Uncommon Decency

The Careers of Simon Leys

Back in the summer of 1996, the New York Review of Books published a review of Christopher Hitchens’s The Missionary Position, a ninety-eight-page book about Mother Teresa that found her to be essentially a pious fraud. Two months later the journal printed two responses defending Mother Teresa, one by James Martin, SJ, in New York, the other by Simon Leys in Canberra. Martin was a newcomer to the NYRB’s pages, but Leys had been a frequent contributor for twenty years, and would continue to be until his death in 2014.

Of course it’s very easy—too easy—to see the argument as one of Catholic vs. Atheist and to consider Leys blinded by the doctrines of Catholicism or Hitchens by the dogmas of atheism. With respect to Leys at least, that would be a mistake. From his follow-up 1997 essay “The Empire of Ugliness,” published in the Australian Review of Books, it’s clear that what really offended Leys was not Hitchens’s irreligious viewpoint, but the fact that he had made cheap fun of an elderly nun whose idea of charity was to provide comfort and companionship to India’s poorest of the poor as they approached death. Hitchen’s sophomoric title lacked a sense of “common decency”—to use the words of another atheist, George Orwell, whom Leys, like Hitchens, admired enormously despite Orwell’s “rabid” anti-Catholicism. It’s worth noting that in an Australian broadcast of 2011, Leys went out of his way to praise Hitchens, not least for his courage in facing his own death.

“The Empire of Ugliness” is reprinted in Leys’s The Hall of Uselessness, which was published in 2013 not long before Leys’s death (New York Review Books, $19.95, 576 pp.). It is a collection of extraordinarily graceful essays, not only about China (his main field of study), but about some of his other enthusiasms as well. Here and elsewhere his writing is of a sort increasingly uncommon in university circles today: one that never shows off (“see how brilliant I am”) and one that in more than five-hundred pages has not a single word of scholarly jargon. To some of his French friends, gathered for a commemorative broadcast after his death, that grace and clarity in his writing seemed an Anglo-Saxon characteristic (which may simply mean that they are unschooled in contemporary British and American scholarship). As Ian Buruma put it in an appreciation after Leys’s death, “his essays on André Gide or Evelyn Waugh are as profound and stylish as his work on Chinese painters or the art of calligraphy. He was a literary scholar in the Chinese literati tradition, that is to say, his scholarship was a form of literature.” Read, for example, “The Chinese Attitude Towards the Past” or “Poetry and Painting” and you will see what Buruma means.

Who was Simon Leys and why should we know him better? Leys once remarked that George Orwell is almost unknown in France except for his novel 1984, and even that is too often read simply as an anti-Communist tract rather than the ominous warning against totalitarianism that he intended. Is that the problem with Leys too—that, if we remember him at all, it is for something like that dispute with Hitchens almost twenty years ago? Or, for those with longer memories, his battles of almost forty years ago with those who saw in Mao Zedong the great philosopher-statesman leading China out of tyranny and imperialist oppression into the brilliant freedoms of a new day? In 1961 François Mitterand, for example, wrote that Mao was no dictator but a new kind of humanist.

In fact, though Leys was primarily an extraordinarily gifted Sinologist, he had many other interests and accomplishments. The Hall of Uselessness gives some sense of their range: besides the articles on China there are essays on literature, primarily French and English, though Cervantes and Nabokov appear, as does Lu Xun, the great revolutionary writer of early twentieth-century China, whom Leys much admired. He also wrote about the sea. After university, Leys had shipped out on an old-fashioned French tuna-fishing boat, fell in love with the ocean, and remained a passionate sailor throughout his life. In 2003 Leys published two volumes of French maritime writing, a subject that, he pointed out, had been largely neglected by that country’s intellectuals, the Atlantic being invisible from Paris. He also translated into French Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, which he thought the greatest of all seafaring accounts. There were many other works too, including a new translation of the Confucian Analects and a brilliant and prize-winning novel, The Death of Napoleon. Leys even illustrated The Two Acrobats, a children’s book by his daughter Jeanne Ryckmans. He was a man who seemed to combine several impressive intellectual careers into a single lifetime.


THE NAME "SIMON LEYS" did not come until his thirty-fifth year. He was born Pierre Ryckmans near Brussels in 1935, “into a happy family,” as he noted with a nod to Tolstoy. In 1955, while studying at Louvain, he was the youngest of ten Belgian students invited to visit the new People’s Republic of China on a tour capped by an hour-long interview with Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai. A Catholic with socialist leanings, the young Leys was duly impressed, but as he later said, the chief sense he brought away 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.” Later he would come to describe that culture as the most antipodal of all to the West—or in the words that he quotes from the great historian Joseph Needham: “Chinese civilization presents the irresistible fascination of what is totally other, and only what is totally other can inspire the deepest love, together with a strong desire to know it.”

In 1958 he began his language study in Taiwan, later moving to Singapore and Nanyang University until in 1963 a suspicious government expelled him for imagined Communist leanings. For the next two years in Hong Kong, he shared with three roommates a hovel in a Kowloon squatter slum populated by refugees from the People’s Republic. One of them, a superb calligrapher from Taiwan, gave their abode its only decoration: a sign reading Wu Yong Tang—“The Hall of Uselessness,” a reference both to the classic Book of Changes and to the great Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (“everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless”).

Then came marriage to Chang Hanfang, a student of journalism whom he’d met in Taiwan, and by 1967 they had become parents. By then he was teaching at New Asia College and also reporting to the Belgian consulate on events in China, then being wracked by Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. His sources came from the Chinese press, from refugee interviews, and from the invaluable China News Analysis, published weekly from the University of Hong Kong by Fr. László Ladány, a Hungarian Jesuit expelled from the People’s Republic after 1949. This last was a staple for everyone concerned with contemporary China, though many preferred not to admit it (as Leys later wrote, for them such dependence was “akin to what a drinking habit might be for an ayatollah, or an addiction to pornography for a bishop: it was a compulsive need that had to be indulged in secretly”).

In the summer of 1967, the waves of the Cultural Revolution spilled over into Hong Kong itself. Not only were trussed-up bodies washed onto the colony’s beaches, casualties of the fighting upstream in Guangdong Province, but Leys found himself a horrified witness to the assassination right outside his house of a popular broadcaster who’d made some satirical remarks about Chairman Mao. An “unforgettable lesson,” Leys called it, and one that convinced him he must do more than live the quiet life of an art historian (his first two books in that field would appear in Paris in 1970). In 1971, from his consular work came Les habits neufs du président Mao (The Chairman’s New Clothes), the first of four books about contemporary China. The reference of course is to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in which only a child understands that the emperor proudly showing off his gorgeous new robes is in fact naked. Leys’s thesis was plain: Mao’s “cultural revolution” was neither cultural nor a revolution, but simply a sordid struggle for power. His Paris publisher wisely suggested that if Ryckmans ever hoped to see China again, he’d better take a pen name. Thus was born “Simon Leys”: Simon, for Simon Peter (or Pierre) and Leys, from René Leys, a novel of 1922 by Victor Segalen, set in Beijing during the death throes of the last dynasty in 1911. (René is a young Belgian who convinces a French diplomat that he’s entered the innermost circles of the Palace, and is privy to all its intrigues.)

Not that the cover name did him much good. A significant part of France’s intellectual left—think Sartre, Foucault, Barthes, Kristeva, and so on—had by then decided that Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a movement that could ignite, if not perhaps a waiting world, then at least a waiting France, and the huge student uprisings of May 1968 raised their hopes further. In November 1971, Alain Bouc (who would presently become his paper’s Beijing reporter) contemptuously dismissed Leys’s book in Le Monde as a piece written by a “French [sic] ‘China-watcher’ working à la mode américaine” and full of errors. Superbly ignorant though most of them were about China, the Parisian Maoists knew how to smoke out their ideological enemies, and managed to block any university invitations for Leys/Ryckmans to teach.

In 1970 Leys moved with his family to the Australian National University in Canberra, and then, since Belgian speakers of Chinese were rare, in 1972 he became cultural attaché to the new Brussels embassy in Beijing. There he spent six months, traveling as widely as he could, and from that experience came Ombres chinoises (1974). Chinese Shadows, its later English title, rather misses the double meaning of the French, which refers not only to the shadows Leys was casting on the imagined brilliancy of Mao’s regime, but also to the traditional shadow-puppet plays popular in China (and, for that matter, in the salons of Proust’s Faubourg Saint-Germain around 1900). Now, Leys wrote, foreign visitors to the People’s Republic (the French Maoists among them) “pretend they describe Chinese realities when they are in fact describing the shadow play produced for them by the Maoist authorities.”

