Shi Tiesheng, a Chinese writer, says: “To write is to prevent suicide.”
He died on the last day of the year 2010, four days before his 60th birthday. Having spent 38 years in a wheelchair, making matchboxes with other unskilled workers for a living for over a decade, he knew what he was talking about. Shi is one of the most profound and unpretentious writers inChina.
He had not expected to live to almost 60. His illness had brought him to the verge of death more than once. Daily living was difficult. He had to rely on medical help to clean his blood every two days, after his kidneys failed. Energy was of limited supply. If a friend was to visit in the afternoon, he dared not move much the whole morning, in order to save energy for the visit. It was a thoroughly tortured life, a life without health and all the pleasures health bestows. How could you buy the pleasure of taking a walk? He found he could not even recall the sensation of walking. The memory was gone soon after the departure of the function.
It was not a life lived by common standards. There was no feeling well or looking well. Yet he lived. And he wrote.
He lived and died in abundant, genuine love, love from his wife, his friends, his doctors and nurses — some of these health workers were his lifelong caretakers and lifesavers. Instead of a funeral, his friends gathered and celebrated his 60th birthday, in their brightest and handsomest clothing. They brought him colorful fresh flowers. “This time,” said his wife to these friends, “he has plenty of energy for the party.”
In his work, Shi says, “Death is something we don’t need to rush to. Death is a festival that is bound to come.” It had finally come.
He donated every part of his body to anyone in need of a transplant and to medical research. He hoped an autopsy would finally discover what went wrong in his spine at age 21. At that time, everyone was praying it was a tumor, which would mean it could be removed and he cured. Yet whoever he prayed to with all his might did not grant him this favor.
People say his profession is writing. He corrected that view. “My profession is being sick. I write in my spare time.”
A hot-tempered youth who yelled at his doctor and threatened to chop the doctor up alive if he could not be made to walk again, he came to a profound peace with a fate that seemed most unjust. If such a life is the price to pay for a mature soul, he made the price worthwhile. His writing is free of pretense, of shallowness. The clear, simple, earthbound words awaken deep sorrow and love in his readers. It is the soul behind the words that his readers feel.
We conform too much. We are too normal. We behave as if we have something to lose. Do we have anything to lose? We have taken a beating from life, we have become afraid. Having no pain is the best state, let’s keep it this way. Pain is always there? Then let’s praise small breaks.
I wonder how Montaigne’s stress was. Despite his early retirement, he did not enjoy too much peace and leisure in his lifetime. There were always wars and turbulences. A thousand times he went to bed with the expectation to be killed in his sleep.
Nobody can be more disillusioned by human beings than Socrates was. His countrymen, by a vote of (though marginal) majority, agreed to put him to death. He was already 70 years old, but his fellow citizens had no patience to let him die naturally. This most just man, who preferred risking his life to committing any injustice even under tyranny, had the reputation (a true one) of being the wisest man in his time. Having done nothing but discuss fundamental ideas all his life, he was considered an intolerable criminal and sentenced to the ultimate penalty. His country, where the majority of citizens were his murderers, was the city state of Athens, the most illustrious of all places in human history, the source of Western civilization.
As he calmly drank the hemlock and embarked on an unknown journey, what was his final impression of the men of Athens? Judging from his tranquility throughout the trial, his opinion must have been finalized long before. Unlike politicians and revolutionaries of his time and of later times, he would not consider “the masses”, or “the public”, or “the people”, to be qualified as the ultimate judge in any matter. Any honest man, such as John Stuart Mill, could not help but objectively define them as a group made of a few wise and many foolish men.
What can be done about this human predicament? How is history progressing? History does progress, to our amazement. All our material comforts, civil rights, and mental enjoyments, owe to the efforts of people before us. And these efforts, I imagine, are not just made by the great individuals, but also by the unconscious blind following herd.
