Somerset Maugham’s vignettes on colonial life still offer illuminating insights a century on
Sometimes a writer reveals a little more about himself than he fully intends. So it is on the first page of W. Somerset Maugham’s travel memoir, On a Chinese Screen, when the author describes a train of camels in an unnamed city with “the disdainful air of profiteers forced to traverse a world in which many people are not as rich as they.”
His words skewer the expatriates (including Maugham) of China almost a century ago, as much as the camels’ haughty demur. Indeed, many of the descriptions that populate this slim volume of observations would suit a few foreign travelers today.
The sketches here were initially planned as research for a novel, but Maugham concluded there wasn’t enough for a story, so published them as the vignettes that make up On a Chinese Screen. It was a wise choice—those with a thirst for narrative will not find one here. Instead, we get a series of outlines and images, some barely a page long, showcasing the feckless characters Maugham meets. Though a travelogue of sorts, it is often unclear what part of China we are in; the “stories” often have elements of fiction, occasionally even the supernatural.
Conscious of his place in the literary canon, Maugham sometimes described himself as “in the very front row of the second-rate.” It’s a fair summary: Maugham’s China is populated by weathered Eastern exotica that could be found in almost any work—rugged mountains, menacing watchtowers, winding bamboo groves, moonlit paddy fields, opium dens, taverns full of unappetizing meals, crumbling temples, butchers where entrails hang bloody among flies.
Fortunately, Maugham finds his feet when describing people, delicately treading between heartfelt empathy and gentle misanthropy. The expats of his day were seemingly privileged, bored, and hypocritical, simultaneously nostalgic for the old country and disinterested, even hateful, of their current surroundings.
Like Maugham’s arrogant subjects, the book suffers from too hefty a dollop of Orientalism—the opening sketch mentions “the mystery of the East”—and though this is to be expected from a Victorian writing at the fag end of colonialism, there are only so many wizened coolies and bearded Confucians one can take: There’s little to be learned about the locals here.
“Upon your own people, sympathy and knowledge give you a hold,” Maugham complains. “But [the Chinese] are strange to you as you are strange to them. You have no clue to their mystery.”
So Maugham proceeds much as Orwell did observing the poor, with a fascinated mix of admiration and disgust: “You see old men without an ounce of fat on their bodies, their skin loose on their bodies, wizened, their little faces wrinkled and ape-like, with hair thin and grey, and they totter under their burdens to the edge of the grave,” he writes. “Their effort oppresses you. You are filled with a useless compassion.”
Maugham’s foreigners are an unhappy mix of naive missionaries, bumptious diplomats, and cruel businessmen. Only the sailors come out well, playing dice and telling tales of the high seas in The Glory Hole, their favorite boozer. There are familiar figures: the desperate single woman (“It was pathetically obvious that she had come to China to be married, and what made it almost as tragic was that not a single man in the treaty port was ignorant of the fact”); the petty bureaucrat (“It was hard to listen to him without a smile, for in every word he said you felt how exasperating he must be to the unfortunate person over whom he had control”); the dogmatic evangelist (“He took no interest in the religions which flourished in the land he had come to evangelize. He classed them all contemptuously as devil worship”).
And the drinking: “It was always the same story: they had come out to China; they had never seen so much money before, they were good fellows and they wanted to drink with the rest; they couldn’t stand it and they were in the cemetery.”
These words are spoken by a taipan—a Cantonese term for a businessman in China, popularized by Maugham’s own 1922 story “The Taipan”—who takes great pleasure in drinking rivals, friends, even girlfriends to an early grave, and despises his new home despite the luxuries it affords him: “Though he had been so long in China, he knew no Chinese, in his day it was not thought necessary to learn the damned language, and he asked the coolies in English whose grave they were digging. They did not understand. They answered him in Chinese and he cursed them for ignorant fools…China. Why had he ever come? He was panic-stricken now. He must get out.”
Like the taipan, few of Maugham’s misfits care about anyone other than themselves. Instead “they dwelt in a world in which Copernicus had never existed, for them sun and stars circled obsequiously round this earth of ours, and they were its centre.” Only a desperate yearning for home stirs them: They are forever pining for an ancient copy of The Times or Punch, or the latest songs from London’s music halls. A woman cannot decorate a room without pointing out its resemblance to “some nice place in England, Cheltenham, say, or Tunbridge Wells.” Maugham himself catches this homesickness, sometimes waxing lyrical about the hop fields of Kent in the midst of describing a Chinese mountain path.
Some may ask why we should bother with all this today. For stay-at-homes, eager to sample the attitudes of a colonial life abroad, On a Chinese Screen is a splendid digest of the booze, boredom and the cruelty, all deftly laid out in Maugham’s piercing prose. Travel is supposed to be fatal to prejudice, or so Maugham’s contemporary Mark Twain believed. Instead we meet misfits, bigots, and bores who, given an opportunity to remake themselves overseas, eagerly fail anew. What if living abroad instead makes one nostalgic, inward looking, and too paralyzed to return? It’s a bleak thesis, and casts Maugham’s collection as less a series of playful sketches than a catalogue of cautionary tales.
The Eternal Expats is a story from our issue, “Down to Earth.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.