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.

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Carlos Ottery is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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