Jiǎ Yǐ Bǐng Dīng 甲乙丙丁: Beginning Chinese with Pierre Ryckmans

In the weeks leading up to the first anniversary of Pierre Ryckmans’ passing this August, the Australian Centre on China in the World commemorated Pierre (Simon Leys) by screening the film adaptation of his 1991 novel La mort de Napoléon, and by reprinting the introduction to and first lecture in his 1996 ABC Boyer Lectures, later published as View from the Bridge: Aspects of Culture (see ‘A Year without Pierre‘, 11 August 2015, The China Story Journal).

Pierre Ryckmans was my mentor and teacher at The Australian National University from 1972 to 1974 and again from 1983 to 1989. The building of the Australian Centre on China in the World, a research centre that I founded with then prime minister Kevin Rudd (also a student of Pierre’s) in April 2010, is within sight of the old Asian Studies Faculty (now the College of Law), where so many students benefitted from Pierre’s graceful pedagogy (see ‘Opening a Building‘ on this website).

The Hall of Uselessness. Seal carved by Simon Leys

The Hall of Uselessness. Imprint of a seal carved by Simon Leys

In his The Hall of Uselessness — collected essays (2011), Pierre includes the text of a speech he made in March 2006 entitled ‘The Idea of the University’. Discussing the tension between intellectual creativity and the woeful creep of managerialism that has increasingly benighted the life of the mind at tertiary institutions, he made the following observation:

Near to the end of his life, Gustave Flaubert wrote in one of his remarkable letters to his dear friend Ivan Turgenev a little phrase that could beautifully summarise my topic. ‘I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.’ These are indeed the two poles of our predicament: on one side, the need for an ‘ivory tower’, and on the other side, the threat of the ‘tide of shit’.*

This reminiscence was written for East Asian History where it will appear with translated excerpts from Pierre’s PhD thesis, itself a heavily annotated translation into French of the Qing-dynasty arts classic, the Hua Yulu 畫語錄 of Shitao 石濤 (see Note 6 below). — Geremie R Barmé


Jiǎ Yǐ Bǐng Dīng


Beginning Chinese with Pierre Ryckmans [1]


人皆求其所未知。而不知求其所已知。— 莊子

People all seek to know what they do not know yet;
they ought rather seek to know what they know already.
Zhuangzi [2]

Gāo-Xiānsheng, nín-hǎo-a?
Mr Gao, how are you?

These words are addressed to Mr Gao by Mr White, Bái Xiānsheng 白先生, or Bái Wénshēng 白文生, the Chinese name of Vincent White, an American college student spending his ‘junior year’ in China.

Nín-hǎo-a? / How are you? It is the most simple Chinese greeting; now a sentence recognised around the globe. I learned it on an early autumn morning in March 1972 sitting in a small lecture room in the Asian Studies Building at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. It was a Monday, the first day of my first term as an undergraduate student. There were about fifteen of us in the class and we had been ushered into the room by a polite, bearded man in his late thirties. Our teacher was tall with a slight stoop, an air of diffidence and a gravelly voice. He greeted us in Chinese, introduced himself as Lǐ Kèmàn 李克曼 and proceeded to read the text of Lesson 1, ‘Greeting Friends’, in John DeFrancis’ Beginning Chinese 初級漢語課本.[3]

I was a reluctant member of the class. I’d left Sydney to pursue a joint major in Buddhist Studies and Classical Chinese in Canberra, but had been frustrated to learn that Classical majors had to suffer through three years of instruction in modern Chinese. I had no interest in learning the modern language and, despite the rebellious atmosphere of the time, the highfalutin rhetoric of Maoist China had been something of a running playground joke back when I studied at Randwick Boys’ High School.[4] And now, here was our teacher: a lanky white fellow, hardly authentic. On top of that, we were confronted by the strange sounds and tones of modern spoken Chinese, along with a confusing romanisation system spelling unpronounceable words starting with ‘q’s’, ‘x’s’ and ‘z’s’. At least, we were told, we didn’t have to learn the simplified, Communist version of Chinese characters until later in our second year.

Dr Ryckmans, Pierre Ryckmans (it would be nearly a decade until I felt comfortable enough to address my teacher as ‘Pierre’), repeated the simple dialogue of Lesson 1. The exchange between Mr Bai and Mr Gao, the Manager of the Three Friends Bookstore 三友書店, was set in a fictional ‘China’ replete with ethereal visions of Suzhou and Hangzhou and populated by men in scholars gowns and suits, ladies in Chinese tunics and cheong-sam and teenage girls in demure school uniforms. Over the following months, we would learn that this fantasy realm was a concoction unique to the DeFrancis texts that made their first appearance a decade earlier, in 1963, and Messrs Bai and Gao were only two characters in the dramatis personae that populated its pages. In the following next sentence of Lesson 1, Mr Gao responds to Mr Bai’s greeting:

Gāo: Wó-hén-hǎo. Nǐ-ne?
I’m fine. And you?

Bái: Hǎo, xièxie-nin. Gāo-Tàitai Gāo-Xiáojie yé-hǎo-ma?
Fine, thank you. And how are Mrs. Gao and Miss Gao?

Gāo: Tāmen-‘dōu-hǎo, xièxie.
They’re both well, thanks.

Bái: Zàijiàn, Gāo-Xiānsheng.
Good-bye, Mr. Gao.

Gāo: Zàijiàn, zàijiàn.
See you again.

Having read the lesson through twice and given a short Chinese Q&A drill, Dr Ryckmans put the textbook aside and introduced us to the characters behind the names of Bai and Gao.

Pierre Ryckmans at ANU in 1971. Source: ANU Reporter

Pierre Ryckmans at ANU, May 1971. Source: ANU Reporter, vol.2, no.6

Bái 白

Each word we would learn from Dr Ryckmans was like a mini-memory palace: the design of the characters themselves like a form of architecture with many rooms and annexes, each revealing another layer of meaning or a delight waiting to be discovered.

Bái 白: white, unadorned, plain, simple, empty, vacant; it was also a surname, one of what we learned were known as the ‘Old Hundred Surnames’ lǎobǎixìng 老百姓, an expression that also meant ‘the common people’. Dr Ryckmans told us that each word in Chinese, no matter how simple or obvious, had a range of meanings either by itself or in combination with other words. These meanings, settling layer upon layer like a sediment over more that two and a-half millennia, made the spoken and written language of China a world of ideas and references.

The word lǎo 老 meant old, venerable, repeatedly, constant. Bái 白 was a surname as well as being a word in common use; while its homophone bǎi 百, one-hundred, sounded similar but was pronounced with a third rather than a second tone. This was our introduction to the tonal system of the language; our head nodding emulation of the tones of ‘ma’ — mā 媽 má 麻 mǎ 馬 mà 罵 ma 嗎 — would follow in a tutorial that afternoon. The tutor who instructed us that day and who worked to perfect our pronunciation over the following year so we could parrot exactly the simple texts of the DeFrancis lectures was also non-Chinese. Mrs Dyer (Svetlana Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer) had grown up in North China and as a result spoke Beijing-accented Chinese, or Jīngpiànzi 京片子, as well as a stern Russian-inflected English and Russian.[5] She would drill us with fierce, although good-humoured, dedication both in class and during what seemed like endless hours in the old huts that housed the Asian Studies language laboratory, listening in and pouncing to correct an arrant pronunciation or careless tone, her voice reverberating through our headsets until the muscles in our mouths had been reeducated to produce the crisp sounds of standard Beijing Chinese.

On that first day, however, we had little inkling that Vincent White would become a stock character in our undergraduate years and that our encounters both with Mr Bai and the word bái 白 itself would continue. We would learn that Dr Ryckmans not only taught Chinese, he was also a formidable art historian, as well as being a fine calligrapher. This was immediately evident that morning when he wrote on the blackboard to reproduce the Chinese characters in our textbook with a graceful, personalised style. We would grow accustomed to his corrections to our language exercises in black ink when he used the kind of Rapidograph nib that he favoured for hand writing.

