Wide World of Quotes > Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) Quotes

Pierre Ryckmans
(also known as: Simon Leys)
Belgian-born Australian sinologist and writer

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Les Habits neufs du Président Mao (1971);
English translation: The Chairman's New Clothes (1978)

La "Révolution culturelle" qui n'eut de révolutionnaire que le nom, et de culturel que le prétexte tactique initial, fut une lutte pour le pouvoir, menée au sommet entre une poignée d'individus, derrière le rideau de fumée d'un fictif mouvement de masses (dans la suite de l'événement, à la faveur du désordre engendré par cette lutte, un courant de masse authentiquement révolutionnaire se développa spontanément à la base, se traduisant par des mutineries militaires et par de vastes grèves ouvrières; celles-ci, qui n'avaient pas été prévues au programme, furent impitoyablement écrasées).
-- Les Habits neufs du Président Mao (1971), Section I, opening sentences

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 grassroots, in the form of army mutinies and workers' strikes on a vast scale. These had not been prescribed in the program, and they were crushed pitilessly.
-- The Chairman's New Clothes (1978), Section I, opening sentences

Ombres chinoises (1974);
English translation: Chinese Shadows (1977)

The notes that follow are a result of my six-month stay in China last year.
-- Chinese Shadows (1977), Foreword

We all know of the misadventure of an American journalist: like everyone else, he had had written an account of a journey to China. The only problem was that he hadn't been there.
-- Chinese Shadows (1977), Chapter 1: "Foreigners in the People's Republic"

He [the typical journalist or academic visiting China during the Cultural Revolution] makes the same tour, stays in the same hotel, visits the same institutions, meets the same people from whom he hears the same declamations, is offered the same banquets during which the same speeches are made conforming everywhere to the same invariable and unreal ritual which belongs neither to China nor the West, but to an abstract universe conceived by Maoist bureaucrats for the benefit of foreign guests.
-- Chinese Shadows (1977), Chapter 1: "Foreigners in the People's Republic"

Only the breathtaking courts and palaces of the Forbidden City have been kept whole; the stroller dare not wander elsewhere because all around it Peking is a desert with nothing to entice him. The streets and markets have been shorn of their colours and spectacles; the pailous which gave rhythm and graceful fancy to the streets have disappeared. The 'Cultural' Revolution closed down the museums; the few temples that it left standing have become barracks, factories, dormitories, or garbage depots. The jugglers, booksellers, storytellers, puppeteers, the thousands of craftsmen, the inns, the little shops and pubs, the antique dealers and calligraphy shops (except for two catering only to foreigners), in short, all that gave Peking its lovely, diverse, and wonderful face, all that made it an incredibly civilised city — all this has gone, disappeared forever (...)
-- Chinese Shadows (1977)

It is not easy to foresee how future centuries will judge the Maoist rule, but one thing is certain, despite all it has done, the name of the regime will also be linked with the outrage it inflicted on a cultural legacy of all mankind: the destruction of the city of Peking.
-- Chinese Shadows (1977)

The destruction of the gates of Peking is, properly speaking, a sacrilege, and what makes it dramatic is not that the authorities had them pulled down but that they remain unable to understand why they pulled them down.
-- Chinese Shadows (1977)

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.
-- Chinese Shadows (1977)

Ryckmans vs Hitchens on Mother Teresa (1977)

Bashing an elderly nun under an obscene label does not seem to be a particularly brave or stylish thing to do.
-- Opening sentence of Ryckmans's review of Christopher Hitchens' book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (review published in The New York Review of Books, 26 May 1977)

Broken Images: Essays on Culture and Politics (London, Alison and Busby, 1979)

In Hong Kong I had the opportunity to talk informally and at length with various Chinese who had recently left the People's Republic -- some had valid exit visas, but a larger number had risked their lives to escape. (...)

In the course of these conversations, my new acquaintances and I often felt amazed at our luck. Here we were -- they Chinese, I a foreigner -- rambling on about daily life in China, pouring out our hearts, saying anything and everything that came into our heads. Only yesterday our paths might have crossed in China, but then we would have had to keep silent; or had one of those visits to some school, factory or commune given me the opportunity to question them, they could have done nothing except reel off the panegyric that one advisedly delivers for the benefit of foreigners. (...)

S, a student born Kwangchow, told me about a friend of his at Sun Yat-sen University. One day the young man was strolling through a large department store, and happened to come across a foreigner who wanted to buy something and was struggling to make the shop-assistant understand him. The student was glad to help and also to test his command of English; he offered his services, and in a matter of seconds solved the communication problem. He went on his way, but no sooner had he left the store than an agent of the Public Security accosted him and asked him to "come along for a little chat". He was detained at police headquarters for a whole afternoon, and was subjected to intensive interrogation at the hands of several investigators who took it in turns. Each of them forced him to reconstruct the precise tenor of his few words with the foreigner. They tried to trip him up and make him contradict himself, and to make him confess that the meeting was no accident, that actually he knew the foreigner already. The unfortunate young man steadfastly insisted that he had never laid eyes on the foreigner before, that all they talked about was the purchase of six paris of socks and a dozen handkerchiefs. Several hours later his firmness had prevailed over the doggedness of his questioners, and they let him go. There was no followup, but the student swore that never again would he speak to a foreigner if he could help it.
-- Broken Images (1979), pp. 99-100

Ryckmans vs Macciocchi on "China experts" and the Cultural Revolution (1983)
English translation: David Paul Wagner, 2015

Je pense ... que les idiots disent des idioties, c'est comme les pommiers produisent des pommes, c'est dans la nature, c'est normale. Le problème c'est qu'il y ait des lecteurs pour les prendre au sérieux et là évidemment se trouve le problème qui mériterait d'être analysé. Prenons le cas de Madame Macciocchi par exemple. Je n'ai rien contre Madame Macciocchi personellement, je n'ai jamais eu le plaisir de faire sa connaissance. Quand je parle de Madame Macciocchi, je parle d'une certaine idée de la Chine, je parle de son oeuvre, pas de sa personne. Son ouvrage 'De la Chine', c'est ... ce qu'on peut dire de plus charitable, c'est que c'est d'une stupidité totale, parce que si on ne l'accusent pas d'être stupide, il faudrait dire que c'est une escroquerie.

I think ... that idiots say idiocies... just as apple trees produce apples, that's natural, that's normal. The problem is that there are readers who take them seriously and obviously a problem exists there that should be analysed. Let's take the case of Madame Macciocchi, for example. I have nothing against Madame Macciocchi personally... I have never had the pleasure of meeting her. When I speak of Madame Macciocchi, I am speaking of a certain idea of China. I am speaking of her work, not of her as a person. Her work, De la Chine [On China], is, to put it as charitably as possible, a work of total stupidity, because if you did not accuse it of being stupid, you would have to say it's a fraud.

Commentary: Ryckmans in an indignant response to Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, an Italian politician, writer and fervid supporter of Maoism and of the Cultural Revolution in China. After Macciocchi had waxed lyrical on the Cultural Revolution, Ryckmans identified historical and intellectual errors in that writer's book De la Chine [On China] and proceeded to suggest that she had not verified her sources before writing it.

Source: Episode entitled "Les intellectuels face à l'histoire du communisme" [Intellectuals face the history of communism] of the TV talk show Apostrophes that screened on France's Antenne 2 network on 27 May 1983 and currently archived online by the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel.

Another Ryckmans riposte to Western "China experts" who were seeing the Cultural Revolution through rose-tinted glasses
English translation: David Paul Wagner, 2015

Il est normal que les imbéciles profèrent des imbécillités comme les pommiers produisent des pommes, mais je ne peux pas accepter, moi qui ai vu le fleuve Jaune charrier des cadavres chaque jour depuis mes fenêtres, cette vision idyllique de la Révolution culturelle.
[Quote source: Le Magazine Litteraire]

It is normal that fools utter nonsense just as apple trees produce apples; but what I cannot accept is this idyllic vision of the Cultural Revolution when I have seen the Yellow River carrying along its dead bodies in front of my windows every day.

Orwell, ou l'horreur de la politique (1984)

Simplicity and innocence are qualities that children and savages display naturally, but no civilised adult can attain them without first submitting to quite a rigorous discipline... in him [Orwell] man and writer were one...
-- English translation of sentence from Orwell, ou l'horreur de la politique (1984)

'The Art of Interpreting Nonexistent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page' (1990), in: The New York Review of Books, 11 October 1990
French translation: 'L'art d'interpreter des expressions inexistantes écrites à l'encre invisible sur une page blanche', in: L'humeur, l'honneur, l'horreur: essais sur la culture et la politique chinoises (1991)

In any debate, you really know that you have won when you find your opponents beginning to appropriate your ideas, in the sincere belief that they themselves just invented them. This situation can afford a subtle satisfaction; I think the feeling must be quite familiar to Father Ladany, the Jesuit priest and scholar based in Hong Kong who for many years published the weekly China News Analysis. Far away from the crude limelights of the media circus, he has enjoyed three decades of illustrious anonymity: all “China watchers” used to read his newsletter with avidity; many stole from it—but generally they took great pains never to acknowledge their indebtedness or to mention his name. (...)

Dans tout débat, le meilleur signe que vous avez gagné, c'est quand vous voyez votre adversaire qui commence à s'approprier vos idées, tout en croyant sincèrement qu'il vient lui-même de les inventer. Pareille situation procure de douces satisfactions. Je crois que cette sorte d'expérience était coutumière pour le père Ladany, le savant jésuite qui publiait à Hong Kong le périodique China News Analysis. Loin des feux de la rampe et de toutes les lumières crues du cirque médiatique, il a joui jusqu'à sa mort (survenue en septembre dernier) d'une illustre obscurité. Tous les "China Watchers" dévoraient avidement ses écrits; beaucoup les pillaient, mais, en général, ils avaient grand soin de jamais reconnaître leur dette ni de mentionner son nom.

...in the course of his exhaustive surveys of Chinese official documentation, the analyst must absorb industrial quantities of the most indigestible stuff; reading Communist literature is akin to munching rhinoceros sausage, or to swallowing sawdust by the bucketful.

... tandis qu'il procède à un examen exhaustif de la documentation chinoise officielle, l'analyste doit absorber des quantités industrielles de la matière la plus indigeste qui soit. Essayer de mâcher de boudin de rhinocéros ou d'avaler de la sciure de boise par seaux entiers, et vous aurez une idée de ce que c'est que de dépouiller jour après jour de la littérature communiste chinoise.

The Communist party is in essence a secret society. In its methods and mentality it presents a striking resemblance to an underworld mob. It fears daylight, feeds on deception and conspiracy, and rules by intimidation and terror.

Le parti communiste chinois es essentiellement une société secrète. Dans ses méthodes et sa mentalité, il présente une troublante ressemblance avec la pègre. Il redoute le grand jour; pour croître et se développer il a besoin des ténèbres; il vit d'intrigues et de mensonges; il impose sa loi par le chantage, la conspiration et la terreur.

Dialectics is the jolly art that enables the Supreme Leader never to make mistakes—for even if he did the wrong thing, he did it at the right time, which makes it right for him to have been wrong, whereas the Enemy, even if he did the right thing, did it at the wrong time, which makes it wrong for him to have been right.

La dialectique, c'est le gai savoir qui permet au Chef suprême d'avoir toujours raison, car, même quand il a tort, il a tort au bon moment; l'ennemi, par contre, même quand il a raison, il a raison au mauvais moment, ce qui fait qu'il a tort d'avoir raison.

'Une introduction à Confucius' (Brussels, Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de Belgique, 1995)
English translation:
'Introduction to Confucius', in: Simon Leys' translation of The Analects of Confucius (New York, Holt, 1997)

Si l'on considère les plus grands maîtres à penser de l'humanité, -- le Bouddha, Confucius, Socrate, Jésus --, on est frappé par un curieux paradoxe: aujourd'hui, aucun d'entre eux ne pourrait obtenir ne fût-ce qu'un modeste poste d'enseignant dans une de nos universités. La raison en est simple: leur qualifications sont insuffisantes -- ils n'ont rien publié.

If one considers the greatest teachers of humanity -- the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus -- one is struck by a curious paradox: nowdays, not of them could obtain the lowliest teaching post in any of our universities. The reason for this is simple: their qualifications would be insufficient -- they published nothing.

Lu Xun a remarqué que, chaque fois qu'un génie original se manifeste dans ce monde, les gens s'efforcent aussitôt de s;en débarrasser. A cette fin, ils ont généralement recours à deux méthodes. La première, c'est la suppression pure et simple: on isole le personnage en question, on'affame, on l'entoure d'un rigoreux mur de silence, on l'enterre vivant. Si ces manoeuvres demeurent sans effet, on passe à la seconde méthode, bien plus radicale et redoutable, la glorification: on hisse la victime sur un piédestal, on l'encense et on en fait un dieu.

English translation: "Lu Xun observed that whenever a truly original genius appears in this world, people immediately endeavour to get rid of him. To this end they have two methods. The first one is suppression: they isolate him, they starve him, they surround him with silence, they bury him alive. If this does not work, they adopt the second method (which is much more radical and dreadful): exaltation -- they put him on a pedestal and they turn him into a god."

"L'Imitation de notre seigneur Don Quichotte: Cervantès et quelques-uns de ses critiques modernes" (Brussels, Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de Belgique, 1999)
English translation: "The Imitation of our Lord Don Quixote", in: The New York Review of Books (11 June 1998). Later reprinted in The Angel and the Octopus (1999).

Quand, dans une discussion, on traite quelqu'un de "Don Quichotte", c'est toujours avec une intention insultante -- ce qui m'étonne. En réalite, il me semble que l'on ne saurait imaginer de plus beau compliment.

In debates the word 'Quixotic' is nearly always meant as an insult -- which puzzles me, since I can hardly think of a greater compliment.

The Wreck of the Batavia and Prosper (2005)

... not all the [Dutch East India Company's] shipwrecks were forgotten. In fact, the earliest, that of the Batavia, which occurred in 1629 on the reefs of the Houtman Abrolhos, a group of tiny coral islands some fifty nautical miles off the Australian mainland, was the most famous and also the most fully documented. The three hundred survivors who found shelfter on the islands fell under the conrol of one of them, a psychopath who instituted a reign of terror. This criminal, assisted by a few acolytes whom he had managed to seduce and indoctrinate, led a methodical massacre of the castaways, sparing neither women nor children. Three months later, with two hundred already slaughtered, the bizarre butchery was brought to an end by the arrival of a rescue ship from Java. The leader and his main accomplices were put to death on the spot after having been duly examined, tortured and sentenced according to the legal requirements of Dutch legal justice. The minutes of the trial and the witnesses' statements were carefully recorded; these documents were supplemented by internal reports of the VOC and the memoirs written soon after the events by two of the principal survivors. A book drawing together most of this information was published less than ten years later. It immediately became a bestseller and was reprinted (and pirated) several times; part of it was eventually translated into French.

It can be said without exaggeration that, in its time, the tragedy of the Batavia had a greater impact on the public imagination than did the wreck of the Titanic in the twentieth century. The comparison comes naturally to mind since in both cases disaster struck, on her maiden voyage, a ship that embodied the pride and power of her age.

With Stendhal (2010)

Two short texts shed an exceptionally penetrating light on Stendhal's heart: one is Henri Beyle, the memoir (once deemed scandalous) that Prosper Merimée wrote in mourning hommage to his friend. The other, Les Privilèges, is an enigmatic -- yet revealing -- fantasy which Stendhal himself improvised on an idle afternoon near the end of his life, purely for his own pleasure.

Though Stendhal does not lack passionate admirers in the English-speaking world, it appears that neither of these two illuminating documents has ever been translated into English, which gave me the idea to remedy this strange gap. Still, had such a translation already existed, I doubt if this could have discouraged me from undertaking the present work: who would give up the chance to spend some hours with Stendhal?
-- Foreword, page ix

The Hall of Uselessness (2011)

Since the Peking massacres [Tian'anmen, 4 June 1989], the question has already been put bluntly to me several times: Why were most of our pundits so constantly wrong on the subject of China? What enabled you and a tiny minority of critics to see things as they really were, and why did hardly anyone ever listen to you?

At first I declined invitations to write on this theme. The idea of sitting atop a heap of dead Chinese bodies to cackle triumphantly" 'I told you so! I told you so!' like a hen that had just laid an egg is not particularly appealing.
-- "The Curse of the Man Who Could See the Little Fish at the Bottom of the Ocean" (1989); republished in: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011)

I have spent all my active life in universities: first, as a student, of course (but, in a sense, every academic always remains a student till his death). For nearly forty years, I have pursued research and carried on teaching in various universities... I have been lucky: all my life, I had the rare opportunity to do work which I loved in congenial and stimulating environments. Only, near the end, deep modifications bgan to affect the university -- I am not talking here of any specifically Australian problems, but of a much more broad and universal malaise. As these transformations were progressively taking the university further away from the model to which I had originally devoted my life, I finally decided to quit -- six years before reaching retirement age. Considering the ways things have evolved since then, it is a decision I have never regretted.
-- "An Idea of the University", an address originally given to the Campion Foundation Inaugural Dinner, Sydney, 23 March 2006; republished in: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011).

We know the story (it is hackneyed): in a full church, the preacher climbs into the pulpit and pronounces a sermon of overwhelming eloquence. Everyone cries. One man, however, remains dry-eyed. They ask him the reason. "It's because," he says, "I'm not of this parish." (...) A foreigner, but francophone, I feel at home each time I go to France. It is only when it is a question of Malraux that it becomes evident: I am not of this parish.
-- "Malraux" in: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011); this essay first appeared in The New York Review of Books, 29 May 1997.

