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The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics, by Simon Leys. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston/A New Republic Book. 257 pp. $16.95. The pages of Leys's fourth book on China are characterized by wit, learning, eloquence, and passion.

The subject matter ranges from general aesthetics, to ruminations on early travelers in China, to the enormous tragedy of Maoism, to appreciations of Chinese thinkers and writers, to biting critiques of the thought of so-called China experts.

The book's effect on the general reader is unfailingly tonic.

It's positively exhilarating to hear Leys on the gentlemanly art of China-watching as practiced by a biographer of Mao. Our expert once claimed that Maoism had worked ``miracles in all areas'': feeding the huge population, improving public health, and so on.

When the Chinese leadership exposed the ``dark reality of Maoism,'' the China expert had to shift with the wind. His apologetic intent survived, however.

Now he saves his image of China by suggesting that the West is equally ``guilty.'' Leys quotes him as writing, ``The Chinese had their own Watergate, and worse.''

Then Leys adds: ``(Note the use of `worse'; compare with `Smith cut himself while shaving, Jones had his head cut off on the guillotine; Jones's cut was worse.')''

China is so different, the argument goes, that whoever describes it may in fact be describing only his own fantasies. That argument, of course, has been used to rationalize Maoism. In a classic essay on totalitarianism, ``Human Rights in China,'' Leys reveals the tragic conflict between the ancient tradition of morality in China and the communist system. Leys does not believe that that system has purged itself since Mao.

Anyone inclined to trust appearances (at least those appearances created for us by the media and most China experts) must read the essay carefully, which, as always in these essays, treats the problem of thinking about China in its full context. ``What happened to the Maoists in China reminds us of the fate of the cannibals in a certain tropical republic, as described by Alexandre Vialatte: `There are no more cannibals in that country since the local authorities ate the last ones.' ''

Westerners have always been troubled by China, of course. Leys's essays on the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and the French Lazarist called Pere Huc (1813-1860) are informed by deep fellow-feeling. The essay on Ricci contains valuable criticism of the recently popular ``The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci,'' by Jonathan Spence, whom Leys calls the Picasso of Chinese studies.

Though there is plenty to be indignant about, Leys is motivated by more than indignation. In ``Poetry and Painting: aspects of Chinese classical aesthetics,'' Leys proves the depth of his love for China. His comments on the ways the Chinese practiced these arts provide valuable insights into all art. The luminous pages on the so-called poet-painter Wang Wei, few though they be, balance the pages and pages of darker, brooding, sometimes savagely indignant commentary on the capacity of China ``experts'' to fool themselves.

The great Chinese poets and painters considered themselves partners with the law behind cosmic creation. The poet Li He (790-816) wrote: ``The poet's brush completes the universal creation.'' That the present totalitarian effort to remake man in the image of socialist ideals is a tragic parody of the great Chinese insight does not escape the reader of ``The Burning Forest.''

Shivers of insight are provided on every page of this cogent, witty, humane, and deeply disturbing book. One has the feeling it is worthy of its subject. As long as the China experts are around, we will need Simon Leys. After that, his books will be one of the luxuries of civilized life.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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