In high school, I had become enamoured of my mother’s reprint edition of Lin Yutang’s 1938 book The Importance of Living. I particularly liked studying ‘A Chinese Critical Vocabulary’, a glossary of critical aesthetic terms that Lin included at the end of the book, each Chinese character, and its unpronounceable romanised form, being followed by lengthy and beguiling explanations.[6]

In my later undergraduate years, Dr Ryckmans would also teach Chinese art and calligraphy and it was then that he expanded on the repertoire of the word bái 白. I would learn, for example, that liú bái 留白, literally ‘leaving blank’, was a term employed both in painting and calligraphy. It indicated empty spaces, those purposeful voids essential to any composition when creating in the negative the ‘architecture’ of a work, bringing to it a symbolic dimension that mere ink and artifice could not achieve alone. ‘Flying white’ fēi bái 飛白, however, denoted those tendrils of ink in a written character or of a painted stroke that would reveal in a seeming casual manner the structure or ‘bones’ of the work.[7]

Along with this aesthetic induction into the Chinese world, Dr Ryckmans also introduced us with an apolitical sleight of hand to the significance of the word bái 白 in the rampant Maoism of our own day. From my high-school years along with an obsession with yoga, Indian philosophy, Sanskrit and Pali, I had been interested in Chinese thought, and had developed an ironic appreciation of revolutionary history and the Cultural Revolution. Dr Ryckmans, and later our other lecturers, taught us some of Mao’s pithy sayings, including his famous line about China being like a ‘blank sheet of paper’ yīzhāng báizhǐ 一张白纸, a country that was ‘both poor and blank’ yī qióng èr bái 一窮二白. It would be years before I learned that both expressions were from an essay Mao wrote to celebrate socialist co-operatives. ‘Introducing a Cooperative’ was written not long after Pierre visited the People’s Republic as a twenty-year-old student in 1955, a trip that profoundly influenced his study of China.[8] It would also be some time before I understood what bái zhuān 白專, that is ‘white’ (not politically ‘red’ hóng 紅 or reliable) and ‘expert’, meant and the dire implications that an accusation of being ‘white and expert’ had for anyone who knew anything in revolutionary China.

Xiānsheng 先生

Xiānsheng 先生, a word that was all but outlawed on the Mainland at the time we started studying Chinese,[9] provided another explanation of an aspect of Chinese culture. Xiānsheng, literally ‘to have been born before [the speaker]’, consisted of xiān 先, first, initial, earlier, prior, in advance; elder generation, ancestor; deceased; and shēng 生, to be born; come into existence; life, living; alive; be afflicted with or get; light (a fire); unripe or green; raw or uncooked; unprocessed; unrefined; stiff and mechanical; very, extremely; student or pupil; intellectual or scholar; a male role in Peking Opera. To be born first, an elder, a respected individual had been a hallmark of the male-dominated society of the past, and from here Dr Ryckmans spoke of Confucian ideas about hierarchy and the family. Decades later he would publish a renowned annotated translation of the Confucian Analects, but meanwhile, later that same week, in our first Classical Chinese class taught by Professor Liu Ts’un-yan 柳存仁 we would embark upon our own study of Confucianism in the form of a Song-dynasty primer, Three-character Classic, or Sānzì jīng 三字經. Later in the year to distract us from the mounting tedium of reading that text, word by word, a sympathetic Dr Ryckmans taught us our first Chinese joke. It was in the form of a riddle or xiēhòuyǔ 歇後語, literally ‘saying after a pause’ or two-part pun (the first part is like a riddle while the second, often left unsaid, indicates the meaning of the joke to the listener)

He cautioned us that it was vulgar, but he took mischievous delight in telling us anyway:

Kǒngfūzǐ fàng pì / wén qì chōng tiān.
孔夫子放屁 / 文氣沖天。
Confucius farts / his literary air storms heaven.

I remember our lecturer blushing as he explained the riddle, cautioning us never to use expressions like ‘to fart’ fàng pì in normal conversation. But it was 1972, a few scant years before I would be sharing classes with former Red Guards in Shanghai and nearly four years before Mao Zedong’s song-lyric or cí 詞 poem ‘Two Birds: A Dialogue, to the tune of The Charms of Niannu‘ 念奴嬌 · 鳥兒問答 was published, in January 1976. Mao’s poems, thirty-seven of which were published in five tranches between January 1957 and December 1963, two more appearing on New Year’s Day 1976, were hailed in China as the ultimate expression of the ‘Two Combines’ liǎnggè jiéhé 兩結合 creative principle in the arts, that is it married revolutionary realism to revolutionary romanticism.[10] The song-lyric was one of the most hallowed styles of poetry, and ever the rebel Mao had broken with tradition by using the form to stage a satirical dialogue between two birds, a mighty roc 鯤鵬 (Mao) and a wittering sparrow 蓬間雀 (the Soviet revisionist leader Nikita Khrushchev). The poem which compares the fearless roc surveying a world embroiled in warfare to the fearful sparrow who wants to flee conflict. The sparrow seeks refuge in a promised place of peace where, it says:

There’ll be plenty to eat,
Potatoes piping hot,
Beef-filled goulash.