So this collective of the human race is much like a monstrous, gigantic individual human being: clumsy and heavy, slow and blind, savage and timid, selfish, desiring both self-preservation and self-destruction, capable of both good and evil, committing right and wrong in no particular order, waddling through his muddy cognition, fumbling and tumbling, making many mistakes along the way, suffering and inflicting sufferings upon others, killing and mocking his benefactors, admiring vices. With a moment of luck, sometimes he rises from the mud pit he was born into, wipes his eyes, and casts a glimpse to heaven— a glimpse into what life can be. Chances are he will fall back again. But in his dark, chaotic, subconscious dreams, will he remember that sight of heaven, that clean windswept height which for a moment seemed within his reach?
So you are gone, Mel, my dear colleague, new lunch buddy, younger sister, sweet character full of zest for life. You spent your 34 years loving and enjoying life, helping people, doing your job well. You worked here for 8 years, from assistant to technical lead. Life didn’t treat you all that well. You lost your father at a young age. You were cursed with obesity. You did not have a boyfriend. You fell prey to every flu bug. Too much work was often dumped on you. However, you never seemed to be aware of these misfortunes. You were never grumpy, never sullen, never calculating. You never wasted a minute on malice, on whining, on complaining. You were never pretentious, never hyper, never proud or conceited, never feigned affection or attention. You took death the way you took life: calm, graceful, natural, open-minded, faithful.
Early January, when I was crying alone in my office for Maureen’s death, you happened to drop by. You touched my shoulder and tried to comfort me. Who would have thought that less than half a year later you would be dead too?
Now you have left your body, your suffering. You had enough, I’m sure, in the past three months. You didn’t need anymore. Your beautiful soul is now free, and free to appear as beautiful as it is. Do you have wings now, Mel? Are they white and transparent? You are smiling at me, and saying: “Shouldn’t you be happy for me?”
Yes, I should. Although from my earthling’s point of view, I don’t understand why a young gentle life should be cut short and taken away. I’d rather you had lived longer, met a great guy, had the children you would have loved so well. Since you were a few years younger than I am, you should have died a few years later than me. That’s the right order, the right sequence of life.
I guess we have different destinies, Mel. You lived right, touched many lives, and were ready to go and be spared of further suffering. I have to endure, work my way to perfection and usefulness, live out my destiny.
With you a part of me hath passed away;
For in the peopled forest of my mind
A tree made leafless by this wintry wind
Shall never don again its green array.
And I am grown much older in a day.
But yet I treasure in my memory
Your gift of charity, and young heart’s ease,
And the dear honor of your amity;
For these once mine, my life is rich with these.
And I scarce know which part may greater be —
What I keep of you, or you rob from me.
This is what I say to you, Mel, through George Santayana’s poem.
Her name can be roughly translated as “the Lady of Sunshine”. This is her title, not her real name. This title was given to her when she was made a princess.
She is one of the Four Beauties in China’s history. Born in the picturesque Three Gorges area into a modest family, she was like any other industrious village girl, working and playing on the green hills and clear waters.
That was during the Han Dynasty. The emperor had three thousand wives in his massive palace, most of whom would never have a chance to see him. Yet year after year, pretty girls were sought from all over the country and sent to his imperial harem, waiting to be his bride for maybe one night. The degree of his attention and affection determined these women’s status. Those who never got to be near him would be the most inferior, living in seclusion, despised by even their servants.
Because his wives were so numerous, to ease the burden of interviewing each one, the emperor made his choice based on portraits painted by his court painter. Since the competition was fierce, the court painter sought and received huge briberies from the ladies in waiting.
When Zhaojun was brought into the palace, she had too little money and too much dignity. She refused to bribe the painter. The painter painted her portrait in minute detail; then, upon finishing, he let a drop of ink from his brush fall onto her face, which completely ruined her beauty in the portrait. She did not get selected. This beautiful girl was therefore locked up in the deep chamber of the royal palace, destined to grow old alone. She lived like this for years.
