Camus on China


Albert Camus was my favorite of the authors we read in high school; The Stranger (局外人》 in Chinese) was my favorite book. Recently I was reading some of Camus’s famous quotes, and I was struck by how applicable many of them are now to modern China:

“At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”

“Culture: the cry of men in face of their destiny.”

“The society based on production is only productive, not creative.”

“The myth of unlimited production brings war in its train as inevitably as clouds announce a storm.” [Uh oh…]

“Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others.”

“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”

“By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”

“The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants.”

“All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State.”

“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.”

“Every man needs slaves like he needs clean air. To rule is to breathe, is it not? And even the most disenfranchised get to breathe. The lowest on the social scale have their spouses or their children.”

“As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.”

“It is a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.” [Many, many Chinese people I know would whole-heartedly agree with this statement.]

“He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.”

“Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.”

In my experience, Albert Camus (阿尔贝·加缪) is not very well-known in China.

Sources: BrainyQuote, Wikiquote


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. yangyijane Says: October 14, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    by reading this till the last sentence, I assume Mr Camus is an expert of China. OMG!!!!!

  2. It's not all despair Says: October 15, 2011 at 12:17 am

    In marked contrast to “The Stranger,” Camus’s short novel, “The Plague,” actually – in my reading – maintains a tone of quiet hope, even amid the absurdity of people being punished for no particular crime beyond the “crime” of life itself. The stoicism of the narrator reflects that of a citizenry that is willing to “bear it out even to the edge of doom.” (With all due respects to Bill Skakespeare.)
    Hu He

  3. Camus is applicable to China,
    because he wrote of
    the human condition.
    Chinese people
    are not exempt from this,
    any more than
    the rest of us
    in this world.

  4. This is totally off topic John, but i noticed you’ve got this new pop up at the bottom of the blog pushing related articles. Just out of interest, has it had a noticeable effect on your readers, like has the number of page views actually gone up?

    Again totally of topic and I apologize so, but I’m interested to know.

    • Matthew,

      Honestly, I couldn’t tell you! I just don’t have the time to dig into that type of data these days. I’m lucky if I have time to get up two posts a week lately (and I failed this week).

  5. I haven’t read any Camus but your quotes make his writing sound rather hopeless and fatalistic.

    • That’s a common criticism of existentialists, but it’s not altogether accurate.

      Of course, it’s entirely possible that I was feeling a little pessimistic when I chose those particular quotes…

  6. I’m not sure if his writings are applicable to China, but his photo with a cigarette in his mouth certainly would reflect that aspect of the culture.

  7. hmmm… could these statements be used to discribe a range of rapidly developing cultures eg India?

  8. This guy sounds like a very deep thinking philosopher… either that or he is very observant.

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