On Malraux's death, a Parisian weekly asked me to write a page on the following theme: what did Malraux mean to you? I naively thought they wanted the truth, so I sent in all innocence -- but the editor was horrified and put it in the waste paper basket. And yet my article only repeated something well-known to foreign critics -- from Koestler to Nabakov -- who for a good half-century had regarded Malraux as phoney.
-- "Malraux" in: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011)

When, in a discussion, someone refers to someone else as a Quixote, it is always as an insult, which astonishes me. In fact, I can't think of a more beautiful compliment.
-- "The Imitation of our Lord Quixote" in: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011); this essay first appeared in The New York Review of Books, 11 June 1998.

Once ... I was writing in a café. Like many lazy people, I like to feel a measure of hustle and bustle around me when I am supposed to work -- it gives me an illusion of activity. (...) The radio that had been blaring in the corner all morning could not bother me either: pop music, stock market figures, horseracing reports, more pop songs... (...) Suddenly, a miracle occurred. For a reason that will remain for ever mysterious, the vulgar broadcasting routine gave way (...) to the most sublime music: the first bars of Mozart's clarinet quintet... [But the other patrons who had been chatting, drinking, playing cards or reading newspapers were not deaf after all: this magical interruption of a voice from heaven provoked a general start among them -- a ll faces turned round, frowning with puzzlement... [I]n a matter of seconds, to the huge relief of all. one customer resolutely stood up, walked to the radio, turned the tuning knob and cut off this disquieting intermède, switched to another station...

-- "The Empire of Ugliness" in: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011); this essay first appeared in a slightly different form in the Australian Review of Books, March 1977.

[T]rue Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognising beauty; they recognise it all too well; they detect its presence anywhere, immediately... but for them it is in order to be able better to pounce on it at once and to destroy it before it can gain a foothold in their universal empire of ugliness.
-- "The Empire of Ugliness" in: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011)

In every department of human endeavour, inspired talent is an intolerable insult to mediocrity. If this is true in the realm of aesthetics, it is even more true in the world of ethics. More than artistic beauty, moral beauty seems to exasperate our sad species. The need to bring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride, and debunk any splendour that is towering above us is probably the saddest urge of human nature.
-- "The Empire of Ugliness" in: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011)

I have spent all my active life in universities... For nearly forty years, I have pursued research and carried on teaching in various universities, first in the Far East, then mostly in Australia, with some periods in Europe and the United States. My career was happy; I have been lucky: all my life, I had the rare opportunity to do work which I loved in congenial and stimulating environments. Only, near the end, deep modifications began to affect the university -- I am not talking here of any specifically Australian problems, but of a much more broad and universal malaise. As these transformations were progressively taking the university further away from the model to which I had originally devoted my life, I finally decided to quit.
"An Idea of the University" in: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (2011); this essay was originally presented as an address to the Campion Foundation Inaugural Dinner, Sydney, 21 March 2006.

On the Abolition of All Political Parties by Simone Weil (translated by Simon Leys) (2012)

Once in a blue moon, on strictly non-political issues, dealing purely with quesions of ethics, members of Parliament are allowed to make a 'conscience vote.' A conscience vote -- what an extraordinary notion! It should be a pleonasm: don't we all assume that every vote -- by definition -- is being made by MPs who listen to their consciences, instead of following some diktat from a political party?

The first quality of a politician is integrity. Integrity requires independence of judgment. Independence of judgment rejects partisan edicts, for for partisan edicts stifle in a man's conscience all sense of justice and the very taste of truth.

When such basic truths are ignored, Parliament turns into an unseemly circus, provoking dismay and contempt in the general public across all party lines. When voters distrust their representatives, democracy itself is imperilled.

While I feel privileged to live in a Western democracy, now and then shocking aspects of partisan politics inspire me to read again Simone Weil's comments on this particular evil. Though her essay was written nearly seventy years ago, in very different circumstances, it seems to me greatly relevant for us here today. I therefore undertook to translate it into English, in the hope that it might provide the starting point for a healthy debate.
-- Simon Leys, Translator's Foreword, in: On the Abolition of All Parties (2012)


Some original translations into English have been made on this web page by David Paul Wagner.

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The selection of the above quotes and the writing of the accompanying notes was performed by the author David Paul Wagner.

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