Leys always insisted that his writings gave away no secrets. They were based on materials available to anyone, and the real problem lay less with the lack of evidence than with a refusal to look at it. Not yet in English, his books were a sensation in France, bringing down all sorts of attacks from the bien-pensants of the Parisian left (and indeed elsewhere), who accused him of elitist nostalgia for China’s imperial culture, of ties to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist dictatorship (which he despised), and, of course, to the CIA. In 1975, as Pierre Ryckmans, he published a translation of Ye cao (“Wild Grasses,” or “Weeds”) by the great Lu Xun, who had died in 1936. Leys added a long introduction upholding the writer’s integrity and independence, and condemning the way Beijing sought to co-opt him as one of its own. Michelle Loi, one of the few French Maoists who could handle Chinese, responded with a violent attack that not only upheld Lu Xun’s imagined Maoist fidelity, but gleefully exposed Leys’s real Belgian identity. Leys, however, showed himself to be a formidable antagonist. In 1976 his Images Brisées contained an essay that not only took her arguments apart, but also pointed out that in her own account of a visit to the New China, she managed to confuse Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor, mythical founder of Chinese culture) with Qinshi huangdi, the very real and tyrannical First Emperor of the late third century BCE. What, he asked, would we do with an Italian historian who managed to mix up the legendary Romulus with Mussolini? After all, the chronological spread is about the same (the piece is unfortunately absent from Broken Images, the book’s English translation).

In 1977 Chinese Shadows appeared in English, drawing both some very good reviews (one of them from the historian Lucien Bianco in the China Quarterly) and some very bad ones, most of the latter coming from those still under the spell of the Chairman, who had gone to his reward in late 1976. (The NYRB devoted large parts of two issues in mid-1977 to printing excerpts from it.) Another essay collection, The Burning Forest, subsequently appeared. There was one more sharp clash with the Maoists in 1983 when Leys appeared on the Parisian television program Apostrophes with Maria-Antoinetta Macciochi, the Italian author of a five-hundred-page book on the wonders of the New China. Leys, after politely remarking that he’d never had the pleasure of meeting Signora Macciocchi, then referred to her book as “utterly stupid.” (You can watch the exchange on YouTube, and you don’t need fluent French to understand “stupidité totale.”)

By then, however, the bloom was off the Maoist rose, what with the mysterious disappearance in 1971 of Lin Biao, the Chairman’s carefully anointed successor now turned arch-traitor, and the arrest of the Gang of Four a month after Mao’s death in 1976. Many of the Paris Maoists moved on to other games. “What scandalized me most,” Leys wrote to the French journalist Pierre Boncenne, “is that from the day it no longer lived up to their prefabricated myth, China ceased to exist.” Indeed, though Leys never mentions it, in 1981 Beijing itself issued a statement damning the “so-called cultural revolution” as the worst setback in the Party’s history, and putting most of the blame on Mao himself for (I’m not making this up) his failure to uphold Mao Zedong Thought.


IN RETROSPECT, Leys’s original vision of the Cultural Revolution as only a power struggle was too simple; it was indeed that, but it was also much more, and Chinese Shadows and its successors, as Lucien Bianco noted, are more penetrating books than The Chairman’s New Clothes. Clearly, Leys’s opposition to Mao had nothing to do with ordinary right-wing anti-Communism, dynastic nostalgia, or sympathy for Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorship. Leys was quite ready to criticize not only European Maoists but also those conservatives whom he thought bedazzled by the Chairman: Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Georges Pompidou, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and others. Yet his dislike of Maoism never blinded Leys to the noble aspirations that led some in the West to welcome it. In his recent book, Le Parapluie de Simon Leys (2015), Pierre Boncenne describes a friendly argument years later between Leys and Jean-François Revel about the similarities and differences between what Revel had described as the “direct” totalitarianism of the Nazis and the “utopian” totalitarianism exemplified by Stalin and Mao. From the standpoint of history and of their victims, said Revel, their criminal acts came down to the same thing, and thus the differences were mere epiphenomena. Leys, however, argued for a moral distinction. Many of us, he said, have had good-hearted and courageous friends who were deceived by Communism, and yet we accept them as our friends in ways that we could never accept ex-Nazis. Such people might well have been moved by the “superb and passionate” Communist Manifesto, but one would have to be “dishonest, mad, or idiotic (preferably all three)” to fall for something like Mein Kampf. Here, Boncenne suggests, you can see the temperamental differences between the agnostic Revel, limited by his rationality, and the Catholic Leys, with his sensibility to what is most mysterious and indefinable in humanity.

