On a Chinese Screen is a collection of fifty-eight short sketches of people and places in China. William Somerset Maugham takes us from the coastal treaty ports to the Great Wall and far up the Yangtze River. As a famous writer basking in the recent success of his novels Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence, he enjoyed rare access to the Chinese and expat elites. Urbane yet adventurous, one moment he’s chatting with consuls and scholars, the next rubbing shoulders with Chinese coolies at a rustic roadside inn.
Originally published in 1922, it’s a beautifully written book, evocative of a lost age of travel and the last days of Old China, and is often wickedly funny. Much of the humour comes from Maugham’s caustic treatment of Western expats whom he scorns for their pomposity, insularity and hypocrisy.
A weakness of the original book, one amplified by the passing years and ignored by subsequent reprints, is the lack of an introduction. Camphor Press has remedied this by adding a detailed introductory chapter that gives vital background on Maugham, the China of that time, and other important facets such as how material gathered from his trip was used for a play, East of Suez, and a novel, The Painted Veil (filmed several times, most recently starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts). The introduction also reveals aspects of Maugham’s secret life, including how, despite the impression he gave of travelling alone through China, he was actually with his lover.
On a Chinese Screen is a travel classic, and this Camphor Press edition is a must-read for fans of Maugham, anyone interested in China, and for lovers of good travel writing.