Book Review

On a Chinese Screen by W. Somerset Maugham

Very Colonial travel writing from author of The Painted Veil

Left my book at home…

On A Chinese Screen is an odd book, written by stalwart man of letters W. Somerset Maugham as he travelled through China in 1919. This short book combines travel anecdotes, character sketches and occasional pieces of short fiction, all of which attempt to evoke his experience of China as it happened. The 58 short chapters (the book is only 152 pages long) are loosely connected, there is no explanation of aim or plan or motivation for the journey, and it is only on the blurb on the back of the book that a reader is offered any explanation of what the volume combines: this is nothing more than the collated notes Maugham made while travelling.

Fine, then: a literary curio.

It sounds like a posthumous book, doesn’t it? A collating together of loitering, unpublished bits of paper all meant to elucidate the period when Maugham wrote arguably his most successful novel, The Painted Veil, maybe to cover funeral costs. But, no: On a Chinese Screen was published in 1922, 43 years before Maugham’s death. This means that this odd little book was intended to be released as such, was viewed as finished, and this goes a long way towards explaining why Maugham’s output was so prolific: how much more of his oeuvre is just barely edited notebooks!?

The China Maugham evokes and explores is very different from the China of today, and the way he approaches it is – I hope – different from the majority of modern day travellers. Maugham’s secondary mode of transport (boats are most frequent) is “the chair”, which is a chair carried on the shoulders of four “coolies”. The literally-elevated status and racial superiority implied by this transportation method exists throughout the text: there are very few interactions recorded with Chinese people, instead Maugham bungles through China from missionary to merchant to embassy to consulate. There is no pretence, no attempt, to write about the lived experience of native Chinese people, but if there were he’d be guessing, projecting, onto a Chinese screen.

This projection is what he is already doing with his own experiences and those of his peers: China is a background, a flat, unexplored landscape upon which things happen – there is no depth to his exploration of the country, and one could change it to any far away and non-European place to create the same effect.

The white people Maugham meets are all variants on the Kurtz-figure: trapped, corrupted, isolated, by their distance from “home”. There are missionaries who hate themselves, hate their remembered homeland, hate the people they help, hate the impulse that led them there; there are merchants whose business interests have collapsed, who used the excuse of the First World War to avoid their family left behind in Europe or the Americas for several years and found themselves floundering, in 1919, and desperate for an excuse to remain. There is opium and easy prostitution, there is wealth and anonymity and a presumed superiority that – in On a Chinese Screen – is never questioned. The white men do receive preferential treatment from Chinese authorities, Chinese businessmen and Chinese people generally: this is a distorted, deeply colonial view of China and it is troubling. The lack of shame at being carried through cities and up mountains on a chair on people’s shoulders is worrying, as too is the section that lionises one British official who doesn’t like to use “the chair”, though obviously he does “when he needs to”. There is also the repeated assertion that foreigners in China don’t bother to learn Chinese, and don’t need to, and this starts off as something you feel Maugham is making fun of – for it is ridiculous to live in a country for decades and not even try to learn the language – but towards the end of this collection the reader feels like he’s been sucked into accepting it. Yes, of course the white man doesn’t need Chinese language: like the use of opium, it’s a sign that he’s been corrupted by China and has lost a part of himself. It rots the brain, one missionary asserts, so of course it should be avoided. Many of the men and women Maugham meets have tried to replicate their English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Canadian, American homes within China: to paraphrase an observation: “the room was perhaps not chic enough to have been found in one of the fashionable parts of central London, but it certainly would not have been out of place in a provincial town such as Bath or Bournemouth.” The foreigners in China are interested in the country only where it supports their own ideas of self: they are there to make money, to patronisingly evangelise a bullshit spirituality (like Christianity has ANYTHING to offer over Buddhism) or to escape from the “real world”, to disappear. Re: the latter, though: no man who turns up in the prose of W. Somerset Maugham has truly disappeared, no matter how mysterious his cameo may make him seem.

As the text goes on, Maugham begins including short stories. The first time this happened I presumed I’d read something wrong and flicked back looking for an absent justification heralding the shift in tone. Most of the stories have an edge of unreality to them, different to the rest of the prose here: one story (which I feel I’ve read before, but not even my near-omniscient dog knows where) is a Gothic tale about a man hallucinating his own grave, then dying. The stories use location in an even more incidental manner, and the Chinese character and the reality of life in China – rather than life anywhere other than “the West” – is poorly explored. Maugham does offer some interesting, sensual, descriptions of cities, but always with an aloofness – understandable when witnessing everything borne on the shoulders of quasi-slaves.

Maugham misses a trick, and this is what clarifies that these are notes and not polished prose: he doesn’t engage with his subject, or his reading of it. He doesn’t question attitudes or draw attention to the problems they create, though I do seem to remember that he does so in The Painted Veil (though I read that about 10 years ago so can’t remember accurately). Maugham settles in for his shoulder rides and enjoys himself, but how much of what he experiences is interesting to the modern reader is difficult to say. If this had been more than a three/four hour read, I think I’d have gotten bored. There’s no forward motion, no development of idea or character, and these small sketches of men and women (though mostly men) a long way from “home” do offer depressing insights into the reality of their lives at that time, but the narrative for every one is basically the same: they’re unhappy because they’re isolated from “society”, but they’ve been isolated for so long they don’t feel able to return. China, in On a Chinese Screen, is outside, is fantasy, is a sensual, visceral, distant land akin to a fairy kingdom. “If you eat the food you can never return home,” that kinda thing.

On a Chinese Screen doesn’t work as a whole, but if you’re interested in writers’ notebooks – as I am (review of Forster’s here) – and don’t have one of those trendy, angry attitudes where you hate travel writing that doesn’t engage with the experience of natives (which I’m almost trendy enough to have), then you might enjoy this, especially if you’re a fan of The Painted Veil. Interesting, in places, but very, very dated.

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