In the second half of the twentieth century, the definition of a public intellectual underwent a gradual but profound change, as generalists gave way to academic specialists. Sinology makes for the perfect case study of this transition. From its origins in the Jesuit missions until the mid-twentieth century, sinology favored breadth over depth; it presumed that an individual scholar could take the whole of Chinese civilization—including its language, art, and history—as his or her subject. This romantic way of approaching the study of China came to an end during the Cold War as sinology, at least in the United States, was fully assimilated into the academic field of China studies. Within this field, there were major disagreements on the proper relationship between scholarship and American foreign policy—but there was, at least, fundamental agreement about what kind of research and books counted as genuine scholarship. As the study of China was professionalized, those who did not specialize were generally looked down upon as dilettantes.
Pierre Ryckmans was one of the last holdouts against this shift. In his biography of Ryckmans, now available in English translation, Philippe Paquet traces an archetypal hero’s journey. Ryckmans’s father was a publisher; his uncles were Belgian colonial governors, professors, and priests, and his family hoped he would follow in one of these paths. But Ryckmans wanted to travel, and he wanted to write. When he was twenty, he went to China as part of a delegation of young Belgians. While there, he got to meet and speak with Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China. He returned from this trip with a passion for China and a sympathy for Maoism. The former would last for the rest of his life; the latter would not. Having finished his studies in art history back in Belgium, he enrolled at National Taiwan Normal University, where he studied under exiled leaders of the Chinese intellectual world. From there he moved to Singapore and then to Hong Kong, researching and teaching art history in relative obscurity.
That changed in 1971 with the publication of The Chairman’s New Clothes, in which Ryckmans exposed the violent factional struggles of the Cultural Revolution. The book shook the French-speaking literary world, where Maoist illusions were still very much in vogue. The political stakes were so high that Ryckmans thought it wise to adopt a pen name, Simon Leys. He would go on to become the cultural attaché for the Belgian embassy in China, publishing numerous books in both English and French, and getting into public scrapes with Roland Barthes and Edward Said, among others. But Leys had other interests, other talents, and over time his work as a literary critic, essayist, and all-around man of letters overshadowed his reputation as a polemicist and academic.
Despite the triumphal arch of Paquet’s narrative, Leys is still not as well known as one might expect. His attacks on Said and Barthes did not leave a mark, and the Maoist intellectuals he vanquished in public controversies (notably Michelle Loi and Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi) are now mostly forgotten. Few now remember the debates that first brought Leys to public attention in France and Belgium. Paquet does his best to depict these as high drama, but one gets the sense that Leys himself regarded them as tedious distractions from his real work. In any case, he was not concerned with parlaying controversy into celebrity. He slyly invoked the words of Jacques Chardonne: “Any truly good book will always find three thousand readers, no more, no less.”