On the political side, the war on the northern border between the Mongolians and Han, which went on for generations, finally came to a ceasefire, thanks to a new wise khan of the Mongolians. Though a fearless warrior, he understood the importance of peace and wished to learn from his prosperous southern enemy. The Han was the most powerful and largest empire in the whole world, as well as the most advanced civilization.
The emperor welcomed the khan’s peace offering. In addition to all other friendly gestures and gifts and treaties, the emperor promised the khan a beautiful Han woman as his wife, to build an eternal bond between the two nations. This woman would be given to the khan in the status of a princess, as if she had been the daughter of the emperor.
This honor was offered to the untouched ladies in the back chambers. The ladies were horrified. Although it was a cruel fate to grow old in seclusion, at least they were living in the comfort their refined civilization could provide, of delicate clothing and fine cuisine. They could live with their familiar customs and language, in a mild climate and green landscape. Besides, there was always a slim hope of gaining the emperor’s attention someday. The North was harsh. The Mongolians lived on horseback, were nomads, warriors and hunters. They chased after the pasture with their herds. They ate meat, and drank milk and wine made from milk. They wore leather. Transportation was far from developed. Once gone they would never see their folks again. Nobody wanted a life in exile.
Nobody but one. Zhaojun volunteered. A woman of unmatched wisdom, courage and spirit, she preferred the unknown to a prisoner’s life.
Since she was the only one willing to go, she was chosen. On the day of her departure, she would be received in the court, where a grand ceremony would be held to make her officially a princess.
On that day, she dressed up magnificently. The moment she made her entrance, the whole court was illuminated by her radiance. She was the most beautiful woman in her time. Her immaculate beauty overwhelmed everyone.
Both the khan and the emperor fell in love with her. In his shock and anguish, the emperor retrieved her portrait to see why he had missed her in his viewing. The painter’s scheme and crime came to light and the poor fellow was executed. However, despite the emperor’s admiration for Zhaojun, he had no choice but to keep his word. He gave her away as his daughter, with a title to match her glowing beauty, and a dowry suitable for her royal status. There were tales about how he lived in agony and regret ever after, but none could be proved.
Zhaojun went to the North with the brave, wise khan and became the Mongolian Queen. She adapted to the new life, and developed a deep loving relationship with her husband. Together they ruled Mongolia for many years, bringing peace and prosperity to the people. After her husband died, according to the Mongolian custom at the time, she married his successor, the son of her late husband and his first wife. She remained the Queen for the rest of her life. Mongolia and Han lived in harmony and the border was quiet. She won the hearts of Mongolians, and was deeply admired and loved. She became a legend for two thousand years. To this day, her tomb is still a tourist attraction in Inner Mongolia.
Today I want to tell you the story of Gu Zhun 顾准, a Chinese intellectual who lived in the 20th Century. He was a member of the accounting profession, an economist, a government official, a scholar, a man of integrity and devotion. He is a representative of Chinese intellectuals, for it is our tradition that an intellectual should bear the responsibility for the whole nation.
Gu Zhun was born into a poor family in 1915. He finished his apprenticeship in a renowned accounting firm in Shanghai, and became widely known as a genius. He started teaching at the age of 17. By age 24, he was the professor of three famous universities, had published important books in accountancy, was fluent in several foreign languages, and was making an excellent living. He was a star, and the dream of many girls.
When he was only 20, he secretly joined the Chinese Communist Party, as did many other brilliant and idealistic young people at that time when they realized the prevailing social injustice and the nation’s agony under foreign occupation. Many of them were murdered or executed by the government. Gu Zhun actively involved himself in underground work. He later went to the base of the Chinese Communist Party, serving as an official and military commander. For 14 years, he fought against repression and corruption for a new China. His wife, another loyal communist, was one of his earliest comrades. They worked on different missions in different areas, spent much more time apart than together, and were willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause at any time.
In 1949, at the establishment of the People’s Republic of China by the Chinese Communist Party, Gu Zhun naturally became a high level official of the new government, in charge of the Finance Bureau and Tax Bureau of Shanghai, one of the largest economic centers in the Far East. His superhuman intelligence and capability became legendary. Unfortunately, he was also known for his straight speaking, his conviction and pride in his own opinion, and his unyielding spirit.
An honest intellectual, he was doomed under the dictatorship of Chairman Mao Ze Dong, a man of greatness but not of democracy. Gu Zhun was swept down during the first dissident-cleansing movement started by Mao in 1952. In 1957, he was deemed a “rightist”, the synonym for “enemy of the Party”. This was the end of his political career and the beginning of his personal ordeal.
In those torturous years, his non-conformist attitude brought him severe beatings and his family endless misfortunes. Confident in his own thinking, even during the worst public beating and humiliation, he still managed to raise his head and say loudly to the crowd: “I will not yield!” It shocked even his tormentors. Such a highly intelligent man, yet he had not the wisdom of self-preservation.
He was sent to a “school for the officials”, a mild labor camp where the fallen officials were put through a “re-education”. He lost touch with his family, although he kept writing to them, especially his wife. His family was under extreme pressure for being related to him. He was worried about his loved ones.
Finally he was allowed to go back home to Beijing. Full of hope, he was only to discover that his wife had committed suicide and his children had officially terminated all relationship with him. He lived in the same city with his aged mother yet could not see her even once. His siblings forbade it for fear of the social and political plague he carried. The old mother and her beloved son lived as if they had been separated in two different times and spaces, and hopelessly missed each other.
Tortured by cancer, bereft of all loved ones (either dead or alive), and living in poverty, he devoted himself to studying the ancient Greek political systems, hoping to find a safe road for China to democracy. Every morning, he left home with a bottle of water and two pastries made of plain flour. He stayed in the Beijing Library all day, immersed in thoughts, reading and writing. Often running a fever and coughing blood, this lonely scholar wrote his monologues full of courage and honesty, sometimes 100,000 words in 3 months. These last works, unfinished, were only published long after he died. As a scholar, he was proficient in Mathematics, History, and Economics, and well-versed in Philosophy, Law, Religious Study, Sociology, and Political Science.
He died of cancer in 1974. Seeing his children was his only dying wish. To get approval from the authority for the children to visit, he had to sign a statement of his alleged fallacies, which he had refused to sign even when threatened with death. This time, he signed with a trembling hand. All his life he gave in only this once. Afterwards, this strong man cried, and told his friends this surrender was the only stain on his life record. The authority approved the visit, but all the five children refused to come. In his reply, the youngest son wrote: “There cannot exist any father-son affection between my love for the enterprise of the Party and my hatred for Gu Zhun.”
One friend was with him at his deathbed. This friend, Wu Jinglian, would in his old age become the most influential economist in China and the principal of China’s most renowned university. He would carry on his dead friend’s pursuit, and be known for his genuineness and integrity. Once, in the spotlight of the press, he said he had not learned how to be a human being until his middle age, and he had learned it from his friend Gu Zhun.
Gu Zhun said his last words to this friend, a plain sentence: “Open the cot and have a rest.” He said it when he awoke from unconsciousness for the last time. No self-pity, no self-concern, even at his last moment.
Many years later, his children, who are now old, read his books and diary, and realized what a father they had deserted. His daughter wrote after her reading: “I followed his life year after year. Since 1957, every step he took was waddling through hell. His deepest thinking was done at the intervals of countless beatings and public humiliations. When he needed family the most, his family abandoned him. Everyone has only one father. What have we done to such a father?”
Gu Zhun is now recognized as one of the most important thinkers in China in the past half century.
