The Burning Forest

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

In his book Hombres Chinoises (1975; Chinese Shadows, 1977), Simon Leys launched a one-man campaign against the ideological wishfulness and scholarly torpor that characterize much contemporary writing about the People’s Republic of China. More specifically, Leys, who was born Pierre Ryckmans in Brussels and teaches Chinese literature at the Australian National University in Canberra, took issue with those “China experts” and other observers who had failed to grasp or accurately portray the full destructiveness and inhumanity of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This phase of the Chinese revolution took place from 1966 to 1969 with the approval of “the Great Helmsman,” Mao Tse-tung. Idealized earlier by well-known authors such as William Hinton and Jan Myrdal, the Cultural Revolution had been largely discredited by the time Chinese Shadows was published. What distinguished Leys from many others who described the brutality of the Cultural Revolution was his insistence that the evils of the Communist regime in China had persisted beyond and went deeper than the Cultural Revolution itself. This belief also informs The Burning Forest (published in France in 1983 as La forêt en feu), providing it with unity, coherence, and power rarely found in a compilation of essays. It also makes the book rather polemical. This leads in turn to some unevenness in the quality of the essays; it also limits the book’s persuasiveness.

The book begins innocently enough with a section entitled “Culture.” The first essay is an engaging analysis of classical Chinese poetry and painting. While one may argue with some of Leys’s conclusions, his descriptions of Chinese painting and quotations from Chinese poetry are undeniably stimulating. In addition, his general point is expressed with admirable clarity: Chinese culture is different from and in some ways superior to that of the West. In particular, where Western art and poetry seek to objectify and represent the world, becoming alienated from nature, their Chinese counterparts seek the magic of actual creation. Thus Chinese poetry and painting become “the highest incarnation of China’s true religion, which is a quest for cosmic harmony, an attempt to achieve communion with the world.”

Leys then offers a variation on this theme by examining several early encounters between Westerners and Chinese society. His first subject is the nineteenth century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. While most of his companions were being demoralized by their encounters with China and, more particularly, the indifference of the Chinese to Christianity, Ricci won an enormous amount of respect from the Chinese. According to Leys, Ricci achieved acceptance—if not a great number of conversions—because he “discovered that in order to convert China to Christianity he should first convert himself to China.” In time, a church that violated neither Chinese nor Catholic values came to exist, this after a period of coercive church growth tied to Western imperialism and an understandably anti-Christian reaction on the part of the Chinese. It is at this point that Leys takes his first swipe at the Communist regime in China, asserting that serious persecution of Christians in China began only after the Communists came to power. Moreover, Leys argues that this persecution, despite a brief relaxation after Mao’s death, continues in the 1980’s.

Leys then moves on, in his longest and most cleverly titled essay (actually a number of separate pieces strung together), to a discussion of the “Peregrinations and Perplexities of Père Huc.” Huc and Joseph Gabet were Lazarist missionaries who traveled extensively in China in about the middle of the nineteenth century. Huc subsequently wrote a rich and detailed account of their journey, becoming one of the first Westerners to present China to a broad reading audience. Though critical of Huc’s later works, Leys thinks highly of the original memoir, and he quotes from it freely and very effectively. It is interesting that both Huc and Gabet were unable to reacclimate themselves to the Lazarist discipline when they returned to Europe. Apparently both had been deeply transformed by their China experience. Huc’s attitude toward China was complex. Toward the end of his life, he was nothing more or less than a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist. Earlier, however, he seemed to have had a true eye for Chinese life and a healthy appreciation for the genius and civility of Chinese culture. Yet he also detected cracks in China’s imperial form of government, and he predicted its imminent demise, a point to which Leys later returns.

Leys follows with a brief,...

(The entire section is 1926 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, November 15, 1985, p. 1245.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, December 22, 1985, p. 10.

The New Yorker. LXI, February 10, 1986, p. 113.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, November 29, 1985, p. 43.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVII, January 23, 1986, p. 30.