CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 26, June 2011


An Interview with Pierre Ryckmans | China Heritage Quarterly

An Interview with Pierre Ryckmans

Daniel Sanderson
The Australian National University

The following interview was originally published in the Chinese Studies Association of Australia Newsletter, No.41 (February 2011). It was conducted via correspondence between Daniel Sanderson, the editor of the Newsletter, and Pierre Ryckmans. China Heritage Quarterly takes pleasure in reproducing it here with permission and adding it to our archive related to New Sinology.

In The Hall of Uselessness: collected essays published in mid 2011, Professor Ryckmans includes the text of a speech he made in March 2006 entitled 'The Idea of the University'. Discussing the tension between intellectual creativity at universities and the creep of managerialism that has increasingly benighted the life of the mind at universities 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 tired 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'.

—'The Idea of the University', in Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness—collected essays, Collingwood, Victoria: Black Inc., 2011, p.398.

From September 2011 over four issues of this e-journal we will serialize Professor Ryckmans' Boyer Lectures, Aspects of Culture: A View From the Bridge, originally broadcast by ABC Radio National in 1996.—The Editor

An internationally renowned Sinologist, Professor Ryckmans spent seventeen years teaching at The Australian National University and six years as Professor of Chinese at the University of Sydney. Having retired from academic life in 1993, he remains a regular contributor to a range of publications including The New York Review of Books, Le Figaro Littéraire and The Monthly. Throughout his career, Ryckmans has combined meticulous scholarship and a vigorous public engagement with contemporary political and intellectual issues. His elegant yet forthright style is evident in these responses to questions submitted by the CSAA Newsletter.—Daniel Sanderson

Daniel Sanderson: Can you tell us about your childhood and teenage years? Where were you born? Where did you grow up? What kind of family life did you have as a child?

Pierre Ryckmans: I was born and grew up in Brussels; I had a happy childhood. To paraphrase Tolstoy: all happy childhoods are alike—(warm affection and much laughter—the recipe seems simple enough.)
The main benefit of this is that later on in life, one feels no compulsion to waste time in 'The Pursuit of Happiness'—a rather foolish enterprise: as if happiness was something you could chase after.

DS: What form did your early education take?

PR: A traditional-classic education (Latin—Greek).

DS: Was China in any way an element of your childhood? Was there, for instance, any scope to study Chinese history or politics, or the Chinese language, at school?

PR: No—nothing at all (alas!).

DS: You studied law and art history at the Université Catholique de Louvain [now the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven]. This seems an unusual combination. What drew you to these subjects? Were you influenced particularly by any of your teachers?

PR: I studied Law to follow a family tradition, and Art History to follow my personal interest.
At university, personal contacts, intellectual debates and exchanges with friends and schoolmates (many of whom came from Asia and Latin America) were far more important, enriching and memorable than most lectures. Lately I noted with pleasure that John Henry Newman already made a similar observation in his great classic The Idea of a University (1852).

DS: I understand you visited the People's Republic of China with a group of Belgian students in 1955. How was this visit arranged? What was your impression of the New China at that time? Did you ever return to the PRC? If so, under what circumstances? Do you think that some experience of living in China is necessary for the scholar of China?

PR: The Chinese Government had invited a delegation of Belgian Youth (10 delegates—I was the youngest, age nineteen) to visit China for one month (May 1955). The voyage—smoothly organized—took us to the usual famous spots, climaxing in a one-hour private audience with Zhou Enlai.
My overwhelming impression (a conclusion to which I remained faithful for the rest of my life) was that it would be inconceivable to live in this world, in our age, without a good knowledge of Chinese language and a direct access to Chinese culture.

DS: What did you do after completing your undergraduate degree? Did you progress directly to further study? Did you ever consider a career outside the academy?

Fig.1 Portrait of Pierre Ryckmans by Mathew Lynn (2010). This portrait was the winner of the 2010 Shirley Hannan National Portrait Award.

PR: I started learning Chinese. Since, at that time, no scholarship was available to go to China, I went to Taiwan. I had no 'career' plan whatsoever. I simply wished to know Chinese and acquire a deeper appreciations of Chinese culture.

DS: I would like to learn something about your PhD. What was your topic? Why was it important to you?

PR: Loving Western painting, quite naturally I became enthralled with Chinese painting (and calligraphy) – and I developed a special interest for what the Chinese wrote on the subject of painting: traditionally, the greatest painters were also scholars, poets, men of letters – hence the development of an extraordinarily rich, eloquent and articulate literature on painting, philosophical, critical, historical and technical.
We are often tempted to do research on topics that are somewhat marginal and lesser-known, since, on these, it is easier to produce original work. But one of my Chinese masters gave me a most valuable advice: 'Always devote yourself to the study of great works—works of fundamental importance—and your effort will never be wasted.' Thus, for my PhD thesis, I chose to translate and comment what is generally considered as a masterpiece, the treatise on painting by Shitao, a creative genius of the early eighteenth century; he addresses the essential questions: Why does one paint? How should one paint? Among all my books, this one, first published forty years ago, has never gone out of print—and, to my delight, it is read by painters much more than by sinologists!

DS: You lived for some years in Taiwan, also spending time in Hong Kong and Singapore. Do you think your time spent on the 'periphery' of China has influenced your approach to the study of China?

PR: During some twelve years, I lived and worked successively in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong (plus six months in Japan). It was a happy period of intense activity—living and learning in an environment where all my friends became my teachers, and all my teachers, my friends. I am fond of a saying by Prince de Ligne (a writer I much admire): 'Let each one examine what he has most desired. If he is happy, it is because his wishes have not been granted.' For some years, I had wished I could study in China; but now, in retrospect, I realise that, had I been given such a chance at that particular time (1958-1970), I would never have been allowed to enjoy in China such rich, diverse, easy and close human contacts.

DS: 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?

PR: 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: for the speeches made by Pierre Ryckmans and John Minford at the commemorative service held for Professor Liu at ANU on 24 August 2009, see: ] 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.

DS: The 1970s were a period of great political division within the field of Chinese Studies, and across society at large. The iconoclasm of the Cultural Revolution was attractive to many in the West. It was in this context that your book, The Chairman's New Clothes, appeared in 1971, bursting the Maoist bubble. This was followed in 1976 by the equally controversial Chinese Shadows. Both these works stirred considerable debate in Europe. What was the reaction in Australia, particularly within the Chinese Studies community? Were you ever attracted to the Maoist experiment yourself?

PR: My own interest, my own field of work is Chinese literature and Chinese painting. When commenting on Chinese contemporary politics, I was merely stating common sense evidence and common knowledge. But at that time, this may indeed have disturbed some fools here and there—which, in the end, did not matter very much.

DS: Do you think political engagement is a necessary part of the intellectual life?

PR: In a democracy, political engagement is a necessary part of everyone's life. (The political views of the greatest philosopher on earth may well be more silly than those of his ignorant housekeeper.)

DS: You spent seventeen years at ANU and a further six years at the University of Sydney engaged in the study and teaching of Chinese literature. Can you comment on the changes you saw within Chinese Studies at those institutions, and in Australia more generally, during that time?

PR: I am poorly informed on more recent developments (I left academic life sixteen years ago). When things began to change (education becoming mere training) and took an orientation that corresponded no longer to what I always believed a university ought to be, I opted for early retirement. In front of younger colleagues who keep bravely fighting the good fight, I feel like a deserter, ill-qualified to make further comments.

DS: It is perhaps a reductive question, but I wonder whether you could tell me what it is about the literature of China that you find appealing?

PR: The virtue and power of the Chinese literary language culminates in its classical poetry. Chinese classical poetry seems to me the purest, the most perfect and complete form of poetry one could conceive of. Better that any other poetry, it fits Auden's definition: 'memorable speech': and indeed, it carves itself effortlessly into your memory. Furthermore, like painting, it splendidly occupies a visual space in its calligraphic incarnations. It inhabits your mind, it accompanies your life, it sustains and illuminates your daily experiences.

DS: Why, in your opinion, is the study of China necessary in Australia? Or, indeed, is it necessary at all?

PR: Why is scholarly knowledge necessary in Australia? And why culture?

DS: A large proportion of your writing has been aimed at a general readership. Do you think academics, and China scholars in particular, bear a responsibility to communicate with the public?

PR: Sidney Hook said that the first moral obligation of an intellectual is to be intelligent. Regarding academics and China scholars one might paraphrase this statement and say that their first duty is to master their discipline. Yet communicating with the public is a special talent; very learned scholars do not necessarily possess it.

DS: Though based in Canberra, you continue to take part in European political and cultural life through your writings in French. Do you think your physical distance from Europe affects your approach to these issues?

PR: Distance also has its advantages.

DS: What are you reading at the moment?

PR: Leszek Kolekowski, My Correct Views of Everything; F.W. Mote, China and the Vocation of History in the Twentieth Century—A Personal Memoir; and for bedside reading, I keep constantly dipping into two huge collections of sardonic aphorisms (gloriously incorrect!) by two eccentric and lonely geniuses: Cioran's posthumous notebooks (Cahiers) and Nicolás Gómez Dávila's Escolios a un texto implícito (my Spanish is very primitive, but have the help of two volumes of French translations).

DS: When you reflect on your career as a whole, what makes you proudest?

PR: I had various (rather disjointed) activities—not exactly a 'career' on which I can 'reflect'.

DS: Do you have any regrets?

PR: Regrets? Usually what we regret is what we did not do. Let me think about it.

DS: What are your thoughts on the current state of Chinese Studies in Australian universities? Do you think Australian scholars have particular strengths or weaknesses when it comes to the study of China?

PR: As I said earlier, I left academe some sixteen years ago. I am really not in a position to assess the current state of Chinese Studies in Australian universities.

DS: What are your hopes for the future?

PR: May cultural exchanges further develop! (In our capital city, ANU seems particularly well placed for discharging this important task.)

DS: Do you have any advice for aspiring scholars of China?

PR: First of all, learn the Chinese language to the best of your ability (and spend as much time as possible in a Chinese-speaking environment). Language fluency is the key which will open all doors for you—practically and spiritually.

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