When I was 10 years old I met a missionary who had spent most of his life in China ; this event triggered my interest in China. It took some time before I actually had the chance to learn more about China. It was only, at the end of sixties, that I had the opportunity to study basic classical Chinese at the University of Louvain in addition to my Engineering studies.
The Cultural Revolution was, at that time, already on-going but our professor, who came from Taiwan, refused to talk about it. The only sources on what was going on in China were newspapers and television. But given the difficulties for foreign journalists to visit China these sources were not always reliable.
There was of course also the Little Red Book containing quotations from the books, interviews and speeches of Mao. I bought the book as soon as available in Europe but I was very disappointed by its contents I had hoped that it would have shed some light on the Cultural Revolution but it didn’t.
In September 1969 I left for Zaire where it was even more difficult to be informed. We lived in a remote area with only a few hours of electricity per day. Our only sources of information were radio short wave stations, Post mail, sometimes books sent from Europe.
I kept contact with some students attending the Chinese lessons and one of them sent me a book “Les Habits neufs du président Mao”; published in 1971 and written by a Belgian author ; Simon Leys. I had some difficulties in accepting his analysis of the Cultural Revolution. I was certainly biased by the severe critics emanating from the French “Maoists” against Simon Leys. In the absence of sufficient information and the workload as a teacher, China went out of my mind.
Some years later, back in Europe I found a job as an engineer with strong ties with law. I never had thought that one day I would study law but eventually this happened when I enrolled on law at the University of Leiden (The Netherlands). Leiden is one of the oldest universities in the world founded in 1575. I knew from my studies that it was famous for physics with Nobel Prize winners such as Kamerlingh Onnes, Hendrik Antoon Lorentz and Pieter Zeeman. My first engineering graduation study was: “Study of the Zeeman effect under a pulsed magnetic field”. as chance would have it, I registered in Pieter Zeeman’s university!
I was, however, not aware that the University of Leiden is also renowned for Law. One of the greatest lawyers “Hugo Grotius” studied at the University. I also learned that the University had an important Chinese Library which I visited regularly in particular to read newspapers (in English) on the changes which were taking place in China.
Over the years I had bought many books on Chinese philosophy in particular on Confucius and Confucianism it came to me as a surprise that suddenly an anti-Confucius action started in China.
The “Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius” was indeed one of the interesting topics in Chinese politics those days and when I was obliged to present a study in the frame of courses on political sciences I proposed to my Professor a study on the Political ideas in Confucianism. It took him some time before accepting; he had hoped that with my scientific background I would write something on Wittgenstein’s logic. He finally accepted on the express condition that in one way or another I would integrate Wittgenstein’s “philosophy” in my study, which I did!
The “Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius” was a very complicated debate; Lin Biao died in September 1971 when his plane crashed in Mongolia at least that is the official version. He could thus not be an opponent to Mao’s politics. Confucius was different, although “Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius” would indicate that the action is against Confucius in reality it was against the so-called “Contemporary Confucius”, as mentioned on the poster. The target of the expression “Contemporary Confucius” was nobody else than Zhou EnLai the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, serving from October 1949 until his death in January 1976.
Since then I have been following Chinese Contemporary History. In parallel I continued to read books on Chinese philosophy and Culture. Whenever I travelled to China even for business I always took some time off for learning more about it.
Over the years I also learned more about Simon Leys and I loved the fact that he had chosen his pseudonym after having read “René Leys” from Victor Segalen; a wonderful book. I had hoped to meet him in person when I was in Australia lecturing at a yearly summer school, but he passed away too soon.