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The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese…
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The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics

by Simon Leys

Other authors: Lu Xun (Author), Wei Jingsheng (Author)

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Simon Leys, pseudonym for Pierre Ryckmans, persona non grata in the People's Republic of China, is a China hater. Generations of sinologists, like Ryckmans, who were taught in sinology departments of Western universities or in Taiwan throughout the 1950s till well into the 1990 were lectured by Chinese Professors and lecturers to whom the PRC formed the personification of evil, a sense they neatly impregnated into the minds of their students. These university lecturers grew up and were taught under the old, imperial system, and already lived in the West or fled China which was suffering from its Civil War, or the subsequent Chinese Revolution, which led to the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. To these sinologists, Communism in the first place, and with it the Umwertung aller Werte that took place over two decades, culminating in the Great Proletarian Revolution, was the absolute horror.

While the ulterior motive of the Cultural Revolution may have been a power struggle, there are also theorists, such as MacFarquhar & Schoenhals, who suggest that the cultural destruction, effected by the Cultural revolution, did also have a positive effect by removing cultural traditions which had become shackles, and ultimately break down cultural capital that may have created a sense of class differences in the minds of the Chinese people. In that sense, we should not only focus on the destruction of material culture, but also the destruction of immaterial culture such as the pride of the intelligentsia, ancestor veneration and various other immaterial forms of cultural differences.

True to the spirit of revolution, "high culture" was replaced by "low culture", and while the appreciation of Chinese folk art and primitivism has its parallels in Western art of the same period, the destruction of "upper class" cultural capital was particularly resented by representatives of that class who had evaded or escaped the Chinese Revolution.

Simon Leys was particularly active publishing about Chinese culture and politics during the two decades from the 1970s through 1990s. His later work, while still referring to Chinese culture, is more diversified, including literary criticism closer to home.

Leys critical work about China almost always consists of a toxic mixture of superb literary criticism of some (obscure) Chinese poet or cultural phenomenon, interspersed with essays about "Human rights in China" or other politically motivated essays. Thus, The burning forest. Essays on Chinese culture and politics contains wonderful essays on Chinese Classical Aesthetics, Matteo Ricci, Père Huc and Lu Xun, to represent the former, alongside essays about Human rights in China, the death of Lin Biao, the politics of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, and a section devoted to criticizing the so-called "fellow-travelers", in the form of an essay about Han Suyin and the so-called China experts.

Simon Leys is a persona non grata in the People's Republic of China, as in Chinese eyes he is against China. His criticism is too offensive. However, as I argued elsewhere, in his heart, Simon Leys is FOR China, perhaps not exactly this stage of China's history, but surely its cultural heritage of more than five thousand years, which Leys merely hopes to kindle. ( )
1 vote edwinbcn | Jul 13, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Simon Leysprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lu XunAuthorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wei JingshengAuthorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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