The heroic roc scoffs and dismisses the sparrow with what would become the infamous lines:

bùxū fàng pì!
shìkàn tiāndì fānfù

This was coyly rendered by the trepidatious comrades in the Mao Zedong Poetry Translation Editorial Group in Beijing as:

Stop your windy nonsense!
Look, the world is being turned upside down.[11]

Dr Ryckmans may well have cautioned to be careful about use a mild vulgarism about Confucius passing wind and literary afflatus but, when I was twenty-two and living in the People’s Republic, Mao’s poem was put to music and ceremoniously sung throughout the country, the line bùxū fàng pì! always rendered with particular gusto.[12]

After having explained the range of meanings related to the word ‘white’, and drilled us on the difficult second tone used to pronounce the word bái, Dr Ryckmans proceeded to give us some insight into the surname of Mr White’s interlocutor, Mr Gao, the bookshop proprietor. We learned that the word gāo 高 also meant tall; high; level; degree; loud; high-priced or expensive. We would later study the Tang writer Liu Yuxi’s 劉禹錫 essay ‘My Humble House’ 陋室銘, the first line of which famously uses the word gāo:

Hills are not famous for height alone: ’tis the Genius Loci that invests them with their charm. Lakes are not famous for mere depth: ’tis the residing Dragon that imparts to them a spell not their own.

From a simple greeting, we entered the labyrinth of the Chinese written and spoken language. Over the next three years, I would come to appreciate that our lecturer was a unique guide to the universe of meanings that had, over the millennia of written records, literature and history, accrued to every word-character in the language.

Dr Ryckmans in his study

Dr Ryckmans in his study, 1980s

Hǎo 好

Then Dr Ryckmans returned to the expression ‘Old Hundred Surnames’ lǎobǎixìng 老百姓. He explained that ‘surname’, xìng 姓 was pronounced the same as xìng 性 (character, nature, as well as being an ending used to create abstract nouns); both written characters shared the phonetic element shēng 生, but they had different ‘radicals’ or signifying elements. Whereas xìng 性 (nature; inbred propensity; sex; gender) had a form of the ‘heart radical’ (shùxīnpáng 竖心旁, literally ‘standing heart side element’, or xīnzìpáng忄字旁, ‘side element in the form the character heart 心’) on the left, surname or xìng 姓 had the word nǚ 女, ‘woman’ or ‘the female’ (nǚzìpáng 女字旁). The word surname xìng 姓 shared the ‘woman radical’ with another word we had just learned, hǎo 好: good, well, happy, okay; friendly; satisfied; completed done; easy; in order to; very; quite a few; may, can or should.

The lecturer now explained the components of the word hǎo 好. It consisted of two elements, each a common word and frequently occurring character in its own right: nǚ 女 (woman, female, daughter) and zǐ 子 (child, son, person, young, tender; an ancient suffix for a learned man; seed; copper coin or small thing). He wrote both characters on the blackboard in what we were already realising was a distinctive and trained hand. He also wrote up the ancient Oracle Bone versions of the characters giving us our first insight into the formation and evolution of the Chinese written language. We then repeated after him the word, the sentence it occurred in (Gāo-Xiānsheng, nín-hǎo-a? / Mr Gao, how are you?) and the response in DeFrancis from Mr Gao himself:

Wó-hén-hǎo. Nǐ-ne?
I’m fine. And you?

Dr Ryckmans made this initial passage into colloquial Chinese easy, engaging, enthralling. But our lecturer hadn’t quite finished with the word hǎo 好. With unassuming erudition, he gave us a further insight into the Chinese world of meaning, one in which words, history, the written language and philosophy freely intermingled. He told us that hǎo 好, which could also mean ‘achievement, finished, complete’, featured prominently in the first chapter of China’s most famous novel The Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢 (also known as The Story of the Stone 石頭記), a work that has obsessed Chinese readers and commentators since it first appeared two centuries ago.

