Jiǎ Yǐ Bǐng Dīng (2015) - Tribute to Professor Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans)

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

NB: A came across this tribute to Simon Leys accidentally, via a link in a report on current political developments in the PRC. Professor Leys was a scholar, master of translation, and a lover of Chinese art and culture. His book Chinese Shadows opened many eyes, including mine, to the vandalism of Mao's Cultural Revolution. His last published work, The Hall of Uselessness (2014) is one of the most scintillating collection of essays I have ever read. I'm privileged to have conveyed my regard to him personally, in a visit to the ANU campus in Canberra 1979. DS

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 : 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...

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).

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 : Geremie R Barmé.. read more:

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