For me China is a great country because we have people like Gu Zhun, not because we have the largest population, not because we have one of the oldest civilizations, not because we have a fast-growing GDP, not because we have a large purchasing power as a market, not because we are now the world’s factory and industrial garbage dump. China’s spirit is passed down to us through people like him. And this spirit is universal in all nations, big or small. A nation with men or women like this will not die.
At my darkest moments, Gu Zhun’s name is a reminder of duty. My personal tragedy paled in comparison with his hardship and the choice he made in it. This gaunt, spectacle-wearing, ordinary-looking man, is a monument in my conscience.
J. N., our receptionist for 13 years, died on April 19, 2008, at the age of 61. She had been on medical leave for some time, but most of us did not know she had cancer. Being the private person she was, she preferred that nobody knew about her condition or visited her, and did not even want a funeral. Her mother arranged a celebration of life instead.
I wonder what made this woman, who apparently had a colorful, international life, finally settle down in another country all by herself, in an entry-level job making a meager salary, and seem to be happy about it. Her myth is sealed to us forever. I’m very patient at developing friendships, yet with her, we never had a chance, and we never will.
I will remember you, how you crossed the street going home in your stylish winter coat, how you sat at the front desk, how you held high a sign at the assembly site during an evacuation due to a false fire alarm, your frank face, your bright red lipstick, your big earrings. I should have done more for you, talked more to you, but I didn’t. I was selfish and always in a hurry, and you were private. Therefore our lives remain disconnected. But we’ll remember you, and miss you. Your life is worth celebrating.
I recall J. with a smile, imagining her enjoying the last puffs of cigarette, even with a deadly tumor in her throat. I was worried about her losing her livelihood since she lost her voice because of the tumor. How silly! It was her end. But I trust she enjoyed this life, and in her own way despised superficial human connections and rejected all pities. Rest well, J. You have character. You have style.
May 18, 2008, postscript after having learned more about her life:
So J. had really lived. When she sat behind the reception desk, cheerfully handling her tasks, calmly watching us going in and out, she must have pitied us poor saps who were bound in a rigid hierarchy and struggling for nothing close to life itself, and had never lived. In her heart she knew she had. This is why she passed away with grace and wanted not a funeral but a celebration.
Tagore is my true love. If I could love someone with all my intellect and emotion, it would be him. I grew up with his poetry. It became part of me. His poetry was my first aspiration to a higher life, my enlightenment to beauty. We are fortunate to have wonderful poets in China, who did a great job translating his poems into Chinese. For me they were the original. Till today, the beautiful words of his poetry, engraved in my mind, moving me with ever fresh strength, are still those rich and powerful Chinese words. The English translation, although done by himself, can never move me as deeply. It is a pity that I do not know the musical Bengali, in which his magic must have exerted all its mystic power in full strength.
Once in a while, a great person is born among us, and makes us feel that life is worth living, is sacred as it was meant to be, like the prophet in Gibran’s poems, like Tagore.
Tagore, his talent, his intellect, his insight, his honesty, the height and depth of his feelings and thoughts and experiences, are a gift to us. If I have any pride or arrogance, they vanish instantly when I think of him.
“WHERE the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action…”
In his words each of us pray for a new dawn for our country, for our species. When at peace, the world is full of the noises of the marketplace, where greed prevails. When at war, the world is full of the roars of bloodthirsty beasts, and cruelty rules. Tagore, through his wakeful yet compassionate insights, preserves a hope in humanity for us. He said we were not to leave this world to the bloodthirsty wolves. So we must not.
What I live to see is the beauty of my species, in their body, mind, heart, motion, creation, and choice. The tides of my life rise and fall around the magnitude of this beauty I find in life, as the tides of the ocean rise and fall to the changing gravity of the moon. What I live for, what I pursue, what I cannot have enough of, is this beauty.
Among all beauties, although they are all admirable, I keep being attracted to those that are natural, honest, and kind. Naturalness, honesty, and kindness, I have concluded, are the highest form of all beauties. A face showing such qualities is worth more than the magnificence of a palace.