Obituary: Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys)

Charlie Hore looks back at the work of a pioneering and idiosyncratic writer.

Cultural Revolution poster, c1971, via

It’s now generally accepted that the Cultural Revolution was a disaster for China, one of the most traumatic periods in the nation’s recent history. But at the time, the view was very different. It was variously seen as part of the worldwide youth rebellion of the 1960s, as a giant experiment in direct democracy, and as a means of refreshing the 1949 revolution and keeping bureaucracy at bay.

Pierre Ryckmans, who died earlier this month aged 78, was one of the very few authors to see through this at the time. Writing under the pen-name Simon Leys, he published first The Chairman’s New Clothes in 1971 and then Chinese Shadows in 1974 – both long out of print, but to be snapped up if you ever see them second-hand.

The Chairman’s New Clothes is one of the few books written at the time that is still worth reading today. He announced his intentions in the book’s opening paragraph:

The “Cultural Revolution” had nothing revolutionary about it except the name, and nothing cultural about it except the initial pretext. It was a power struggle waged at the top between a handful of men and behind the smokescreen of a fictitious mass movement. As things turned out, the disorder unleashed by this power struggle created a genuinely revolutionary mass current, which developed spontaneously at the grass roots in the form of army mutinies and workers’ strikes on a vast scale. These had not been prescribed in the programme, and they were crushed pitilessly.

The bulk of the book is a diary, written from 1967 to 1969, which drew on the official Chinese press to show how the movement was throughout manipulated from the top, and how from 1968 onwards Mao was working to rein in his previous allies in order to keep the Communist Party and state from falling apart. Much more is now known about the Cultural Revolution, but plenty what we have learned since the fall of Maoism has vindicated Ryckmans’ basic thesis.

Chinese Shadows, written when he was living in Beijing as a Belgian diplomat, is probably his best book, and certainly the most accessible. Ryckmans had a deep knowledge of and sympathy for Chinese culture, but also an instinctive sympathy with ordinary people. When he laments the destruction of traditional culture, it’s because everyday life is being impoverished.

And he has a lovely satirical style. The chapter on bureaucrats alone is worth whatever you pay for a copy. He notes of the army:

External insignia have nearly completely disappeared… They have been replaced by a loose jacket with four pockets for officers, two pockets for privates. In this way, a colonel travelling first class on the railway is now merely a four-pocket military man “sleeping soft” – with a two-pocket man respectfully carrying his suitcase. In cities one can still distinguish between four-pocket men in jeeps, four-pocket men in black limousines with curtains, and four-pocket men who have black limousines with curtains and a jeep in front.

These books were followed by Broken Images and The Burning Forest, two collections of essays on various aspects of Chinese culture and politics. Many of these are now included in a new collection of essays published last year, The Hall of Uselessness – the only Simon Leys book still in print.

The Hall of Uselessness book coverA fervent Catholic art-historian with a fondness for anarchism, Ryckmans didn’t fit neatly into any political category. Much of his critique of Maoism is rooted in a moral disgust about the use of radical language to excuse a new dictatorship. But he wasn’t seeking to do anything more than open people’s eyes to the grubby realities.

He was often denounced as a “reactionary”, yet there isn’t a word of sympathy for pre-1949 China in any of his writings. If he had a political hero, it was probably the iconoclastic Chinese author and journalist Lu Xun (1881-1936). One recurring theme of his writing was reclaiming Lu Xun’s rebellious spirit from Maoists “who tried to annex him posthumously to their camp by means of various falsifications”.

A couple of years ago, in a letter to the New York Review of Books about Spain 1936, Ryckmans quoted George Orwell: “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries, but between authoritarians and libertarians.” That’s probably as close as he came to ever summing up his own political philosophy, and it served him well in cutting through the fog of bullshit that pervaded Maoism’s declining years in the 1970s.

Ryckmans wrote very little on China after Mao, but was apparently not persuaded that anything fundamental had changed – his target was the system, rather than this or that individual or any particular aspect of bureaucracy. But his work remains well worth reading, not just for his defiance of what was then the accepted wisdom, but also the hope that he clung on to against what seemed like overwhelming odds. As he wrote in Chinese Shadows:

The pessimism that emanates from this book derives precisely from the essential unreality of its subject. But let this not deceive the reader: there is also a young, revolutionary China, repeatedly suppressed yet constantly struggling. Though invisible to us most of the time, it periodically bursts into the open with stupendous courage… On this “real” China we found our hope: the future belongs to it.

