Farewell to a China Hand

I read with sadness this morning the news that Pierre Ryckmans (aka Simon Leys), one of the great Sinologists, passed away over the weekend. Here is what the Sydney Morning Herald had to say about him:

Australia was fortunate to be the chosen home of the distinguished author, Sinologist and translator Pierre Ryckmans, who has died in Canberra at the age of 78.

Born in Belgium, Ryckmans moved to south-east Asia, married in Hong Kong and in 1970 settled with his family in Australia.

Ryckmans said in a 2011 interview that after a trip to China as a student in 1955: “My overwhelming impression ( a conclusion to which I remained faithful for the rest of my life) was that it would be inconceivable to live in this world, in our age, without a good knowledge of Chinese language and a direct access to Chinese culture.”

However, when he published an expose of the Cultural Revolution, The Chairman’s New Clothes, in 1971 he adopted the lifelong pseudonym Simon Leys on the advice of his publishers to avoid being kept out of China.

The writings of Leys played a key role in my own literary journey towards being a Sinophile. After my first two years in China (1984-1986), I was desperate to understand the world from which China was beginning to emerge — the Mao era. Even though I had grown up in Asia (Pakistan), nothing prepared me for the totalitarian (albeit loosening) nature of the Chinese state. Somehow I stumbled across these books by Simon Leys which helped me understand what was going on below the surface of all that I observed.

Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (1981)

Chinese Shadows(1978)

The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics (1978)

Broken Images: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics (1979)

For those who experience China today, it is hard to imagine what it was like in the 1970’s. Leys writings offer a glimpse. I think it’s time to dig these books out and re-read them.

China File has a page of links to some of his more recent essays.