-name of Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans), and having read other glowing reviews of his work, including the volume under review here, I will slowly hunt them down and read them.

Chinese shadows consists of a selection of impressions from a six-month visit to China in 1974, when the country was still endeavouring to recover from the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. Ryckmans casts a critical eye over not only the state of the country at that time, but at the standard of critical commentary coming from the West about China and its recent history.

The book has longer and shorter vignettes and reflections on just how badly the Maoist experiment had gone wrong, and how all totalitarian societies end up with the same problems, no matter whether they espouse a leftist or a rightist philosophy (Ryckmans has a lot of fun with the forms of words used by the Chinese government and bureaucracy "sometimes,...leftism is a rightist error").

Ryckmans has several larger points to make in this work. The first is that the first thing that suffers under totalitarian rule is culture. This applies especially to Communist totalitarian regimes, where all of history must lead to the inevitable success of the revolution. When, as had happened in China, some heroes of that history needed to be purged, or the importance of an historical moment changed, one needed to try to change history. This resulted in China in the closure of museums, the destruction of monuments, and the censorship of literature and opera, to the extent that the only theatre that could be shown was that written by Mao's wife, the only books on the shelves were those by Stalin or Mao, and Ryckmans could not visit any University classes or academics in his entire six month sojourn. The destructive power of this sort of repression on a culture is hard to gauge.

The reaction of the lower functionaries in a system where white can be black, and the established structure and hierarchy can change in an instant, is another theme in this book. Ryckmans is constantly frustrated in his attempts to visit archaeological sites, or to meet people, or even in the simple act of asking directions. This, as he explains, is down to the natural fear of functionaries to give him permission to do something when the view of the regime is unclear on whether permission is allowed. It is easier, and safer for the flunky involved, to do nothing and admit nothing. As he writes of the cadres - "...we should consider how unrewarding and dangerous their job is....Directives from on high are deliberately ambiguous; in case of failure, the leaders thus have a fall-back position, while those who applied the policy are stranded and unprotected, and can be sacrificed to the rancor of the masses. It is unfair to criticize Maoist bureaucrats for their slowness and inertia: most often nonaction is their best chance of survival."

Ryckmans is more scathing of those apologists in the West who were writing paeans about China at the time - as he writes about one of them "She could have written in Europe, without leaving her room, if she had had some issues of Peking Review at her disposal; she would have gotten the same results. Her China experience was limited to a visit of a few weeks, and to three dozen interviews." He points out that many of the so-called Sinologists cannot speak or read the language, and have no understanding of the history or culture of China. Yet it is their views that were in the ascendancy at the time of writing.

All of the above smacks of the polemic, but Chinese shadows is much more than that: an elegy to what was lost during the Cultural Revolution, a celebration of innate Chinese cheerfulness, and a corrective to a flawed Western understanding of Chinese history - "If the start of the industrial revolution in Europe had coincided with one of those times when China was wide open to the outside world - which was its normal historical situation - China would never have been out-distanced in the modern 'race to progress'....In fact, because of this fatal historical accident - the establishment of the isolationist and totalitarian Ming system...China confronted the modern world blind and paralyzed, with the worst possible political heritage."

As a reminder of the path taken by China to get to where she is today, and as a book that still has a lot to give the reader, Chinese shadows is worth picking up.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review - Japan's Imperial Conspiracy by David Bergamini

Japan's Imperial Conspiracy by David Bergamini, with an introduction by Sir William Flood Webb

London: Heinemann, 1971                               ISBN 0434066907

What a piece of work this book is. The subtitle on the cover; "how Emperor Hirohito led Japan into war against the West", is what Bergamini sets out to show us in over a thousand closely argued and densely woven pages. Bergamini (who was interned by the Japanese in the Philippines during the war) sets out to show the reader that Hirohito, far from being the puppet ruler of common historical thought, was actually a driven empire-builder, who spent decades preparing his "Strike South" into Asia, attempt to rid Asia of American and British influence and assert Japanese overlordship of the globe. There is no doubt that Bergamini had a fire in his blood to prove his thesis.

Whether he does, even after a thousand pages, is unclear. Even though there are almost one hundred pages of notes, Bergamini often puts his own interpretation on what his sources are saying, sometimes to the point of stating that the sources mean the opposite of what they say. He makes much of the allusive style of the Japanese, and the horror of losing face, to perhaps twist motivations and actions of people to fit his ideas.

So what is his thesis? Basically that Hirohito was fulfilling his grandfather's pledge to rid Japan of Westerners and become a great empire. The two options to do that were to "Strike North", attack Russia and slice off Siberia for a Japanese enclave, or "Strike South", and move into South-East Asia and gain the raw materials there. Bergamini sets up the two factions, and shows that Hirohito early on decided on a "Strike South" strategy, and spent years discrediting the "Strike North" faction by engineering all the coups and assassinations that occurred during Japan in the 1930s. Hirohito then prosecuted the War, not as a puppet-like figurehead, but as a vigorous war leader.

Unfortunately for Bergamini, when he gets to the crucial parts of his thesis, the evidence lets him down. During the various coups in the 1930s, Hirohito did not play the part Bergamini wants him to play, and the general absurdity of his idea that Hirohito would countenance a coup against his government and assassination of his Prime Minister to discredit one faction or another is a bit too much to take.

However, there is a lot of information in this book, and it is a fascinating insight into recent Japanese history. The quick technical advancement of the Japanese nation, which combined with a kind of naivety about world opinion and affairs, is something that characterises the period of which Bergamini is writing.

When it gets to the War (to give an idea of how much space Bergamini commits to the intrigues of Japanese history before the War, the Pearl Harbour attack doesn't appear until page 800), Bergamini is perhaps on surer ground, but still draws some strange conclusions; for instance, he claims that Japanese brutality toward prisoners was a deliberate ploy to try and get the West to sue for peace - now the Japanese may have been naive as to the ways of the West to a certain extent, but it's hard to see how Bergamini can come to the conclusion he does on the evidence he presents.

So what was Hirohito's role in the planning and execution of the War? Bergamini is probably right when he (briefly, given the size of his book), explains how Hirohito escaped charge at the end of the War, and that the 28 "Class A" war criminals sent to trial were carefully picked to ensure that Hirohito's name was not sullied. There is no doubt that Hirohito should have faced court as did other leaders of Japan, he was not a constitutional monarch like George VI, and had much more control over events than has been generally explained. Certainly the Australian Government wanted Hirohito to be tried. The Americans - led by MacArthur - who had to run occupied Japan, knew that they needed a compliant Hirohito to enable that occupation to take place, and to help Japan rebuild herself after the devastation. To a Western outlook, Hirohito cannot have escaped the moral guilt of waging aggressive war, even though he escaped the arms of justice.

I'm not sure if I recommend this book or not. There is certainly a lot of information in here for the student of recent Japanese history, but it needs to be leavened with much other reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell