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March 11, 2018

Simon Leys: Navigator Between Worlds

by N@ncy

Pierre Ryckmans ( pen-name:  S. Leys)   (1935-2104)


  • Author: P. Paquet
  • Title: Simon Leys: Navigator Between Worlds  (550 pg)
  • Published: 2016 (English translation 2017)




  1. This book explores an extraordinary life.
  2. Pierre Ryckmans was born in Belgium, where he trained
  3. in art history but wanted to become a painter.
  4. He first went to China when he was nineteen.
  5. Later, he became a scathing critic of Mao and Maoism
  6. He moved to Australia in 1970 with his wife and four children.
  7. He wrote the controversial book The Chairman’s New Clothes (1971)
  8. He also wrote  The Death of Napoleon (piece of alternative history )
  9. and many  masterful essays published in The Monthly and  Quadrant.
  10. Pierre Ryckmans came under attack
  11. when he exposed the brutal reality of
  12. …China’s Cultural Revolution to the West.
  13. This expert on China dared to criticize
  14. …Mao’s cultural revolution and
  15. …the gullibility of western sinophiles.


What did he publish in 1971?

Controversial book:  The Chairman’s New Clothes
Subject: assessment of the first two decades of Chinese communist regime
Goal: exposed the brutal reality of  Maoism…just report the facts.
Tone:  combative


What was Simon Leys’  core message?

  1. The Cultural Revolution
  2. had nothing revolutionary about it except the name.’
  3. It was basically a ‘power struggle waged at the top between a
  4. handful of men and behind the
  5. smokescreen of a fictitious mass movement.’



  1. The name Simon Leys  probably does not ring a bell.
  2. He was rarely heard on the radio or TV.
  3. He boycotted book fairs and writer’s festivals.
  4. But Leys is considered one of the greatest
  5. intellectuals to have lived in Australia.
  6. Leys  writes in English and Chinese.
  7. “His style is immaculate
  8. …as a marble staircase in a palace
  9. …..he cleans it 20 times a day”.
  10. I loved the epigraph that Leys used
  11. …in the book The Chairman’s New Clothes
  12. “The yes-yes of the crowd carries
  13. …less weight than the no-no of one decent man.”
  14. (Sima Qian, great Chinese historian 145 BC – 86 BC)
  15. While reading this biography of Pierre Ryckmans
  16. ….I am also watching the changes in China at the moment.
  17. Xi Jinping can remain as a life long president.
  18. The power remains still with a handful of men.
  19. This book was very detailed and long.
  20. I had to skim some parts and concentrate on the more
  21. …important information.
  22. I was not interested in the day-to-day struggle that
  23. …ensued to get Leys’ book published in Paris in 1971.



  1. Simon Leys thought any Western reader
  2. …no matter how unprepared
  3. he is to approach the Chinese universe can acquire a simple and
  4. just intuition to the human condition by reading two little books:
  5. Six Records of a Floating Life (Shen Fu, 1763-1825) and
  6. The Execution of Mayor Yin (Chen Jo-hsi, 1938) 8 short stories.
Read more from biography, non-fiction

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