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

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