Charlie's collection of Simon Leys books


  1. A number of different issues here – let me try to disentangle.
    1) The term ‘zhiqing’ was used from the 1980s onwards as a shorthand for ‘zhishi qingnian’ (educated youth). If ‘zhiqing literature’ has now taken on a more restricted meaning, it’s still the case that it is being written by largely the same demographic that wrote ‘scar’ literature in the 1970s.
    2) It’s simply wrong to say that scar literature was ‘sponsored if not simply produced by the state.’ It first came to real prominence during the Beijing Spring and Democracy Wall movements of 1979-1981, and a number of its writers suffered when the movements were repressed by Deng Xiaoping in 1981. They suffered further during the campaign against ‘spiritual pollution’ of 1983/84, a partial return to the Cultural Revolution atmosphere of ‘the silencing of alternative voices’.
    3) The government had no need to rewrite history in the 1980s – memories of the Cultural Revolution were still too raw. Yes, the official narrative that everything was awful was too simplistic (though still less simplistic than what was being written during the Cultural Revolution), but which is more likely to be historically dubious – memoirs written in the immediate aftermath of the experience, or nostalgia 20 years after the event?
    4) There are in any case good reasons for being suspicious of nostalgia as history, as it usually tells us more about the present than the past. There is after all a demographic in Russia nostalgic for the days of Brezhnev, and a larger demographic in east Germany nostalgic for the days before the Berlin Wall came down.
    5) I was quoting Dai Sijie as an example of a writer who has a rounded rather than one-dimensional view of the Cultural Revolution, who expresses some of the messy contradictions of the times. It’s worth stressing again that he wouldn’t have been allowed to publish during the Cultural Revolution itself.
    6) Nor would Wang Anyi. it’s true I didn’t use her full quote, but it’s equally true that she said what she did from Shanghai, and not from a village in Hunan or Yunnan.
    7) In talking about Hu Yaobang, I did somewhat conflate student generations, and that is wrong. It would have been more accurate to say that Hu Yaobang’s popularity derived from his work in bringing back the zhiqing from 1978-1981, and his defence of (limited) political and social freedoms in the 1980s against conservative attempts to bring back the censorship and repression of the early 1970s.
    8) Elizabeth Perry is absolutely right to point to current protesters looking back to the values of the CR as part of challenging the effects of market ideology. But the reality is that those protesters would have been violently repressed under the Cultural Revolution, just as the zhiqing were. One of the things that most enraged Simon Leys was the way in which the expressed values of the Cultural Revolution – solidarity, anti-bureaucracy and internationalism – were utterly betrayed by the actual practice of a bloody and amoral struggle for power. That’s what makes him still worth reading today.

  2. It is deeply problematic to conflate zhiqing and scar literature. The emergence of scar literature was a distinct cultural product of the 1980s, and it was to a large extent sponsored if not simply produced by the state as part of a broader attempt (also consisting of specific policy decisions like the historical analysis contained in the 1981 Resolution on Party History and the intra-party rectification campaign convened in 1983, and media spectacles like the televised trial of the Gang of Four) to undermine and delegitimize the positive legacies of the Cultural Revolution (like, say, the guaranteed right to strike in the constitution) and any attempt to make use of those legacies during the early stages of market reform. So, contrary to what you suggest, this was not simply an innocent process of people “welcoming” Deng because he saved China from chaos, it was about the management of historical memory and the silencing of alternative voices, which continues to the present, through various mechanisms, some explicit and violent, others less so. The narrative that emerges from scar literature is one of universal suffering and victimhood, whereas zhiqing literature arose in a radically different cultural and social context, namely that of the 1990s, when the initial optimism surrounding market reform and liberalization had been rendered problematic by price inflation and the expansion of the reform program to include the privatization of state enterprises, and where alternative left voices on the Chinese intellectual scene were beginning to establish themselves. The Chinese scholar Yang Guobin has actually emphasized how zhiqing as form of identity and political subjectivity is in fact specific to the 1990s, because even though the social basis of zhiqing identity is obviously those who were participants in the “down to the countryside” campaign, the term zhiqing itself was never actually used during the Cultural Revolution (as distinct from “zhishi qingnian” or educated youth, which was of course used as the official term for youth who had been sent to the countryside) but was invoked and adopted along with the emergence of zhiqing literature and nostalgia during the 1990s – and it is relevant to speak not only of zhiqing literature as something distinct from scar literature but also to recognize that literature was only one part of a broader zhiqing phenomenon, consisting also of reunions, for example, and, towards the end of the 90s, BBS and chat forums.