After The Burning Forest, Leys said he would leave the matter of contemporary China to others who were more qualified. Though that was only partly true—he continued to write about China for the New York Review of Books and other publications in Europe and Australia—it allowed him to pursue other interests, not only Sinological but literary. Yet he never saw the People’s Republic again after his diplomatic service in 1972, by which time he was happily settled with his family in Australia, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

In the early 1980s, his brother-in-law Richard Rigby, then serving in the Australian embassy in Beijing, invited him for a visit. Though Leys applied for a visa, Beijing’s embassy in Canberra apparently dithered, uncertain quite how to handle this Enemy of the Chinese People, and the trip never came off. A shame: though back then cities like Beijing and Shanghai had not yet become the forests of skyscrapers that they are today, it would be fascinating to have Leys’s observations on that early stage of China’s recovery from Maoism. In 1987 Leys moved from Canberra to teach at the University of Sydney, where one of his students was Kevin Rudd, who became prime minister of Australia in 2007 (and about whom Leys wrote an admiring piece in a Belgian newspaper). Though Rudd and some others thought that Leys never quite understood the great changes taking place under Deng Xiaoping, the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989 and the jailing of the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo in 2010 suggested that his views were not yet entirely outdated.

There were also occasional trips to Europe and the United States, and though Boncenne reports that there were several invitations to teach in this country, Leys always turned them down, put off by a sense that American universities, for all the quality of their work on China, were closed off to the world around them, and by a sense of academic competition that he found uncongenial to his nature. A great admirer of Newman’s The Idea of a University, Leys was increasingly distressed by what he considered the growing commercialization of higher education. “The demand for equality is noble and must be fully supported, but only within its own sphere, which is that of social justice. It has no place anywhere else. Democracy is the only acceptable political system; yet it pertains to politics exclusively, and has no application in any other domain…for truth is not democratic, intelligence and talent are not democratic, nor is beauty, nor love—nor God’s grace. A truly democratic education is an education that equips people intellectually to defend and promote democracy within the political world; but in its own field, education must be ruthlessly aristocratic and high-brow, shamelessly geared towards excellence.” Though this may sound simply like an appeal to elitism, in fact it is an appeal to respect the intellectual ability and integrity of students, as Leys’s concluding sentence makes clear: “A university is not a factory producing graduates, as a sausage factory produces sausages. It is a place where a chance is given to men to become what they truly are.”


ALL OF LEYS'S WRITING, Pierre Boncenne said in a broadcast shortly after Leys’s death, was marked by his deep Catholicism, even that on China. Perhaps we might say: especially that on China. A chapter in The Burning Forest on Matteo Ricci, the late-sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuit mission to China, brings out very clearly one aspect of Leys’s Catholic vision. To a Westerner, says Leys, China’s complete “otherness” is not only a challenge but can also become an illuminating originality. “It is only when we contemplate China that we can become exactly aware of our own identity and that we begin to perceive which part of our heritage truly pertains to universal humanity, and which part merely reflects Indo-European idiosyncracies.” Ricci understood this, thought Leys, and saw “that the question of how China could become Christian was first the question of how Christianity could become Chinese.” This is fundamentally an issue of translation—the difficult translation of a theology “encumbered with a number of narrowly western notions.... Medieval scholastic philosophy is a monument as sublime as the great gothic cathedrals of Europe, but it is equally as unfit for transplantation.”

Ricci’s successors, however, lacked his clarity of vision; to them, becoming a Christian meant becoming an honorary European. “Western missionaries were ascribing universal relevance to their particular values (the ‘God-speaks-Latin’ syndrome),” and Leys quotes the “naïve and arrogant statement” of an unnamed French philosopher (it was Étienne Gilson) who called Thomism the “gathering up of the whole human tradition,” as if a thirteenth-century Western European school of philosophy could be so all-encompassing. Not only that, but by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Christian missions in China and elsewhere had become hopelessly entangled with imperialism and conquest, and even notions of cultural and racial superiority. French Catholics were prone to such views, and so were Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

But in what sense exactly can Christian universalism become Chinese? The question remains, and disentangling it from its Indo-European specificities has proved an enormously difficult task. Nor, though Leys never pursues the topic, is the question of disentanglement one for Christianity alone. Think of Western secular views about the universality of, say, Enlightenment thought, or Progress, or (among historians and social scientists), of “modernization.” Shall we ever successfully disentangle those concepts from their Indo-European roots?

Then again, why even bother to try? For Leys, apart from his own beliefs in Christian universalism properly understood, one concrete answer may be found in some of his remarks on Confucius. Much as he admired Confucius—the real Confucius, not the Confucius of subsequent Confucianism—Leys suggested that the lack of any sense of original sin made it more difficult for Confucius to deal with the problems of evil. (He said much the same about Orwell, whose agnostic humanism left him with no better preservative against the horrors of the twentieth century than “common decency.”)

