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Thursday, 2 September 2010

Review: 'Chinese Shadows' by Simon Leys

It seems commonplace on websites concerned with China to review new books coming out in the field, with these latest releases adding to the vast array of titles published on 20th century China in the last 30 to 40 years. However, with the intention of leaving these new titles to the scrutiny of others, Sino-Gist will instead take a glance at some of the best books on Chinese affairs written since 1960. To start this series of posts, Simon Leys' 'Chinese Shadows':

First published in French with the title 'Ombres Chinoises' in 1974, and released in English translation in 1977, 'Chinese Shadows' by Simon Leys (the pseudonym for sinologist Pierre Ryckmans) is a frank and (as the author admits) not objective book of observations and reflections on the People's Republic of China as it was when the author visited in 1972. As the dust jacket to the Viking edition of the work states, the book 'aroused a storm of controversy' when it was released in France. It is not hard to see why: Leys takes the reader behind the smokescreen set up by China's authorities and reveals (using his first-hand experience) some of the harsher truths behind a China still in the midst of the decade-long Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Leys' fascinating insights are commonly known to us now. The copious study of the Cultural Revolution in both China and the West has revealed some of the horrifying results of Mao's last great throw of the revolutionary dice. Thus, it is hard to gauge 35 years later the impact 'Chinese Shadows' had on perceptions of China at the time, especially following the revelations made in the author's 'Les Habits Neufs du Président Mao', which was released a couple of years beforehand However, even now, the reader is still infused with a unique sense of the catastrophe the Cultural Revolution represented for China. This is epitomised as part of Leys' observations on the changing nature of Beijing under the CCP's rule- the destruction of Beijing's historic Imperial architecture and monuments remain as heart-wrenching as they must have been in 1974.

As mentioned earlier, 'Chinese Shadows' does not aim for objectivity. Indeed, it does not take long to realise the author's deep personal attachment to China. While his (in his own words) 'negative impressions' sometimes hamper the book's descriptions and arguments, it does not pretend to be a work of history. Rather, Simon Leys is writing in the hope that (to paraphrase the post scriptum) one day he can produce a much more positive assessment of China . Today, there are certainly better books on the Cultural Revolution available to those interested in the period, and the same could be said for many of the topics (be they politics, society or something else) that Leys covers. However, there are few memoirs about China that exude as much genuine conviction- that alone makes 'Chinese Shadows' a book well worth reading.

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