    The point of all this is that the zhiqing phenomenon, in all its manifestations, remembers the Cultural Revolution as a period of genuine meaning and empowerment, and for that reason unsettles the official narratives that you seem to see as the only legitimate view on the Cultural Revolution. I frankly find it bizarre that you would invoke Dai Sijie’s book as an example of scar literature or zhiqing literature, for the simple reason that it was published in 2002, and in French, so that, whatever you might think about how scar literature and zhiqing literature relate to each other as categories, that book cannot simply be neatly inserted into either. If anything, that book points to the politics of publishing and writing about the Cultural Revolution in the West, and how certain select texts are identified as “authentic voices” that can represent an ultimately more complex historical experience – this is true of Dai’s book but it is also true of other Chinese authors, like Jung Chang’s autobiographical work, and Ma Jian, who are valued in the West out of all proportion to their literary merit, because they confirm pre-existing biases about the Chinese past and present. Wang Anyi, who is one of many writers that are valued in China but receive little attention in the West, deals with the Cultural Revolution and the whole of the Mao period in a mature and moving way that reflects all the contradictions of that period – and this is suggested in some sense by the rest of the quote from the China Daily article, which you neglected to copy in full, “but the place is really a sensible world. The countryside is the root of any life”. Her literary work, particularly her semi-biographical novellas, further confirm that she, as with other zhiqing writers, is able to remember the Cultural Revolution period in terms other than chaos and trauma.

    Moving away from literature, and towards social struggle, the claim that popularity for Hu Yaobang amongst students was based in him having rescued them from the countryside is, again, quite bizarre, for the reason that most if not all student leaders during the Tiananmen demonstrations were too young to have been part of the zhiqing generation – Wang Dan was born in 1969, for example, and Chai Ling in 1966. The social forces behind the Tiananmen demonstrations were complex and varied, as you know, but looking at those events vis-a-vis the Cultural Revolution, the language of working-class participants was rooted in the ideological practices of the Cultural Revolution, and that dynamic, of the Cultural Revolution being a resource for people in struggle, has continued to the present – Elizabeth Perry amongst others, has spoken about the internalization of the moral economy and political discourse of the Mao period, which continues to manifest itself in strikes and in other protests, against housing destruction and relocation, for example. It is not only about an imagined past of honest officials, but about Chinese people taking Cultural Revolution values of working-class leadership and social justice seriously.

    Finally, as for the originality of Simon Leys, any quick glance through the pages of China Quarterly during the 1960s and 70s shows that criticism of the Cultural Revolution did not begin with him, and nor should this be of much surprise, given the relationship between CR and the CIA, and the general complicity between post-war area studies and American imperial expansion.

  3. To take the last point first, one of the most important things about the Simon Leys books was the way they challenged the mainstream conformist narrative of the time – his was very far from being a mainstream opinion.

    It’s true that some of the symbolism of ‘high Maoism’ turns up in some (not all) protests, and that there’s now a nostalgic looking-back to Mao’s time as one where everyone was poor, but at least the officials were honest. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of the things that made Deng Xiaoping and his fellow reformers so popular was precisely the way that they attacked the Cultural Revolution and promised an end to its disruption.

    The ‘zhqing’ were the 17 million young people who were deported from the cities to the countryside between 1966 and 1971. In the early 1980s,their protests demanding to be allowed to return home fuelled the ‘Beijing Spring’. And when in 1989 students first occupied Tiananmen Square to commemorate Hu Yaobang, one of the main reasons they did so was that he had been greatly instrumental in getting the vast majority of them home.

    While some of them may have become nostalgic for their time in the countryside, the great majority certainly weren’t at the time. Even 王安忆 (Wang Anyi) admitted “I could never adjust myself to the countryside.”

    Zhiqing literature, when it first emerged in the late 1970s, was originally know as 伤痕文学 – ‘scar literature’ or ‘literature of the wounded’ – which gives some idea of the experiences that the majority of writers were expressing. Of course individual experiences were hugely different, and often quite mixed – as expressed in one of the most compelling books to emerge from that period, Dai Sijie’s ‘Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress’.

    During the Cultural Revolution, of course, you would have been locked up or worse for saying any such thing.

  4. “It’s now generally accepted that the Cultural Revolution was a disaster for China, one of the most traumatic periods in the nation’s recent history”

    This statement is really rather problematic and it says a lot about the author – saying that it is “generally accepted” the the Cultural Revolution was a disaster is true only to the extent that Western academic scholarship and the official narrative of the Chinese state are taken as the only legitimate or meaningful voices when it comes to talking about and narrating the history of the Chinese revolution. It completely ignores the varied and complex narratives (subaltern voices, if you will) which exist in China today about the Cultural Revolution but which do not receive authentication and recognition by the state – for example, the huge body of zhiqing literature, encompassing both memoir and narrative fiction, which has emerged in recent decades in China, and embodies a narrative that directly questions the master narrative of 十年浩劫. Or, the way in which the symbology and language of high Maoism is central to some of the most radical and poignant forms of protest in contemporary China, such as the protests against 拆迁. Why doesn’t Charlie Hore take a serious look at subaltern voices and protests in China, and their relationship to Maoism and the Cultural Revolution, or for that matter do a review of a zhiqing writer like 王安忆, rather than just obituaries of Western authors who, at the end of the day, were really rather conformist and mainstream in what they wrote about the Cultural Revolution, even in those heady days of the 60s and 70s, and certainly by present-day standards?


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