The poem in Chapter 1 is simply called ‘Hǎoliǎo gē’ 好了歌, the ‘Well-Done Song’. For many readers it sums up in a few lines the message of the entire book. By now we were in a realm far beyond that of the simple greeting ‘How are you?’ and the meaning of hǎo that could be imagined from the simple sentence Ní-hǎo-ma? Now Dr Ryckmans confronted us with most often used and difficult Chinese grammatical particle: 了 le/ liǎo. The word le 了 indicates: completed action in the past; change of state or situation real or envisaged; it is used to emphasise an excess amount or degree; and can be used to add weight to a command. When pronounced liǎo 了, as in the case of ‘Hǎoliǎo gē’, however, the word means to end, conclude, dispose of; it is an indication of possibility; or to understand. And, over four decades later, I still recall my first encounter with liǎo:

Men all know that salvation should be won,
But with ambition won’t have done, have done.
Where are the famous ones of days gone by?
In grassy graves they lie now, every one.


Nǐ 你 / wǒ 我

Lesson 1 of DeFrancis also introduces students to the first and second person pronouns wǒ 我 and nǐ 你 (as well as nín 您, the polite form of nǐ). Dr Ryckmans drilled the class in their use and ended his lecture by teaching us to our first ‘four-character sentence’ sìzìjù 四字句. It was actually two sentences, but both contain the same four words: nǐ zhōng yǒu wǒ, wǒ zhōng yǒu nǐ 你中有我,我中有你. Over the following lessons we would come back to this expression, ‘there is some of you in me and some of me in you’. It was such an easy way to learn vocabulary (nǐ 你 ‘you’; 中 zhōng ‘inside/ middle/ central/ China’; yǒu 有 ‘have, possess, exist, being’; wǒ 我 ‘I/ me; us’) while acquiring some basic understanding of Chinese culture. This was because nǐ zhōng yǒu wǒ, wǒ zhōng yǒu nǐ was inspired by a fourteenth-century poem, known as the ‘Song of You and Me’, written by Guan Daosheng 管道昇 the wife of the Yuan-dynasty calligrapher Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫. Guan wrote a slightly comic, chiding doggerel verse when she learned that her husband of many years was thinking of taking a concubine:

Surely was never so loving a pair!
For the potter took clay
And he fashioned a me
And modelled a you:
Then, when the whim took him,
He smashed both the ures
And set to again:
Kneaded and worked the clay,
Fashioned another me,
Modelled another you:
So that, you see,
My body is partly you
And you are partly me.


This poem and its imagery have resonated with writers for some six hundred years. The early Qing writer Jin Shengtan 金聖嘆 refers to it in his commentary on the Yuan-dynasty dramatist Wang Shifu’s 王實甫 Record of the Western Chamber 西廂記[16] and again it finds an echo a century later in Shen Fu’s 沈復 Six Chapters on a Floating Life 浮生六記. The image of two commingled beings even finds expression in the 1946 ballad-poem by the Communist writer Li Ji 李季, Wang Gui and Li Xiangxiang 王貴與李香香. In the People’s Republic of China, Li’s poem is still regarded as a classic of revolutionary literature.

Ní-hǎo 你好 / zàijiàn 再見

These two commonplace expression bracketed our first Chinese class, as they would all subsequent classes with Dr Ryckmans. Having delved into the word-clusters related to nǐ and hǎo, we were taught the simplest way of saying goodbye, zàijiàn 再見. What awaited for future classes were the mysteries of the word jiàn 見: to see; catch sight of; meet with; be exposed to; show evidence, appear to be; refer to, see; vide; to call on or to meet, and so on. Our lecturer left us with one last expression, combining words from the lesson, gāo, tall or of a certain height and jiàn. Together they form an honorific term for ‘lofty ideas’ or ‘profound insights’, gāojiàn 高見.

In the three years that I studied modern Chinese, poetry, calligraphy, literature, thought and classics with Dr Ryckmans and the other teachers in ANU’s Chinese Department, I acquired naturally, even imperceptibly an appreciation of what I would eventually describe as ‘New Sinology’ 後漢學.[17] My realisation came in 2005, some thirty-three years after beginning Chinese with Pierre Ryckmans.

