THE BURNING FOREST: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics by Simon Leys

THE BURNING FOREST: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics

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A wide-ranging but mean-spirited collection of essays on China, mostly reprinted from earlier publication in such journals as Dissent and The New Republic. Leys undercuts his one asset--a breadth of information ranging from classical Chinese poetry and painting to today's post-Maoist milieu--by the persistent narrowness of his thinking. Here is Leys in a typically dismissive reflection on Red China: "". . .it is obviously too early now to attempt an evaluation of thirty years of illiterates' rule."" Of another safe target, Edward Said's controversial book Orientalism, Leys remarks ""[This book could only have been written by] a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder and a very dim understanding of the European academic tradition (here perceived through the distorted prism of a certain type of American university, with its brutish hyperspecialization, nonhumanistic approach, and close, unhealthy links with government.)"" Said, who is a specialist in 19th-century European fiction, was attacked for Orientalism in part because he departed from ""hyperspecialization""--moving onto interdisciplinary turf (East/West cultural perspectives) that the Orientalists like to view as their private domain. That's no chip on Leys' shoulder--it's a two-ton cargo of some unspecified but immense resentment. The unrepentant Don Rickles of Sinology, he again and again uses vituperation in place of reasoned refutation or debate. He seems to see no difference between an intellectual and a gadfly--or between an essay and a sustained harangue--but the hapless reader who picks up this book hoping to learn more about China is likely to put it down more exhausted than enlightened. A book about China that neither romanticizes the Revolution nor ignores this rich and strange empire's history before Mao's ascendency is still badly needed; Leys does not provide it.

Pub Date: Jan. 20th, 1985
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston