Author, Book review, China, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Vintage, W. Somerset Maugham

‘On a Chinese Screen’ by W. Somerset Maugham


Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Classics; 137 pages; 2010.

This is one of those books I probably would never have bothered reading had it not been for two important facts: it was a free download from and it was about China.

What I hadn’t clocked when I first began reading it was this: there is no narrative thread holding this book together. It is merely a collection of pen-portraits of various people, mainly expat officials, that Somerset Maugham met on his travels through China in the early 1920s.

There are 58 short sketches in total, and while each one is expertly and vividly drawn, it does not make for an effortless read because it is simply too disjointed. It’s almost like reading someone’s notebook rather than a published book.

Its importance, I guess, is more as an historical “document”, because Maugham’s “reportage” offers a glimpse of Europeans living in China during the interwar years. What he depicts is far from pleasant. These are people who don’t give a damn about the culture or the people. They simply cling onto the vestiges of home. No one bothers to learn the language or befriend the natives. Assuming that Maugham’s descriptions of British diplomats, Catholic missionaries and the like are accurate, this is a rather damning portrayal of the English abroad.

This is a good example:

China bored them all, they did not want to speak of that; they only knew just so much about it as was necessary to their business, and they looked with distrust upon any man who studied the Chinese language. Why should he unless he were a missionary or a Chinese Secretary at the Legation? You could hire an interpreter for twenty-five dollars a month and it was well known that all those fellows who went in for Chinese grew queer in the head.

Funnily enough, I get the impression that many of his sketches are tongue-in-cheek and that Maugham knows full well that these people are truly hideous in outlook and attitude.

Indeed, the book works best when Maugham offers up his own opinion of the Chinese natives (mainly “coolies”) and the places he visits (mainly villages along the Yangtze) — he seems far more accepting, interested and intrigued by his travel adventures than his British counterparts.

There in the mist, enormous, majestic, silent, and terrible, stood the Great Wall of China. Solitarily, with the indifference of nature herself, it crept up the mountain side and slipped down in the depth of the valley. Menacingly, the grim watch towers, stark and foursquare, at due intervals stood at their posts.

The book, however, is probably best read by genuine W. Somerset Maugham fans, those with a deep interest in China or budding authors wishing to learn the art of descriptive writing.

It was first published in 1922.

8 thoughts on “‘On a Chinese Screen’ by W. Somerset Maugham”

  1. The Painted Veil is Maugham’s view of China through his novelist eye. I thought it was very moving. And then Edward Norton and Naomi Watts starred in the film that despite a change in the ending was really beautifully filmed in countryside with karst landscapes and showed the personal growth of a young englishwoman of the type described in your review of On a Chinese Screen


  2. Thanks for the tip-off, Margaret. The Painted Veil sounds like something I’d like, so have added it to my Amazon wishlist. Have also made a mental note to see the movie – I saw the limestone karst landscape on my recent travels and fell in love with it.


  3. OK, warning taken. However, on our recent few days away we watched the movie of Maugham’s The razor’s edge. I read the book a few year’s ago and finally got to see the movie. Enjoyed it and, from memory, it seemed to be a pretty good rendition of the book.


  4. Yes, this is strictly a historical reference for those who are interested in Maugham’s “notes.”
    As a diehard Maugham fan I would like to recommend my favorite, haunting short story called “The Lotus Eater.”
    You will find it in: Collected Short Stories, Vol. 4 (Twentieth-Century Classics)
    I recently watched the filmed version of The Painted Veil.
    Enjoyable, but did not begin match the characters I’d envisioned while reading the book.


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