Sinologist: Simon Leys

【Sinologist】Time:2023-09-18      Source:Wikipedia      Views:255

Pierre Ryckmans (28 September 1935 – 11 August 2014), better known by his pen name Simon Leys, was a Belgian-Australian writer, essayist and literary critic, translator, art historian, sinologist, and university professor, who lived in Australia from 1970. His work particularly focused on the politics and traditional culture of China, calligraphy, French and English literature, the commercialization of universities, and nautical fiction. Through the publication of his trilogy Les Habits neufs du président Mao (1971), Ombres chinoises (1974) and Images brisées (1976), he was one of the first intellectuals to denounce the Cultural Revolution in China and the idolizing of Mao in the West.



Pierre Ryckmans was born at Uccle, an upper-middle-class district of Brussels, to a prominent Belgian family living in a house on Avenue des Aubépines. He was the son of a publisher, the grandson of Alfonse Ryckmans, an Antwerp alderman and vice president of the Senate, the nephew of Pierre Ryckmans, a governor general of the Belgian Congo, and Gonzague Ryckmans, a professor at the Université catholique de Louvain and a recognized expert of Arabic epigraphy.


He attended the Servites de Marie primary school near his home, then studied Greek and Latin humanities at the Cardinal Mercier diocesan school in Braine-l'Alleud. There, one of his teachers, abbé Voussure, "finished ingraining in him an unwavering Christian faith."


From 1953 he studied law and art history at the Université catholique de Louvain.


In 1955, his father died prematurely. In May, he became a member of a delegation of ten young Belgians invited to spend a month in China. During that visit he took part in a conversation with Zhou Enlai, the Premier of the People's Republic of China.As a result, he became sympathetic to the Maoist regime: "I confidently extended to the Maoist regime the same sympathy that I felt for all things Chinese."He returned from the trip with the view 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."


Upon his return to Belgium, he finished his studies in art history and began to learn calligraphy.


In the summer of 1958, he travelled to Étel, a port in French Brittany, to board one of the last remaining tuna boats. The account he wrote of the fishing expedition was only published 45 years later, under the title Prosper.


After being awarded a small bursary from the Chiang Kai-shek government, he enrolled at the Fine Arts department of the National Taiwan University. There he studied under the guidance of Pu Hsin-yu, a cousin of Pu Yi, the last emperor, and did some research for his future PhD dissertation on Shitao, a Chinese painter at the time of the Qing empire.


After completing his studies in Taiwan in 1960, he was called up for military service in Belgium. Instead, he chose to become a conscientious objector and perform civil service in the field of development cooperation for the next three years. First, thanks to the intervention of Eurasian writer Han Suyin, he was able to take up a part-time student and teaching job at Nanyang University in Singapore. However, in 1963, under suspicion of being a communist by the Lee Kuan Yew regime, he had to pack up and leave for Hong Kong, at the time a British colony.


For two years he taught at the New Asia College, one of the colleges of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He lived in a Kowloon squatter area, sharing with three friends a small accommodation they dubbed Wu Yong Tang (《無用堂》the "hall of uselessness") and living a life redolent of an Eastern Scènes de la vie de bohème.


He supplemented his income by writing summaries of articles from the mainland Chinese press and collecting testimonies from refugees from the mainland on behalf of the Belgian diplomatic delegation. He also gleaned information from China News Analysis, a weekly publication produced in Hong Kong by the Jesuit scholar Father László Ladány. These reports would become the basis of his 1971 book Les Habits neufs du président Mao (translated as The Chairman's New Clothes).


He also taught courses at the local Alliance française. In 1964, he married Han-fang Chang, a journalist he met in Taiwan, and became the father of twins in 1967.


While in Hong Kong, Ryckmans was introduced to French sinologist René Viénet, then a member of the Situationist International, by another sinologist, Jacques Pimpaneau, whom he had met at the New Asian College. René Viénet, who took the view that Chinese press reports on the Cultural Revolution were less sanitized than the writings of Western journalists and sinologists, obtained Pierre Ryckmans's agreement for his essay Les Habits neufs du président Mao to be published in Paris by Champ Libre, a publishing house run by Gérard Lebovici.


For his PhD thesis, Ryckmans chose to translate and comment on a masterpiece of the history of Chinese art, the treatise on painting by Shitao. It was published in 1970 by the Institut Belge des Hautes Etudes Chinoises in Brussels, under the title Propos sur la peinture du moine Citrouille-amère de Shitao. Contribution à l'étude terminologique des théories chinoises de la peinture.


On his publisher's advice, he decided to assume a pen name to avoid being declared persona non grata in the People's Republic of China. He chose "Simon" as his first name, a reference to the original name of the Apostle Peter, and "Leys" as his second name, a tribute to the main character of Victor Segalen's René Leys published in 1922, in which a Belgian teenager residing in Peking in the final days of the Qing Dynasty entertains his employer with accounts of the intrigues and conspiracies taking place behind the walls of the imperial palace. It is also suggested that his nom de plume is an allusion to a dynasty of painters from Antwerp under the name of Leys, with Henri Leys as its most famous representative.


In 1970 Ryckmans settled in Australia and he taught Chinese literature at the Australian National University in Canberra, where he supervised the honours thesis of future Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.


He returned to China in 1972 for six months as a cultural attaché for the Belgian Embassy in Beijing.


In 1983 Ryckmans appeared on the literary talk show Apostrophes on French television. The host, Bernard Pivot, had also invited Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, a "China expert" and author of the book Dalla Cina. After the latter had waxed lyrical on the subject of the New China, Ryckmans responded ferociously, pointing out errors of fact that suggested she had not verified her sources before writing her book, a work that he judged as being "d'une stupidité totale" (totally stupid) or "une escroquerie" (a fraud).


In the period 1987–93 he was Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney. He took early retirement, later explaining that, near the end, "deep modifications" had begun to affect universities in Australia and worldwide, "transformations ... progressively taking the university further away from the model to which I had originally devoted my life".


Following his retirement he returned to Canberra, where he lived for the remainder of his life.


He died of cancer in Sydney at the age of 78, in August 2014, surrounded by his wife and four children, Etienne, Jeanne, Louis and Marc.