For many, the easy answer is to avoid any disentangling. The Chinese are “different.” They have no approach to religion similar to Western Christianity, nor do they have any of the traditions out of which Western democracy, shared governance, and human rights were born. It is common enough to argue this way (and not only about China), but at least when it came to human rights Leys would have none of it. He was strongly critical of those who could look with equanimity at the cruelties of, say, the dictatorships of Chiang Kai-shek or Mao and argue that this is what Chinese are used to and we must respect their different culture. For the people who make this kind of argument, says Leys, there are no universal human rights but only particular Western ones—and indeed, he adds, if Hitler had simply remained within his own frontiers, we might say: Well, slaughtering Jews is a German idiosyncrasy, and it’s not up to us to pass judgment.

He never tried to hide his Catholicism, a reviewer once said of him. But Leys’s Catholic sensibility is difficult to define. It is never insistent, and never descends into preachiness. As Leys himself said of Confucius, on ultimate questions it may sometimes be better to remain silent. Ian Buruma, meaning to praise Leys after his death, remarked that “if he had any prejudices, they were informed by his Catholic faith, and not by his Chinese learning”—an odd but all too common point of view (if you and I disagree, it must be because you are prejudiced). Nor was Leys uncritical of those of his own faith. He had no use for the priests who sought to embrace Mao (like the Belgian abbé whose book on the New China “was published by a company belonging to the Fathers of the Inquisition”), and he was alive to the resemblances between Maoism and some of the less fortunate aspects of Catholic history. “Indeed,” he wrote in Chinese Shadows, “ecclesiastical metaphors are virtually irresistible when describing the People’s Republic.... Maoism has a peculiar fascination for some clerical-minded souls. Those who harbor a certain nostalgia for totalitarianism and unconsciously regret the passing away of the Inquisition and the Pope’s Zouaves, will find in Maoist China the incarnation of a medieval dream, where institutionalized Truth has again a strong secular arm to impose dogma, stifle heresy, and uproot immorality.”

In 2013, Leys published an English translation of Simone Weil’s On the Abolition of All Political Parties, written in 1943 shortly before her death. What drew him to this essay? Was it that Weil’s vision of continental political parties—heirs of the French Terror of 1793—ineluctably leading to the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century bears a similarity to the “horror” of ideological politics that George Orwell learned in the Spanish war? Or was it perhaps that Leys thought the exemption Weil granted to English politics might no longer be valid? (In fact, he quoted Orwell himself saying that 1984 was set in England precisely to make the point that totalitarianism could triumph anywhere.) One of Weil’s arguments was that party loyalty tended to undermine one’s attachment to the truth. Leys’s experience with Maoists, both in China and in Europe, had led him to the same conclusion.

IN AUGUST 2014, Simon Leys died in Sydney. Long and flattering obituaries appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian and elsewhere. Le Monde and a French press that once vilified him now praised him, especially for his insights into Maoism. In June 2015 the French quarterly Commentaire printed appreciations from eight scholars and Sinologists, among them Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard and Perry Link of California. Link, who has been persona non grata in China since 1996 thanks to his human-rights work, refers to Leys as the “North Star” in his study of that country.

Perhaps the best tribute came from the French political philosopher Philippe Raynaud, who wrote:

There is…a true unity to [Leys’s] work, beyond the moral and intellectual virtues of the author. It is the fruit of an attempt to elucidate the human condition, which often refers to extreme situations, but which is addressed to everyone without any pretense of revealing what is inaccessible to ordinary reason, and that’s why one finds admirers of Simon Leys in all political, intellectual and spiritual quarters. But you also find in him many traits that come from a Catholic faith and culture, and which, subtle though they are, nevertheless play an important role in the way he sees the world. Simon Leys had enough confidence in nature, in the love of humanity itself, and above all, in tact and good taste, to be convincing to men of good faith without condemning unbelief or liberal society. But he was also sufficiently sensitive to the mystery of evil and, no doubt, to the precarious nature of human virtues, not to limit himself merely to the virtue of humanitas. No one is obliged to follow the way that he chose, but we must admit that he embodied a rare enough model, which doubtless represents that which Catholic intellectuals should be—but not always are.

Nor are Catholic intellectuals the only ones who could profit from Leys’s example. He offers a North Star to intellectuals of all kinds, combining qualities rarely found together in a single writer: tact, good taste, and generosity, but also great courage and a sometimes astringent honesty. If this was a “rare enough” combination in the last century, it is even rarer today.

Published in the May 6, 2016 issue: 

Nicholas Clifford, a professor emeritus of Middlebury College, is a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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