Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian-born scholar of China who challenged a romanticized Western view of Mao Zedong in the 1960s with his early portrayal of Mao’s Cultural Revolution as chaotic and destructive, died on Monday at his home in Sydney, Australia. He was 78.
His daughter, Jeanne Ryckmans, said the cause was cancer.
Mr. Ryckmans, who was better known by his pen name, Simon Leys, fell in love with China at the age of 19 while touring the country with fellow Belgian students in 1955. One highlight was an audience with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. The man-made famine of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and his Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and ended about the time of Mao’s death, in 1976, were still in the future. There was much to be admired in the new China.
Yet pursuing his studies of Chinese art, culture and literature in the People’s Republic itself was not an option for a Westerner, so he settled in Taiwan, where he met his future wife, Han-fang Chang. He also lived in Singapore and Hong Kong.
It was in Hong Kong during the late 1960s, when it was still a British colony, that Mr. Ryckmans (pronounced RICK-mans) began to follow the turmoil just across the frontier, reading accounts in the official Chinese press about the Cultural Revolution and talking to former Mao supporters who had escaped it.
He began to find that the romantic view of Mao harbored by many Western intellectuals — as a progressive if flawed champion of the masses — was completely at odds with the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution, which sought to eradicate Chinese cultural traditions and Western capitalist influences and replace it with a Maoist orthodoxy. The movement led to purges, forced internal exiles and whipsaw shifts in the political winds, and it compelled Mr. Ryckmans to step into the arena of political commentary.
“Until 1966 Chinese politics did not loom large in my preoccupations, and I confidently extended to the Maoist regime the same sympathy I felt for all things Chinese, without giving it more specific thought,” Mr. Ryckmans wrote under his pseudonym in “Chinese Shadows,” which was first published in French in 1974. “But the Cultural Revolution, which I observed from beginning to end from the vantage point of Hong Kong, forced me out of this comfortable ignorance.”
His first account, “The Chairman’s New Clothes,” was also published in French, in 1971, a year after he had settled in Australia, lured by an eminent Chinese literary scholar, Liu Cunren, to teach at Australian National University. Mr. Ryckmans wrote the book under the name Simon Leys to disguise his identity so that he would not be banned from China.
He returned to China in 1972 on a six-month assignment as a cultural attaché for the Belgian Embassy in Beijing. The wanton destruction of the city’s ancient architectural heritage shocked him.
In “Chinese Shadows,” he wrote of his frantic search for some of the most magnificent of the city’s huge gates, which he assumed had been preserved, even though he knew that the city walls had been taken apart starting in the 1950s. The gates were gone. “The destruction of the gates of Peking is, properly speaking, a sacrilege; and what makes it dramatic is not that the authorities had them pulled down but that they remain unable to understand why they pulled them down,” he wrote.
The Cultural Revolution, he found, had destroyed the beauty of Chinese culture and civilization without destroying what needed to be exorcised: the tyranny of arbitrary rule.
In a telephone interview, Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia and a former student of Mr. Ryckmans, called him “the first of the Western Sinologists of the ’60s and ’70s to expose the truth of the cultural desecration that occurred during the Cultural Revolution, ripping away the political veneer from it all and exposing it for what it was: an ugly, violent, internal political struggle within the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao.”
Mr. Rudd added, “He was excoriated at the time by Sinologists who had been captured by the romance which many felt for the Cultural Revolution in the early days.”
The irony, Mr. Rudd said, is that the Chinese leadership moved to repudiate the Cultural Revolution after Mao’s death. Many of the delights of old Beijing — the food stalls, the street dancing on a summer’s evening — did indeed return, as did an appreciation for classical art, literature and, finally, the classical scholar Confucius, who had been vilified by the Maoists. Mr. Ryckmans translated, into English, the “Analects,” the collection of sayings attributed to Confucius.
Yet he did not change with the times. “It was difficult to get Pierre to accept that real, sustainable and positive changes had occurred in the China of the period of ‘reform and opening,’ ” Mr. Rudd said.
More than a Sinologist, Mr. Ryckmans was also a formidable European man of letters, earning doctorates in law and art in Belgium, said Richard Rigby, a China scholar and Mr. Ryckmans’s brother-in-law. His lectures, he added, brought the best of both worlds together.
“He could look at a Chinese painting or maybe something by Orwell and essays by Montaigne and put them all together into a coherent whole,” Mr. Rigby said.
Mr. Ryckmans also wrote a novel, “The Death of Napoleon,” which imagines the deposed emperor escaping from exile on St. Helena and making his way back to France. First published in France in 1986 and then in English in 1992, it was hailed as “an extraordinary book” by the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, writing in The New York Times Book Review, and adapted into a film, with Ian Holm and Hugh Bonneville, in 2002.
Mr. Ryckmans was a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Le Monde and other periodicals and the recipient of several literary prizes.
He was born on Sept. 28, 1935, in Brussels. Besides his daughter, he is survived by his wife; his sons Marc, Etienne and Louis; and two grandchildren.
He also taught at the University of Sydney and spent his later years writing and sailing. A collection of his essays, “The Hall of Uselessness,” discussing topics as far-ranging as “Don Quixote” and Confucius, was published in 2011.
In “Chinese Shadows,” Mr. Ryckmans wrote that even though Mao and his acolytes would leave the scene, and there would be an inevitable relaxation of authoritarian rule, the fundamental characteristics of Communist rule would not change.
“Among various descriptions of Communist China made at different times, one may note differences,” he wrote, “yet if these descriptions have been made conscientiously and perceptively, they will show more than ephemeral journalistic truths, for modifications will be in quantity, never in quality — variations in amplitude, not changes in basic orientation.”