Every time Simon Leys publishes a brilliant little book on contemporary China ("The Burning Forest" is his fourth), he tells us that it will be his last. Leys, a Belgian who has worked as a diplomat in Peking and now teaches Chinese at Australian National University, knows and loves China as well as anyone who writes on contemporary Asian affairs. In each book he openly expresses anguish at what he feels duty-bound to report. Then, at least once, he says that he must desist, since comment is futile and silence more dignified. "To write is to hope," as he puts it this time, "and what hope is there left?" Yet, as if addicted, he always writes again.
It is important to distinguish Leys' anti-communism from the garden variety in American popular thought. No Moral Majoritarian, he is extremely well-informed, and driven by passion for China rather than by any advocacy of the West. Indeed, he satirizes Western pretensions of superiority, both past and present, with marvelous elan. Nor is he an apologist of the Chinese Nationalist government or the Chiang Kai-shek family, who also suffer his barbs. His heroes are the Chinese people, both intellectuals and common folk. Politically he resembles George Orwell, a warm supporter of socialism if it had worked, who finds totalitarianism all the more repugnant because it parades in socialist garb.
Leys interlards his political commentary with fond and exquisitely perceptive tributes to Chinese painters, poets and essayists both ancient and modern. These lovely pieces not only moderate his otherwise caustic tone, but, by exemplifying what it is that Maoism has decimated, also show why the author is so pained.
One of Leys' major interests is why China so often is misdescribed by outsiders. "For the West," he writes, "the problem of China is first the problem of how we know China." As a remote, seemingly unfathomable place, alluringly "opposite"to the West in basic ways, China has often led Westerners to see in her what they have been predisposed to find. "Whoever talks about China talks about himself," observes Leys, who deftly illustrates this phenomenon in examples ranging from Matteo Ricci to contemporary China watchers, including himself.
Does this lead to the paralyzing conclusion that no Westerner should try to comment on China at all? Leys suggests two ways out of such a trap, the first of which is to learn more. "Naturally," he writes, "the fantasy element is always in inverse proportion to the amount of factual knowledge the observer may possess." And true enough: As any tourist to China can attest, the best time for generalizations is after three weeks; beyond that the facts start messing things up. The second solution is to be as frank as possible about one's own personal concerns. Here Leys succeeds admirably, telling us exactly where he stands and why. The result is not only a clearer lens for viewing China, but increased appreciation of the lucidity of the author's judgment.
Leys reserves special venom for China experts who are less than candid about what they don't know, or worse, who wittingly or unwittingly present happy myth as fact. Having gathered most of his essays under the two headings "Culture" and "Politics," Leys archly labels his third section, on certain China watchers, as "Hygiene." Although sometimes overstated, his complaints are well-founded and bear significance far beyond the handful of individuals whom he chooses to lampoon. The larger question is: Why do rosy illusions about China have such staying power in the West? Why, for example, do Western intellectuals shrink from applying to China the same standards in human rights that they demand of the Soviet Union or El Salvador? In an article called "Human Rights in China," Leys catalogues some "lines of escape" from this question: that "we just don't know enough" to make judgments; that "it's no longer a problem in the post-Mao period"; that the material benefits of the revolution make tyranny a small price to pay; that China in any case is "different" and cultural differences must be respected. Leys rebuts each of these excuses and argues convincingly that to make them is a sign more of condescension than of true respect or understanding.
All of Leys' essays are written in such colorful, animated prose that one wonders if his occasional overstatements are not literary hyperbole more than intellectual error. For example, when he refers to "phony liberalization" after Mao, he apparently means to jolt us back to reason should we perchance get carried away by the fiction of freely blooming flower gardens that some have described. Yet surely a person as well-informed as Leys does not believe that, as a matter of degree, the difference between 1976 and 1986 in China is "phony." Limited though it is, the liberalization is real and precious to Chinese intellectuals, who willingly censor themselves in order to preserve its fragile structure.
Most of the pieces in this book are essays or book reviews that have appeared elsewhere. As a single volume, they give a certain sense of miscellaneity--uneven in length, scope and abstruseness. Leys does not fill in the broad background, and some of his essays require considerable knowledge of China to be fully appreciated. But the book should be highly recommended to the general reader even if it demands extra effort, because China guides as deeply perceptive and stubbornly honest as Leys are truly rare.