Pierre Ryckmans was born in Brussels, Belgium. He studied law at the Catholic University of Leuven, and Chinese language, literature and art in Taiwan. He then went to Hong Kong, before settling down in Australia in 1970. He taught Chinese literature at the Australian National University (Canberra), where he supervised the honours thesis of future Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and later (1987–93) was Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney. After that he returned to Canberra, where he lived for the remainder of his life.
In 1971, on the advice of his publisher, he decided to adopt a pseudonym before the release of Les habits neufs du président Mao, in order to avoid the risk of becoming a persona non-grata in the People's Republic of China. He chose "Leys" after the main character of Victor Segalen's novel René Leys (published in 1922).
His many awards include the Prix Renaudot, the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca, the Prix Guizot and the Christina Stead Prize for fiction. In 1996 he delivered the Boyer Lectures on the theme "Aspects of Culture", in which he argued the need to cultivate the gardens of our minds, later published as The View From the Bridge.
He wrote regularly for the New York Review of Books and for Le Figaro littéraire, and was a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, an Honorary Commander of the French Navy and member of the Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de Belgique.
His translation of The Analects of Confucius has become the standard text, accompanied by a masterly introduction that sought to introduce readers to “the real, living Confucius” rather than the official Confucian cult portraying him as “always proper, a bit pompous, slightly boring” — and appropriated by authoritarians.
His translation of Simone Weil’s 1930s essay "On the Abolition of All Political Parties" — inspired, he said, by the “toxic atmosphere” that had started to pollute Australian politics.
His final book, a collection of essays, The Hall of Uselessness, was a particular masterpiece, revealing the scope of his eccentric interests, fine wit and brilliant insights.
Ryckmans's books on the Chinese Cultural Revolution, based on his first hand observation, give scathing descriptions of the cultural and political destruction, as well as denouncing the hypocrisy of its western defenders. Ryckmans was also a translator of Chinese literature, such as the Analects of Confucius, and The Treatise on Painting by Shi Tao. He wrote in French and English.
The 2001 film The Emperor's New Clothes, directed by Alan Taylor, was based on Leys' novel The Death of Napoleon. Leys expressed distaste for the film, however; stating in an afterword accompanying a reprint of the novel that this "latter avatar [The Emperor's New Clothes], by the way, was both sad and funny: sad, because Napoleon was interpreted to perfection by an actor (Ian Holm) whose performance made me dream of what could have been achieved had the producer and director bothered to read the book."
- Shitao's Les propos sur la peinture du moine Citrouille-amère (translation and comments, 1970)
- La vie et l'oeuvre de Su Renshan, rebelle, peintre et fou (1971).
- Les habits neufs du président Mao (The chairman's New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, 1971)
- Chinese Shadows, (1974)
- Images brisées (1976)
- Human Rights in China (1979)
- Broken Images: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics (trans. Steve Cox, London: Allison & Busby, 1981)
- Orwell, ou l'horreur de la politique (1984)
- La forêt en feu: Essais sur la culture et la politique chinoises (The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics) (1987)
- La Mort de Napoléon (The Death of Napoleon, 1986)
- ""The Chinese Attitude Towards the Past" (Forty Seventh Morrison Lecture, 16 July 1986), China Heritage Quarterly 14 (June 2008).
- L'humeur, l'honneur, l'horreur: Essais sur la culture et la politique chinoises (1991)
- Analects of Confucius (translation, 1997)
- Essais sur la Chine (Laffont, 1998, coll. "Bouquins")
- L'Ange et le Cachalot (1998)
- The Angel and the Octopus (collected essays 1983–1998, published February 1999) ISBN 1-875989-44-7
- Protée et autres essais (2001; awarded the 2001 Prix Renaudot de l'Essai)
- Deux années sur le gaillard d'avant (2002)
- Les Naufragés du Batavia (The Wreck of the Batavia: A True Story, 2003, was awarded the Prix Guizot)
- La mer dans la littérature française (Plon, 2003)
- Lu Xun's La mauvaise herbe (French translation)
- Other People's Thoughts – Idiosyncratically compiled by Simon Leys for the amusement of idle readers (Black Inc., 2007)
- The Hall of Uselessness: Selected Essays (Black Inc, 2011)
- Simone Weil: "On the Abolition of All Political Parties" (translation) (Black Inc, 2013)
- Six, Laurent (2008). "Aux Origines D’ombres Chinoises: Une Mission De Six Mois Au Service De L’ambassade De Belgique En République Populaire De Chine". Textyles 34. Retrieved October 29, 2014.
- Nicholas Stuart: "Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography", Scribe, 2007
- Simon Leys: "Victor Segalen, les tribulations d'un poète en Chine", in Figaro Littéraire 3 February 2005
- Callick, Rowan (11 August 2014). "Chairman’s New Clothes author Pierre Ryckmans dies aged 78". The Australian. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
- Pierre Ryckmans, 78, Dies; Exposed Mao’s Hard Line
- Pierre Ryckmans at the Internet Movie Database
- Simon Leys: "The Burning Forest: 'Human Rights in China'" (1978).
- IMDb entry for The Emperor's New Clothes
- Pierre Ryckmans, "Are Books Useless?" Extract from the 1996 Boyer Lectures.
- Ian Buruma, "The Man Who Got It Right" (review of The Hall of Uselessness), The New York Review of Books, 15 August 2013.
- An Interview with Pierre Ryckmans, Chinese Heritage Quarterly, June 2011.