Tracks in the Snow 飛鴻踏雪泥

During my undergraduate studies at ANU Dr Ryckmans took a leave of absence to work on establishing a cultural program at the Belgian Embassy in Beijing. It was only on the eve of my first trip to China to study, in October 1974, that I learned about our teacher’s alter ego, Simon Leys, and his 1971 book Les Habits neufs du président Mao (the English version of which, The Chairman’s New Clothes, would not appear until 1977). My encounters with Simon Leys, as well as the story of my return to Canberra in 1983 to pursue doctoral studies with my teacher will be recounted another time.

— 蘇軾

To what should we compare human life? It should be compared to a wild goose trampling on the snow. The snow retains for a moment the imprint of its feet; the goose flies away no one knows where.

Our friend, the old monk, has died; on the ruined wall of the monastery the poem we wrote the other year has become illegible. Do you still remember our past adventures and tribulations? The road is long, the traveller is tired, his limping donkey brays.

Su Shi [18]

November 2015



[*] From ‘The Idea of the University’, in Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness — collected essays, Collingwood, Victoria: Black Inc., 2011, p.398. Dr Ryckmans describes his advent in Canberra in the following way:

Daniel Sanderson: You arrived in Australia in 1970 to take up a position at the Australian National University. How did this come about? What was your role? Can you tell me a little about the atmosphere at ANU during your early years there?

Pierre Ryckmans: Professor Liu Ts’un-yan (Head of the Chinese Department at ANU) came to see me in Hong Kong and invited me to join his department. Thus, with my wife and four (very young) children, we moved to Canberra for what was supposed to be a three-year stay, but turned out to become our final, permanent home. Professor Liu was not only a great scholar, he was also an exquisite man; for me, working in his department till his own retirement (fifteen years later) was sheer bliss — it also coincided with what must have been the golden age of our universities. [Editor’s note: see the speech Pierre Ryckmans wrote for the commemorative service held for Professor Liu at the Great Hall, University House, ANU on 24 August 2009.] Later on, the atmosphere changed — for various politico-economic and other reasons — and I took early retirement. The crisis of Higher Education is a vast problem, and a world phenomenon; I have spoken and written on the subject — there is no need and no space to repeat it here.

See Daniel Sanderson, ‘An Interview with Pierre Ryckmans‘, reprinted in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 26 (June 2011).

[1] Jiǎ 甲 yǐ 乙 bǐng 丙 and dīng 丁 are the first four of the Ten Heavenly or Celestial Stems 天干 which, together with the Twelve Earthly Branches 地支, form China’s traditional calendrical and counting system. The characters for jia yi bing ding are simple to write and the words easy to pronounce; they are sometimes referred to as a ‘Chinese ABCD’ as they are frequently employed to compile lists. When, from 1975, I attended lectures at Liaoning University in Shenyang, our professor of Classical Chinese literature used the Heavenly Stems to divide his four-hour lectures into sections, subsections and sub-subsections.

[2] Translated by Pierre Ryckmans, the Chinese original is in his hand. See Simon Leys, Other People’s Thoughts, Idiosyncratically complied by Simon Leys for the amusement of idle readers, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2007, p.51.

[3] John DeFrancis, Beginning Chinese 初級漢語課本, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1963, pp.3-11. This textbook consists of two volumes: one in Hanyu pinyin romanisation, the other with Chinese characters. The dialogue quoted here, with tonal changes, is taken from DeFrancis.

[4] See my An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975), Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, p.ix and p.2ff.

[5] See William Sima, China & ANU — Diplomats, Adventurers, Scholars, Canberra: ANU Press, 2015, p.108.

[6] See Lin Yutang, ‘A Chinese Critical Vocabulary’, The Importance of Living, London: Heineman, 1936, p.476. I would eventually pay homage to Lin’s critical vocabulary and Pierre Ryckmans’ own guide to Chinese aesthetic terms in his Les propos sur la peinture du moine Citrouille-amère, 1970, a heavily annotated translation of the Qing artist Shitao’s 石濤 Hua Yulu 畫語錄, with the launching in December 2011 of a glossary in the e-journal China Heritage Quarterly. In 2012, this approach would also inform the creation of the Lexicon in The China Story Project. See ‘Introducing the China Heritage Glossary‘, China Heritage Quarterly, No.28 (December 2011); and, The China Story Lexicon.

