John Byron is a sinologist who has been involved in exploring Chinese culture for almost forty years.   His interests have ranged from the sexual to the political dimensions of the Chinese experience: he is the author of Portrait of a Chinese Paradise, a study Chinese erotic art during the late Qing dynasty and the early Republic period; he is also the co-author of The China Lovers, a detective story set in Beijing during the 1980s, and of The Claws of the Dragon, a biography of Kang Sheng, the Chinese Communist intelligence chief and a key adviser to Chairman Mao.  

In all his China-related writing Byron has sought to escape from preconceptions that dominate so many foreign views of China, whether it be the enthusiasm of Western university students in the 1960s for Mao and the Cultural Revolution or the ideologically conditioned and deeply flawed theories of the "realist" school of international relations scholars who today advance the "China threat" theory.   Byron has sought to make contact with the reality of China, and this was recognised by Michael Keon, an Australian journalist and writer who was a reporter in China in the late 1940s and who actually met Kang Sheng during that time.    Keon wrote of The Claws of the Dragon "Sinology has been freed from a Romanticist incubus and will never be the same again."   Byron wants to avoid both the romanticization and demonization of China, and describe it as it really is.

In reviewing The Claws of the Dragon, the late Tiziano Terzani, an Italian writer and journalist who lived for many years in Asia, described John Byron in the following terms:  

"John Byron, the main author of this thrilling book, is a thrilling person in his own right.   First of all, Byron does not exist. The real person behind the book belongs to that category of people who are sent abroad to lie on behalf of their government and in his case, years ago, the first lie had to be about his name as an author.   His personal interests and the subjects he wanted to write about were not of the kind that would 'enhance the friendship between China and the people of the world.'  Byron thus became a cover.

Posted in Peking in the early 1980s, this young Western --- or should we say Asian? --- diplomat went about his boring business collecting and analysing newspaper clippings and journalistic rumours; in his second, parallel life he went about collecting all kinds of things from pornographic art to inside stories about the Chinese secret police.

The results of that double life first appeared in The China Lovers, a brilliant novel-thriller --- the Chinese equivalent of Gorky Park --- written together with another legend of his time, David Bonavia; and then the witty and scholarly Portrait of a Chinese Paradise, where the word "paradise" stood for the word "sex" in the late Qing dynasty.   The book was illustrated with the objects Byron had gathered during his discreet outings and the Chinese Public Security Bureau would have loved to know who the real man behind that teasing pen name was.   They would have loved to confiscate his collections as well, for it now turns out that these small objects of erotica were not the only hot things Byron had laid his hands on during his diplomatic posting in China.

One night in the summer of 1983 one of his Chinese "friends" had given him, for a few hours so that he could photocopy it, a special secret document: the biography of Kang Sheng, one of China's most mysterious and most dangerous people, founder of the Chinese secret service, Mao's hench-man, and go-between (he introduced Jiang Qing to the Chairman)."

China has changed enormously since Byron first arrived in Beijing in the early 1980s.   His own assessment of China has changed, and so has the Chinese assessment of Byron.  One eminent Chinese academic commentator on international media issues, Li Xiguang, who was previously a Xinhua News Agency journalist, has identified Byron as one of the most balanced Western interpreters of China.   In his book, Is China That Bad? , Li quotes at length from an article by Byron, whom he identifies as a "famous American sinologist," on the 1898 reform movement, which led to the failure of an attempt to move Chinese forward and the imposition, until 1911, of an ultra-conservative regime.   Perhaps the most significant aspect of Li's approval of Byron was the fact that Byron had previously written critically of Li Xiguang's own book, Behind the Demonization of China , and the fact that Li endorsed Byron's view of the 1898 reform movement displayed a genuine appreciation of the scholarship and independence displayed in Byron's study of Kang Sheng.       

Despite the far-reaching reforms that have changed the face of China since the early 1980s, Byron continues to write under the pseudonym that he began to use in the 1980s. In part this might be a function of vanity --- can I make a pseudonym valid and successful? --- but it is also a reflection of the desire to underscore that his public writing, research and imaginative re-creation of China is a personal statement, and not in any way related to any government that he might have worked for or any other organisation he might be associated with.  The use of pseudonyms is a well-established tradition, both in the West and in China, and there seems no reason to challenge this tradition now.

But while the Chinese seem to regard this approach to writing as normal, some Americans take a different view.   Byron wrote a number of book reviews for the Washington Post, including some essays on contemporary trends in Chinese literary debate about China's relations with the outside world.   In early 2001 Jim Mann, who was then a Los Angeles Times reporter in Washington, protested to the ombudsman of the Washington Post, complaining that the Post "was running reviews by a foreign intelligence person under a pseudonym."  He said that he thought that the Washington Post's readers "deserved to know exactly who was reviewing what."  This complaint overlooked completely that the use of pseudonyms was a long-established practice designed to allow people to express their views free of government interference, and in any case revealed an abysmal ignorance of the likely views of any government that John Byron might have actually worked for.   At the end of the day Jim Mann's protest just underscores the limits to the American commitment to free speech, and the distance that Americans have to go before they can face up to reality without the interference of Congressional Committees, which at least are transparent, and journalists who write private messages to rival newspapers in order to silence voices that for some reason or another they do not like.

But not all American voices have sought to silence John Byron and his view of China.   After The Claws of the Dragon was published President George Bush Snr., who had served as the United States head of mission in Beijing in the early 1970s, wrote a note to John Byron in his own hand which read,

"Dear John,

Thanks for this book.  I read the forward last night - a fascinating preview of coming attractions.  As I told Doug, when I finish Manchester's book on Churchill, I'll quickly go the Dragon route.  I'd be very pleased if you'd sign this copy for me.

George Bush
Feb.6, 1992                                    

P.S.   Historical note - Steve FitzGerald helped me learn re the PRC."

Just by way of background, the "Doug" referred to above was Douglas Paal, the officer responsible for China policy in the National Security Council at the time, while Steve FitzGerald had been the Australian Ambassador in Beijing when George Bush had headed the US Liaison Office, which was the forerunner to the US Embassy in Beijing.

While a university student in the late 1960s Byron discovered Robert van Gulik's study of Chinese sexual art and culture, which seemed to be especially significant because it implicitly revealed how Communist ideology and Mao Zedong Thought sought to suppress a major theme of Chinese culture.   Byron began to read into the subject, collecting books while a student in Taiwan in the early 1970s and then covertly buying items of erotic art in the Beijing of the early 1980s, because this dimension of Chinese tradition underscored the essentially non-Chinese character of the Communist experiment in general and the Cultural Revolution in particular, which sought to suppress all evidence of China's traditional sexual culture in the name of a new Chinese nation.  Byron has continued to expand his collection, and plans to do a further study on the subject.

Besides pursuing his interest in research and writing, John Byron has worked as a diplomat, serving in Malaysia, China, the United States and Australia.  He has also spent over ten years as a senior officer in the intelligence assessment agency of a Western country.  He currently divides his time between Hong Kong and Beijing, and is a senior executive in a Hong Kong-based, Chinese-language television company.

© John Byron - 2019