Book on ChinaThe Black Bird in the Rising Sun

Book on China

Several fairly recent editions (see Bibliography) make it possible to analyse in detail the progress of the projects for which the diplomat was directly responsible during his diplomatic stay in the Middle Empire (July 1895 – August 1909), but it is the Book on China that makes it possible to go beyond the sampling to consider Paul Claudel’s overall vision concerning the whole East Asian region – and his relations with the rest of the world. This  text, published much later, raises however a number of difficulties that are not all resolved: its origin, author and dating, have remained mysterious. For Gilbert Gadoffre, the preliminary draft of this work was the product of the collaboration of Paul Claudel and Philippe Berthelot – the two men met for the first time in 1903. On the back of page 59 of the manuscript in the third version, we read this note: “I think it is better if we sign with a pseudonym. What do you think of “The Coral Button”?” The discretion of the authors could then be explained by the freedom of tone in the book, which is often critical of  the action of the Western Powers in China, considered as “harmful”. But nothing is certain, and one can imagine several proof-readers; Jacques Houriez prefers to use the neutral term “writer” in his introduction. As far as the drafting period is concerned, we can think, after Gilbert Gadoffre and Christopher Flood, that most of the text dates back to 1905 – although some references go well beyond that.

 The Book on China is unfinished and is presented in the form of notes, drafts, in a style that is sometimes disjointed, often elliptical. Notes and corrections by Claudel show that the text was proof-read late (around 1909?). Revised, corrected, profoundly revised and rewritten, the Book on China will become Under the Sign of the Dragon in 1947: Yvan Daniel showed how the style of the “report” in the Book on China had, with a new intention, been transformed into a lighter, sometimes amusing , style of writing in Under the Sign of the Dragon.

It is of course impossible to “summarize” the Book on China: China, Claudel explains, is “a compact amalgam that we do not know where to take hold of”. All the important subjects are mentioned, as shown by the titles of a few chapters: “China’s commercial geography”, “Currency and exchange rate”, “Industries in China”… but the perspective widens to broader issues, linked to international politics, when it comes for example to the need for Europe and China to “get along against Japan”, or to implement the development of trade with the French colony of Indochina.

The Black Bird in the Rising Sun


This collection published in 1927 contains a very different set of texts, composed on the occasion of Paul Claudel’s second stay in the Far East, i.e. at the mission of his embassy in Japan (November 1921 – February 1927). The author indicated in an interview (Nouvelles Littéraires, 7 May 1927) that this collection could be considered as a “diptych with Knowing the East , written in China between 1895 and 1905. Knowing the East  contains a series of poems inspired by a first trip to Japan (May-June 1898): Le Pin (Tokyo, May-June 1898), L’Arche d’Or dans la forêt (Nikko, June 1898) and the fundamental text entitled Le Promeneur (Nikko, June 1898). Some essential insights, which date back to the Chinese period, will find their full development during the second diplomatic visit to Asia. As in return, L’Oiseau noir dans le Soleil levant contains several Chinese pieces, or directly alluding to Chinese culture – among them Bougakou or Hang Tchéou, composed during a stopover in China in February 1926. However, if we can easily guess from one collection to another many echoes, reminders – or answers -, memories too, The Black Bird in the Rising Sun looks very different from the Chinese collection, in its form – or rather its forms – as in its intentions.

The Black Bird in the Rising Sun appears as a kind of “mixture”, collecting texts very different from each other, even if they all naturally touch Japan and Japanese culture, and sometimes more broadly Far East. The unity of the “descriptive prose” of Knowing the East  disappears in favour of a rich variety of writings: prose, poetic prose, dramatic writing, dialogues… Most of the texts were first published in journals , most often in the N.R.F. or Les Nouvelles littéraires. Some texts related to  circumstances, such as the evocation of the French Embassy in La Maison du Pont-des-Faisans, the lecture given by the diplomat in 1923 to Nikko students, A Look at the Japanese Soul, or the text written in response to the violent earthquake of September 1, 1923, A Travers les Villes en flammes, first published in Lectures pour tous under the title Le Désastre japonais (1924), can be read. A year later, this tragic event is revisited. Other texts are apparently of a lighter inspiration, such as the series of Japanese Poems, published under this title in November 1927 in the Revue des vivants: La Neige, Deux bambous verts, Pont  and La Canne (written in July 1926), to which should perhaps be added L’Abdication au milieu des pins, which is however more concerned with the history of Japan, just like Meiji (1926?). Some poetic texts and essays, such as Le Vieillard sur le mont Omi and La Poésie japonaise, appear in the first edition, and then disappear. Observation and meditation on Japanese culture are developed in Bougakou, Bounrakou, Nô (and its “Appendices”: The Rhythm of Nô; The Prosodic Fabric of Nô) and Kabouki, which are especially relevant to the dramatic arts. The two versions of La Femme et son ombre (dated September 1922), very inspired by Noh, are presented in the original collection. La Femme et son ombre was first performed at the Imperial Theatre in Tokyo on March 16, 1923. Finally, we must mention here the three dialogues of 1926: The Poet and the Shamisen, The Poet and the Incense Vase, and Jules or the Man with two cravats.

Car, il est vrai, je n'ai qu'à fermer les yeux et je me retrouve tout de suite sous la véranda de ma maison de Fou-Tchéou que ventile la brise de l'après-midi. Seul moment de fraîcheur entre la fournaise matinale et la cuisson nocturne ! J'entends battre les larges stores qui s'agitent d'un bout à l'autre de la galerie, les cigales au dehors font un vacarme assourdissant, ces cigales chanteuses de là-bas dont le répertoire comporte un triple motif et que tout à l'heure le chœur innombrable des grenouilles, interrompu par quelque hurlement de chien paria va relayer. Je suis seul dans cette immense maison solitaire d'où la tragédie n'a pas toujours été absente. Au-dessous de moi dans le sous-sol s'agite le petit peuple des serviteurs, augmenté des visiteurs occasionnels, femmes, parents, camarades, colporteurs, barbiers, un petit village d'où se dégage une faible odeur d'opium. De temps en temps, les figures changent et quand la peste ou le choléra, comme il arrive, viennent chez moi, on dirait sur la pointe du pied, vérifier ce qu'il y a pour eux, il n'est pas exceptionnel que l'on voie discrètement émaner quelque cercueil. Mais les cercueils ne sont pas rares en Chine, ceux qui sont déjà confortablement installés au centre de l'oméga rituel ou ceux qui attendent sur le seuil la décision du géomancien : j'habite moi-même un cimetière dont le repos n'a jamais inquiété le mien. (.…)
(9 mars 1936)

Contacts et circonstances, Œuvres en Prose, Gallimard, La Pléiade, pp. 1020-1021.