[7] Some ten years later, Pierre would write: ‘… the brushstroke is applied with an ink load that is deliberately insufficient; in this way, the ink mark is striated with “blanks” that show the inner dynamics of the stroke; this technique is called fei bai, which means “flying white”.’ See Simon Leys, ‘Poetry and Painting: Aspects of Chinese Classical Aesthetics’, reprinted in his The Hall of Uselessness, p.304.

[8] The relevant section of Mao’s ‘Introducing a Cooperative’ reads:

… [T]he outstanding thing about China’s 600 million people is that they are “poor and blank”. This may seem a bad thing, but in reality it is a good thing. Poverty gives rise to the desire for change, the desire for action and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.

See Mao Zedong, ‘Introducing a Cooperative’ 介紹一個合作社, 15 April 1958. This official translation can be found online here.

[9] The writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) was the main exception. Mao Zedong regarded the safely-dead Republican-era writer as a literary paragon and fellow traveller, and as such he was respectfully referred to as ‘Mr Lu Xun’ 魯迅先生, without prejudice. During the High Maoist era, Lu Xun’s works were available in print, and even studied, although in heavily annotated pro-Maoist edition. In other cases, the term Xiānsheng generally denoted bourgeois, self-serving decadents, worthy only of excoriation. So, apart from Mr Lu Xun, everyone else was either a ‘comrade’ 同志 or some species or subspecies of reactionary, revisionist or class enemy.

[10] The expression the ‘Two Combines’ was first used by the Party loyalist scholar, and Mao’s ‘poetry companion’, Guo Moruo 郭沫若 during the Great Leap Forward. Guo extolled the Chairman’s poetic genius and lauded his combination of the ‘two revolutionaries’ in an article published by the fortnightly cultural propaganda journal Literary Gazette 文藝報 (Issue 7, 1958, published in April that year). Thereafter, lengthy theoretical works on the subject of the ‘Two Combines’ appeared and, by the time I was a student in China from 1974, the concept was the bedrock of theoretical cultural analysis.

[11] Mao Tse-tung, ‘Two Birds: A Dialogue — to the tune of Nien Nu Chiao‘, Autumn 1965. The official translation, which is quoted here, can be found online here. For the original, see here. The Mao Zedong Poetry Translation Editorial Group 毛澤東詩詞翻譯定稿組 established in the 1960s to work on the thirty-seven Mao poems released to the public at that time consisted of Ye Junjian 葉君健 and Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書, both of whom were regarded as talented in English as well as Chinese although ideologically suspect, Yuan Shuipai 袁水拍 and Zhao Puchu 趙樸初, with the participation of Qiao Guanhua 喬冠華 (later Foreign Minister) and the advice of Solomon Adler, a trusted UK-born ‘foreign expert’ who did not know Chinese. In 1976, due to his other duties Qiao Guanhua dropped out of the group and was replaced by Zhou Jueliang 周珏良, Deputy Director of the Translation Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Translating Mao’s ‘holy writ’ by committee was a painstaking and drawn-out process, the product often lacklustre and anodyne. An English-language collection of the thirty-nine officially approved Mao poems was published in May 1976 by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing.

[12] There are dozens of xiēhòuyǔ riddles devoted to Confucius, but another punning saying made famous by Mao Zedong in the 1970s revealed the pitfalls of what I would later call ‘Translated China’, a form of what Pierre identifies as ‘politico-religious kitsch’ (see below). In 1970, the pro-Party American journalist Edgar Snow reported on what would be his final encounter with Mao. As he was leaving the Chairman’s book-lined study in the party-state compound of Zhongnanhai, Mao described himself as ‘only a lone monk walking the world with a leaky umbrella’ 和尚打傘 / 無髮[法]無天. In an essay written following Mao’s death in September 1976, Pierre observed that:

With its mixture of humorous humility and exoticism, this utterance had a tremendous impact on Western imagination, already so well attuned to the oriental glamour of the Kung Fu television series. Snow’s command of the Chinese language, even at its best, was never very fluent; some thirty-odd years spent away from China had done little to improve it, and it is no wonder that he failed to recognise in this ‘monk under an umbrella’ (heshang da san) evoked by the chairman a most popular Chinese joke. The expression, in the form of a riddle, calls for the conventional answer ‘no hair’ (since monks keep their heads shaven), ‘no sky’ (it being hidden by the umbrella) — which in turn means by homophone (wu-fa wu-tian) ‘I know no law, I hold nothing sacred.’ The blunt cynicism shown by Mao in referring to such a saying to define his basic attitude was as typical of his bold disregard for diplomatic niceties as its mistaken and sentimental adaptation by Snow is revealing of the compulsion for myth-making, of the demand for politico-religious kitsch among certain types of Western intellectual.

