William Somerset Maugham was 45 years old when he went on a trip to China in the winter of 1919. Always an astute observer, he jotted down notes, elaborated them, and finally had them published as a book in London. Fortunately, this small volume is now available again as a Vintage Classics paperback in the UK (and in the reviewer's favorite Shanghai bookstore). "On a Chinese Screen" is an appropriate title for the book because it depicts mostly English people against the backdrop of China at the beginning of the century. In 58 short sketches, the longest of which fits on just nine printed pages, Maugham portrays English missionaries, officials, army officers, adventurers and company managers. Maugham gently mocks their narrow-mindedness and indifference towards the country in which they spend a major part of their lives. "On the whole," he remarks, "it made little difference to them in what capital they found themselves, for they did precisely the same things in Constantinople, Berne, Stockholm, and Peking . . . China bored them all, they did not want to speak of that; they only knew just so much about it as was necessary to their business." Their attitude towards the Chinese was one of "mistrust and dislike tempered by optimism," and they did not bother to learn the language.
Whereas Maugham is agreeably malicious in his portraits of the English and their wives, he can get outright scathing and sarcastic when he describes the hypocrisy of protestant missionaries. The Catholics have a better standing with him, which explains why Graham Greene calls Maugham a writer of great dedication. Maugham has a healthy disregard of professedly religious people whose deeds do not live up to their words, no matter whether they are English missionaries who behave as if they were in the civil service or whether they are Chinese farmers who perform the rites "like an old peasant woman in France does her day's housekeeping." Maugham's depiction of the Chinese countryside leaves no lasting impression, yet sometimes he creates images of sheer beauty: "the yellow water in the setting sun was lovely with pale, soft tints, it was as smooth as glass." The focus of his observations are people. Maugham senses the human beings who peek out from behind the roles they play in the scheme of the British Empire. Though he appears to be detached from the hardships of the Chinese, one can feel the effort it takes him to stay aloof when he observes the coolies, the "human beasts of burden", and remarks that their "effort oppresses you. You are filled with a useless compassion." Maugham's most heart-wrenching piece is a story with the innocent title "The Sights of the Town" in which he tells of a so-called baby tower used by the peasants to drop unwanted babies to their deaths. Spanish nuns in the nearby town try to save at least some of the unwanted newborns by paying twenty cents for every one because, as they say, the peasants "have often a long walk to come here and unless we give them something they won't take the trouble."
Maugham, as skeptic and acerbic as he can be, also has a great sense of humor, freshness of observation and unconventionality of comparison. Summing up his impression of an opium den, he writes it reminded him "somewhat of the little intimate beerhouses in Berlin where the tired working man could go in the evening and spend an peaceful hour." Well, I would not compare opium so non-chalantly to beer but his tongue-in-cheek British snobbery is definitely enjoyable. As is his mockingly spiteful aside towards Americans whom he regards to be such extremely practical people "that Harvard is instituting a chair to instruct grandmothers how to suck eggs." My favorite funny piece in the book is Maugham's explanation why democracy gets flushed down by the Western sense of cleanliness. In his words, "it is a tragic thought that the first man who pulled the plug of a water-closet with that negligent gesture rang the knell of democracy." Just check it out. Even if he were not kidding, it would be a side-splitting theory.
Some of the things Maugham observed eighty years ago still apply. For example, "one of the peculiarities of China is that your position excuses your idiosyncrasies." And you can still see people getting their heads shaved on the sidewalk by old barbers. However, I can not report that "others have their ears cleaned, and some, a revolting spectacle, the inside of their eyelids scraped." In general, the life of the Chinese was as impenetrable to Maugham as were the Chinese houses with their monotonous expanse of wall broken only by solid closed doors. Only in the portraits of an old Chinese philosopher (who impotently dreams of the old and better China) and a young drama professor (who lacks any broader vision of China) we get a glimpse of the inner lives of the Chinese.
The back cover of the Vintage Classics paperback edition shows a photo of the middle-aged Maugham. Turning his head to the observer, he has a look of weary curiosity in his eyes and a tiny smile in the corners of his mouth - as if he wanted to say, "that is how it is. What do you think?"