See Simon Leys, ‘Aspects of Mao Zedong’, reprinted in his The Hall of Uselessness, p.334.

[13] This translation is by Herbert Giles, from John Minford and Joseph S M Lau, eds, Classical Chinese Literature, An Anthology of Translations, Volume 1: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty, New York: Columbia University Press/ Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2000, p.1009.

[14] It would be another year before David Hawkes’ magisterial translation of The Golden Days, his first volume of Cao Xueqin’s 曹雪芹 novel, would appear. The stanza quoted here is from Hawkes. The rest of the ‘Well-Done Song’ reads:

Men all know that salvation should be won,
But with their riches won’t have done, have done.
Each day they grumble they’ve not made enough.
When they’ve enough, it’s goodnight everyone!


Men all know that salvation should be won,
But with their loving wives they won’t have done.
The darlings every day protest their love:
But once you’re dead, they’re off with another one.


Men all know that salvation should be won,
But with their children won’t have done, have done.
Yet though of parents fond there is no lack,
Of grateful children saw I ne’er a one.


See Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, Volume 1: The Golden Days, translated by David Hawkes, Penguin, 1973, pp.63-64.

[15] See ‘Chinese: Classical, Modern and Humane’, David Hawkes’ Inaugural Lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 25 May 1961, reprinted in David Hawkes, Classical, Modern and Humane: Essays in Chinese Literature, edited by John Minford and Siu-kit Wong, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1989, pp.3-23; and, online here.

In October 2015, the Chinese party-state leader Xi Jinping adapted nǐ zhōng yǒu wǒ, wǒ zhōng yǒu nǐ 你中有我,我中有你 for his own purposes during a triumphal state visit to the United Kingdom. He used the expression to describe the mutually enabling relationship between the two countries, somewhat chilling declaring that: ‘China and England form a Community of Shared Interest in which there is something of me in you and something of you in me’ 中英成为你中有我我中有你利益共同体. See Chen Xiangyang 陈向阳, ‘Xi Jinping’s Speech in England on “Community of Shared Interest” Leads the Way to a New Era of Global Relations’ 习近平英国演讲 ‘利益共同体’ 引领国际关系新时代, 22 October 2015.

[16] Jin Shengtan’s commentary on the play is one of his ‘Six Works of Genius’ 六才子書. Jin also edited a major edition of the play. Wang Shifu’s Dream of the Western Chamber is based on a Tang-dynasty story by Yuan Zhen 元稹. A romantic prose-drama in which the protagonists enjoy a relationship outside the bonds of marriage, Dream of the Western Chamber was frequently excoriated by Confucian moralists, and they in turn by Jin Shengtan. David Hawkes says that it is: ‘the most famous and best-loved play in the Chinese language, not for its plot — which consists of little more than an affair between a girl of good family and a young scholar lodging at the same monastery as the girl and her mother — but because of the wit and charm of the language and the wonderful way in which atmosphere is evoked by it: there are scenes in which one seems almost to brush the glistening dew and to sense the hushed strangeness of a moonlight night, when the rustle of a small breeze becomes weirdly significant, and the moving shadows of leaves and flowers on a wall may grow sinister or startling.’ From Hawkes, ‘Chinese: Classical, Modern and Humane’.

[17] For a collection of essays on the subject, see ‘New Sinology 後漢學/ 后汉学‘.

[18] Su Shi, ‘Thinking of the Past at Shengchi, in reply to a poem by Ziyou’ 和子由澠池懷舊, translated by Pierre Ryckmans with the Chinese original in his hand. See Leys, Other People’s Thoughts, p.54. Su Shi was responding to a poem by his younger brother, Ziyou (Su Zhe 蘇轍). The original poem by Su Zhe, ‘Recalling Shengchi, sent to my older brother Zizhan’ 懷澠池寄子瞻兄, reads: