-- translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
In a number of my stories, I’ve referred to an antiquated park: in fact, this is the Temple of Earth Park. Some years ago, before tourism had developed much, it was as desolate and neglected as a wasteland. People seldom gave it a thought.
The Temple of Earth wasn’t far from my home, or perhaps it’s better to say my home wasn’t far from it. All in all, I felt I was related to it by fate. It had reposed there for four hundred years before my birth, and ever since, when my grandmother was a young woman, she had taken my father to live in Beijing, my family had lived near it: in more than fifty years, my family had moved several times, but always to a place in its vicinity. Each time, we moved closer to it. I often felt this was something foreordained—as if this old park were waiting especially for me: it seemed it had been waiting for four hundred years—through all the tumultuous changes of those centuries.
It had waited for me to be born, and then it had waited for me to be suddenly crippled in both legs during my wildly ambitious youth. In those four hundred years, it had been denuded of the colored glazes on the eaves of its old temple, the glorious vermilion of its gates and walls had faded, the high walls had collapsed, pieces of jade inlaid into the pillars had loosened and scattered, yet old dark green cypress trees surrounding the altar had become more and more serene, and everywhere, weeds and vines flourished with abandon.
It was about the right time for me to come here. When the park was finally ready for me—a man at loose ends—I maneuvered my wheelchair into the park for the first time. The sun—on its ancient, unchanged path—was just growing bigger, and redder. In the still rays of light suffusing the park, it was easy for a person to see the time, and easy to see his own shadow.
Beginning with that afternoon when I happened to go to this park, I’ve never been away from it for long.
I understood at once why it was there. As I said in one story, “In a densely populated city, it’s as if God painstakingly arranged for a place as serene as this.”
The first few years after I was crippled, I couldn’t find work: I had no future; all of a sudden, it was almost as though I couldn’t find anything.
And so I wheeled myself to the park almost every day: it was another world, one where I could escape this world. I wrote in one story, “With no place to go, I used to spend the whole day in the park every day: other people went to work; I went to the park. It was an abandoned park. When it was time to go to work or time to go home, people took shortcuts through the park, and it became animated for a while. Afterwards, it was still.”
“In the dazzling golden sunlight, the park’s wall provided shade: I wheeled myself over there, put the back of the wheelchair down, and—either sitting or lying down—I read or thought. I would break off a cypress twig and drive away the insects who didn’t know any better than I did why they had been born in this world.” “A bee like a tiny piece of mist hung on in midair; an ant was deep in thought, its head wagging and its antennae quivering, and then, all of a sudden, it must have come up with the right answer, for it turned back and scudded off; the ladybug climbed around wearily, stopped to pray for a while, and then, flapping its wings, suddenly soared to the sky; on the tree trunk there was one cicada, as lonely as an empty room; dew rolled around on the leaves of weeds, and then coalesced, weighing the leaves down until they broke into thousands of rays of golden light.”
“The whole park was astir with the sound of weeds, bushes, and trees growing, all shattering ceaselessly.” This was all true: the park was a wasteland, but far from going downhill.
Aside from some buildings that I had no way to enter, aside from the altar that I had no way to reach but could only gaze at from every possible vantage point, I had been under every tree in the park, and my chair’s wheel-prints were left on almost every meter of grass. I had spent time in this park in all seasons, all kinds of weather, and all times of the day. Sometimes, I stayed only a short time and then went home; sometimes, I stayed until the entire ground was alight with moonbeams. I don’t remember which corners of the park I was in then. For several hours in a row, I was totally absorbed in thinking about death, and just as patiently, I pondered why I had to be born. This kind of thinking went on for quite a few years until I finally understood: a person’s birth isn’t a question for debate, but is the reality handed to him by God. When God hands us this reality, he has already incidentally assured its end, so death is something one needn’t be anxious to bring about; death is a festival that is sure to befall you. After thinking this through, I felt greatly relieved: nothing would ever be so frightening again. Let me put it this way: just think, when you get up early and stay up late preparing for an exam, and suddenly it occurs to you that—just ahead—a long vacation is waiting for you, don’t you feel a little better? And aren’t you happy and grateful for this arrangement? All that’s left is the question of how to live, but this is not something you can think through in an instant, not something that you can solve once and for all: you have to think about it your whole life, however long that is. It’s a demon or a lover who is your lifelong companion. And so, for fifteen years, I had to go to this old park, go under the old trees or next to the neglected weeds or beside the dilapidated walls, sit in silence or think blankly, break through the feelings of chaotic disarray that were all around me, and peep at my soul.
In fifteen years, people who didn’t understand this old park had wantonly altered some of its design and structure. Fortunately, there were some things that no one could change about it—for example, when the setting sun moves to the spot inside the stone arch of the altar, its rays spread across the ground and each rough spot on the ground is resplendent in the sunshine; or at the loneliest time in the park, a flock of swallows comes out and sings, their desolate song filling the space between heaven and earth; or the footprints children make in the snow in the wintertime, always leading people to wonder who they are, what they are doing there, and where they are going; for example, the dark old cypresses: when you’re feeling melancholy, they are standing there sedately, and when you’re feeling happy, they are still standing there sedately—they’ve stood there since before you were born and will go on standing there until you are no longer in this world; or a sudden rainstorm in the park touches off a pure green and muddy earth scent, giving rise to memories of countless summer occurrences; or the autumn wind suddenly arrives, and there is an early frost, and falling leaves or tottering singing and dancing or calm and quiet sleep: the park is pervaded with an atmosphere of tranquility and a little bitterness. Atmosphere is the most difficult thing to explain. My words can’t convey this atmosphere; you have to be there and smell it for yourself. It’s hard to remember, too: only when you smell it again will it bring back all the feelings connected with it. And so I must often go back to this park.
It’s only now that I think of how difficult I made it for Mother when I went to the Temple of Earth Park alone.
She wasn’t the sort of mother who simply loved her son without understanding him. She knew the pain I felt, knew she shouldn’t keep me from going out, knew that if I always stayed at home it would be even harder on me, but she worried about what I would think about the whole day in that barren park. Back then, my temperament was as bad as it could be: I often left the house as if I’d gone crazy, and when I returned from the park it was also as if I were possessed, for I never said a word. Mother knew there were some things she shouldn’t ask: she would want to ask something, and in the end she wouldn’t dare, because she didn’t have any answers, either. She figured out that I wouldn’t want her to go with me, so she never asked to do so: she knew she had to give me some time to be alone, that I had to have this passage. She just didn’t know how long this process would last, nor what would lie at the end of it. Whenever I wanted to go out, she mutely helped me get ready, helped me into the wheelchair, watched me zigzag my way out of the courtyard. Back then, I never thought about what it was like for her after I left.
Once, after I’d left, I remembered something and turned back. I saw Mother still standing in the same place, still in the same pose as when she’d seen me off—watching me go out of the outer wall of the small courtyard. At first, she didn’t react to my coming back. When she saw me off the second time, she said, “I think it’s great to go out and move about, to go to the Temple of Earth Park to read.” Not until years later did I realize that actually Mother was comforting herself: it was a secret prayer, it was a hint to me—an entreaty and a directive. It was only after she died unexpectedly years later that I began to think of it this way. How had she gone through those long hours when I was out? She must have been restless with anguish and misgivings, as well as the most modest invocations of a mother. Now I could figure it out: during those nights after the empty daytime, during those days after sleepless nights, with her intelligence and endurance she would have thought and thought and finally she would have said to herself: “In any case, I have to let him go out. The future is his. If something happens to him in the park, I can’t do anything but accept the consequences.” During that time—and it was a period of many years—I think I must have caused my mother to prepare for the worst, but she had never told me, “Think about me.” And in fact I hadn’t thought of her. Back then, her son was still too young with no time to think of his mother. He’d been dealt a blow by fate, and all he could think of was that he was the most unfortunate person in the world; he didn’t know that the son’s misfortune was always much harder on the mother. She had a son, who in his twenties had suddenly become a paraplegic: this was her only son. She wished this had happened to her, and not to her son, but there was no way to take his place. She thought, just let him go on living, even if I die, but she was also certain that a person could not merely live: her son would have to have a path he could take toward his own happiness. And no one could guarantee that, in the end, her son would be able to find this path. With a son like this, she was predestined to suffer more than all other mothers.
Once I was passing the time of day with a writer friend: I asked him what his earliest motivation had been for writing. After thinking for a while, he said, “My mother. To make her proud.” I was surprised, and said nothing for a long time. When I thought back to my earliest motivation for writing stories, it didn’t seem as simple as my friend’s, but I had shared the same dream, and when I gave it careful thought, I found this dream also accounted for much of my motivation. My friend asked, “Is my motivation too vulgar?” I only shook my head. I thought, although it wasn’t necessarily vulgar, it sounded too naive. He also said, “Back then, I really just wanted to become famous, so that other people would envy my mother.” I thought he was more candid than I. I thought, he’s also more fortunate than I, because his mother is still alive. I also thought, his mother was luckier than mine. His mother didn’t have a crippled son: otherwise, it wouldn’t have been so simple.
When my first story was published, and then again the first time I received a prize for a story, I wished so much that my mother were still alive. I could no longer stay at home, and once more I spent the whole day at the Temple of Earth Park. I was endlessly depressed and resentful. I went through the entire park, but I couldn’t think anything through: why couldn’t Mother have lived two more years? Why, just when her son was about to strike out on his own, was she suddenly unable to hold on? Could it be that her role in this world had been only to worry about her son, but not to enjoy my small portion of happiness? When she left me in such a hurry, she was only forty-nine! At the moment, I was even consumed with hatred and disgust for the world and for God. Later, in an article called “The Silk Tree,” I wrote, “I sat among the quiet trees in the small park and closed my eyes and thought: why did God call Mother back so soon? After a long time, I heard the faint answer: ‘She was suffering too much. When God saw that she couldn’t bear it any longer, he summoned her.’ This comforted me a little, and I opened my eyes and saw the wind blowing through the trees.” The small park was the Temple of Earth Park.
Only then did the confusing events of the past come into focus: Mother’s tribulations and greatness finally thoroughly saturated my mind. God had probably been right.
I went slowly through the park: it was another mist-covered dawn, another day with the scorching sun suspended high in the sky. I was thinking of just one thing: Mother’s gone. I stopped beneath an old cypress tree, stopped on the grass and beside the dilapidated wall. It was another afternoon with insects singing everywhere. It was another twilight with birds returning to their nests. I silently repeated one sentence to myself: But Mother’s gone. I put the back of the wheelchair down, and lay down. Half-sleeping, I waited until sunset and then sat up in a trance: I sat there until the ancient altar was mantled in darkness and then gradually the moonlight floated up. Not until then did I realize: Mother couldn’t come to this park again to look for me.
Time after time, when I had stayed in this park too long, Mother came looking for me. She came to find me, but she didn’t want me to know. If she could just see that I was still okay in the park, she would turn around quietly and go home. I had seen her receding figure several times. I had also seen her looking all around for me—her eyesight wasn’t good—wearing glasses, as if looking for a boat on the ocean. When she hadn’t yet seen me, I had already seen her. After I saw that she’d also seen me, I didn’t look at her anymore. After a while, I would look up and see her figure receding slowly. I have no way of knowing how many times she looked for me without finding me. Once, when I was sitting amid some dense shrubs, I saw that she didn’t find me: she walked alone in the park, walked past me, walked past some places where I often stopped. She walked on, blankly and urgently. I didn’t know how long she’d been looking for me, or how much longer she’d continue looking: I didn’t know why I decided not to call out to her—but this for sure wasn’t the hide-and-seek of childhood. Perhaps this came from a grown-up son’s stubbornness and shame? But this obstinacy just left me aching with regret; I wasn’t the least bit proud of it. I really want to admonish all grown-up boys: whatever you do, don’t act stubborn around your mother, and you certainly don’t have to be shy around your mother. I know this now, but it’s too late for me.
Sons want to make their mothers proud: this is too true. It more or less validates the vulgar idea of “I want to be famous.” This is a complicated issue, so let’s not bother with it, anyhow. The excitement of receiving a prize for my story dimmed day by day. I began to believe that at the least I was wrong about a little something: the path I had opened for myself in magazines by using pen and paper was not at all the path Mother had looked forward to my finding. Through the years, I always went to the park, and through the years I always wondered: what was the path that Mother had hoped I would find?
In her lifetime, Mother didn’t impart any meaningful wisdom to me, nor did she give me lessons to live by, but after she died, her difficult lot, her long-suffering will, and her unstinting but silent love were intensified, and—over time—impressed themselves on me more and more.
One year, the October wind was stirring up the quiet fallen leaves. I was reading in the park, and heard two old people out for a walk say, “We never would have guessed this park was so big.” I put my book down, and thought, it was such a large park, if Mother looked for her son here, how many worried paces had she taken? In all these years, this was the first time I was aware of this: not only did every spot in this park have my wheel tracks, but they also had Mother’s footprints.
If seasons are analogous to times of the day, then spring is the morning, summer is noon, autumn is dusk, and winter is night. If the seasons are analogous to musical instruments, I think spring must be the trumpet, summer is tympani, autumn is the cello, and winter is the French horn and the flute. And if the seasons are analogous to the sounds in this park, then what are they? Spring is the doves’ whistling floating above the altar, summer is the long chorus of the cicadas and the poplar leaves—huala huala, autumn is the ringing of the windbells on the eaves of the old temple, and winter is the random, hollow pecking sound of the woodpeckers. If seasons are analogous to the scenery in the park, then spring is a path sometimes white and sometimes black and damp, clusters of poplar flowers floating in the now-overcast now-sunny sky; summer is the dazzling, burning stone benches, or the cool shady stone steps covered with lichen—a few fruit peels and a folded wrinkled newspaper someone left behind; autumn is the large bronze bell—in the northwest corner of the park is this large discarded bronze bell, the same age as the park, a patina all over it, and inscriptions on it that are no longer clear; winter is the old sparrows, with few feathers left, on the ground in the grove. And if seasons are analogous to the emotions? Spring is the season of being confined to bed—healthy people are apt to ignore the brutality and anxiety that accompany spring; summer is the time when lovers should suffer the pain of being jilted—or they won’t appreciate love; autumn is the time for buying a flowering plant and bringing it back to the home one left long ago, and then opening the windows to let the sunlight in, and slowly recalling and slowly tidying the things that have grown moldy here; winter is the season for reading by the fireplace, once and again affirming the determination to stay alive, writing letters that won’t be sent. Seasons can also be analogous to art. Spring is a painting, summer a novel, autumn a short song or poem, winter a group of sculptures. And dreams? Are seasons analogous to dreams? Spring is the exclamation on the treetops, summer is the drizzle in the exclamation, autumn is the earth in the drizzle, and winter is one lonely pipe in the clean ground.
Because of this park, I am often thankful for my fate.
Now, indeed I can see clearly that if I must someday leave it for a long time, how I will yearn for it, how I will miss it and dream of it, and how I won’t be able to dream of it because I won’t dare to think of it.
Now let me think: who were the people who kept going to this park for fifteen years? It seems that, besides me, the only ones left are an old couple.
Fifteen years ago, this old couple was middle-aged, and I was still really young. They always walked in the park at dusk: I wasn’t sure which gate they entered from; they generally walked counter-clockwise through the park. The man was very tall, broad-shouldered and long-legged; when he walked, he looked straight ahead. He was erect from his waist to his neck. His wife held his arm as they walked, but even this didn’t change his posture in the slightest.
The woman was short, and couldn’t be considered pretty. For no reason, I assumed she was from what had once been an illustrious, wealthy family. As she held her husband’s arm, she seemed like a fragile child. When she looked all around, it was as if she were dreading something. She spoke softly to her husband, and when others approached, she timidly stopped talking. Sometimes, I associated them with Jean Valjean and Cosette, but this was a fleeting notion. At a glance, you knew they were an old husband and wife. They were both well dressed, but because times had changed, their clothes seemed somehow old-fashioned. They were like me: bad weather couldn’t stop them from coming to this park, but they kept to a schedule more than I did. I might come at any time, but they always came at twilight. When it was windy, they wore beige-colored windbreakers; when it rained, they carried black umbrellas. In the summer, they wore white shirts and either black or beige trousers. In the winter, they wore black wool overcoats. These were probably the only three colors they liked. They would walk counter-clockwise through this park once, and then they’d leave.
When they walked past me, I heard only the man’s footsteps; on their excursions, it was as if the woman were tacked onto her husband and floating along. I thought they must have some impression of me, but we never talked with each other. None of us ever indicated that we wanted to get acquainted. In fifteen years, perhaps they noticed that one young guy was entering middle age, and I noticed that one admirable middle-aged pair of affectionate companions were becoming two old persons.
Another one who came here was a young guy who loved to sing: he also came to this park every day. He came to sing, and sang here for years; later, he disappeared. He was about the same age as I. Most of the time, he came in the morning, and sang for half an hour or sometimes the whole morning; I supposed he had to go to work at other times. We often ran into each other on the path east of the altar: I knew he was going to sing beneath the high wall in the southeast corner, and he must have supposed that I was going to the grove in the northeast corner. When I reached my spot and took a few puffs of a cigarette, I could hear him preparing to start. He kept singing the same few songs. Before the Cultural Revolution ended, he sang “The white clouds drift in the blue sky, and birds scamper under the white clouds. . .” I keep forgetting the name of that song. After the Cultural Revolution, he sang the most popular aria from “The Peddler and the Girl”: “Cloth for sale, cloth for sale!” I recall that he sang this first line with great style: in the clear morning air, this peddler made the rounds of all the corners in the park to pay tribute to the girl.
“I’m having good luck, I’m having good luck, I’m singing for happiness. . .” and then he sang it again and again, not letting the peddler’s ardor cool. I didn’t think his technique was perfect, for he made mistakes in key places, but his voice was quite good and he could sing for a whole morning without tiring. The sun didn’t get tired, either: it shrank the large trees’ shadows into a ball, and dried the reckless earthworms on the path. Near noon, we ran into each other again at the east side of the altar. He looked at me, I looked at him, he headed north, and I headed south. This went on for a long time before I felt that both of us wanted to become acquainted, but it seemed we didn’t know how to open our mouths, and so we would look at each other and then finally avert our eyes and continue on our separate ways. This happened several times, and it seemed even more difficult to open our mouths. Finally, one day, a day that wasn’t at all special, we each nodded to the other. He said, “Hello.” I said, “Hello.” He said, “Are you going home?” I said, “Yes. And you?” He said, “Yes, I have to go back, too.” We both slackened our steps (wheelchair, in my case), wanting to talk a little more, but we still didn’t know where to begin. And so we passed one another, and then both turned to look back at the other.
He said, “See you later, then.” I said, “Okay, see you later.” Then, smiling at each other, we went our separate ways. But we didn’t see each other again. After that, he no longer sang in the park. Only then did it occur to me that maybe that day, he had intentionally said good-bye to me. Had he perhaps been selected for a theater company or a singing and dancing troupe? I really hoped that he would have the good luck that he had sung of.
There were some others, too. I can still recall some who often came to the park. One old man could be considered a genuine drinker: at his waist hung a flat porcelain bottle, which was of course filled with wine. He often came to the park to while away the afternoon hours. He strolled all around: if you weren’t paying attention, you’d have thought there were several old men like this in the park, but when you noticed his unique drinking style, you would believe that he was an old man in a class by himself. He dressed too casually, and that’s the way he walked, too. After walking fifty or sixty meters, he would choose a spot, step on a stone bench or an earthen mound or a tree stump, take out the wine bottle, pull out its cork, and at the same time, he would scan the scene in front of him, slowly, from left to right, with narrowed eyes. Then, lightning-sudden, he would down a large gulp, and hang the bottle at his waist again, think calmly for a while, and then walk another fifty or sixty meters. There was also a man who caught birds. In those times, there weren’t many people in the park, but there were a lot of birds. He set up a net in the grove in the northwest corner, and when birds hit it, their feathers got stuck in the mesh and they couldn’t extricate themselves. He was waiting for a particular kind of bird that was very common in the past but very rare now. When other birds hit the net, he plucked them out and let them go. He said he’d been waiting for years for the rare bird; he said he would wait another year and see if this bird still existed. He went on waiting for years. In the morning and at dusk, one could see a middle-aged woman engineer in this park: in the morning, she went through the park from north to south to go to work; at dusk, she went through the park from south to north to go home. In fact, I didn’t know anything about her profession or her academic background, but I thought she must be a professional in science and technology: other people didn’t usually have her look of simple, unadorned elegance. When she walked through the park, the trees all around seemed even more peaceful, and the weak rays of the sun seemed to carry a haunting melody, such as “Für Elise.” I never saw her husband, never saw what that lucky man was like. I tried to imagine what he looked like, but I couldn’t. Later, I suddenly realized that it was better not to know, it was best if he didn’t appear. She walked out of the north gate and went home.
I was a little worried, worried that she would have to busy herself in the kitchen; maybe the scenes she would create in the kitchen would also be beautiful, but not like “Für Elise.” Then what melody would they be analogous to? There was another person—he was my friend: he was a very gifted long-distance runner, but he’d been neglected. Because he’d been careless in his talk during the Cultural Revolution, he’d spent a few years in jail. After he got out, it was only with great difficulty that he found a job pulling a cart. On the job, he wasn’t treated equally in anything. Training for long-distance racing was his way of dealing with his depression. Back then, he always came to the park to run, and I timed him with my watch. Every time he finished a lap, he signaled to me, and I wrote down the time. Each time, he ran twenty laps, about twenty thousand meters. He hoped that his success in marathon running would win him real release from political problems: he thought reporters’ lenses and words could help him achieve this. The first year, he placed fifteenth in the Spring Festival round-the-city race: he saw photos of the first ten in the newspaper display case on Chang-an Street, so he had some confidence. The next year, he came in fourth, but photos of only the first three were hung in the display case. He didn’t give up. The third year, he was seventh; photos of the first six were hung in the case, and he was a little annoyed with himself. The fourth year, he came in third, but only the first-place winner’s photo was hung in the case. The fifth year, he placed first, and almost despaired, for the display case showed only a photo of the crowds watching the spectacle. In those years, the two of us often stayed in this park until dark, swearing as much as we liked, and after we finished cursing, we went home silently. When we parted, we’d each admonish the other again: Try a little harder, don’t give up on life just yet. He doesn’t run any longer; he’s too old, and can’t run that fast. The last time he took part in the round-the-city race, even at the age of thirty-eight, he came in first again and also broke the record. A coach said to him, “I wish I’d discovered you ten years ago.” He forced a smile and said nothing. At dusk, he came to the park again, and calmly told me of this. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen him; he, his wife, and his son now live far away from here.
Now, these people no longer come to the park. It’s almost a whole new contingent. Of the old ones from fifteen years ago, now the only ones left are the old couple and I. For a while, one of the old couple didn’t come, either: at dusk, only the man came alone to walk. His pace had slowed a lot. I was concerned for a long time, afraid something had happened to the woman. Happily, after the winter passed, the woman came again, and the two of them still walked counter-clockwise through the park—one long shadow and one short one, like the hands on a watch. The woman had a lot more gray hair now, but—as before—she entwined her arm with her husband’s as she walked, as if she were a child. “Entwined” isn’t quite the right word. Perhaps we should say “supported.” I don’t know if there’s a word that combines these two meanings.
There’s also a child I can’t forget—a pretty but unfortunate little girl. I saw her the afternoon fifteen years ago when I came to this park for the first time. She was probably about three years old, and was squatting on the path west of the temple picking up “little lanterns” that had fallen from the trees. There were a few goldenrain trees that had clusters of tiny dense yellow flowers in the springtime. After the flowers fell, they produced countless little lanterns, each formed from three leaves. At first, the little lanterns were green, then they turned white, and then yellow: when they fell, the ground was covered with them. People treasured them because they were so perfect. Even adults couldn’t help but pick up one, and then another. The little girl was jabbering to herself as she collected the little lanterns. She had a good voice, not like the sharp thin voices of other children her age, but round and smooth, perhaps even massive. Maybe it was because the park was too quiet that afternoon. I wondered why such a young child had come to the park alone. I asked her where she lived. She pointed offhandedly, and called her brother. A boy of seven or eight stood up in the luxuriant grasses bordering the wall, and looked at me. When he saw that I didn’t seem to be a bad man, he said to his sister, “I’m over here,” and then he bent down again: he was catching insects. He caught mantises, locusts, cicadas, and dragonflies to make his little sister happy. For two or three years, I often saw them under the large pear trees. The two of them always played together; they got along well. Gradually, they grew a little older, and afterwards I didn’t see them for years. I thought they were both in school—the little girl had also reached school age. They wouldn’t have many opportunities to come and play here. This was normal: there wasn’t any reason to worry about them. If it hadn’t been for seeing them again one year in the park, I would certainly have gradually forgotten them.
It was a Sunday morning. A heartbreakingly fair morning. Now, years later, I discovered that this pretty little girl was retarded. I was maneuvering my wheelchair to a spot beneath a few large goldenrain trees; as it happened, it was again the season when the ground was covered with little lanterns. At the time, I was laboring over the ending of a story: I neither knew why it needed to end this way nor why I suddenly didn’t want it to end this way, and so I’d rushed from home to the quiet of the park to consider whether I should give up on it. I had just stopped the wheelchair when I saw, not far away, that a few people were teasing a young girl, scaring her by making faces. Shouting and laughing, they were chasing her and blocking her way. In the midst of a few large trees, the young girl was trying to get away from them, but she wouldn’t let go of the hem of her skirt which she was holding up to her chest. She didn’t seem conscious of her bare legs.
I noticed that the young girl was a little retarded, but I still hadn’t seen who she was. Just as I was about to wheel myself over there to help her get away, I saw a young boy come flying over on his bike from far away. The guys teasing the young girl fled at the sight of him. The boy propped his bike up next to the young girl, and glowered at the guys who had run off in all directions. He was gasping for breath and didn’t say a word. His face was like a stormy sky, becoming paler and paler. Now I recognized them: the young boy and girl were the brother and sister from years ago. I almost exclaimed to myself, or wailed. Earthly realities frequently make us suspect that God harbored evil intentions. The boy walked over to his little sister. The little girl let go of her skirt—and lots and lots of little lanterns that she had collected sprinkled the ground. She could still be considered pretty, but her eyes were sluggish and dull. She gazed blankly at the guys who had run off; she was looking as far as she could, but—with her intelligence—there was no way she could understand the world. Beneath the large tree were bits and pieces of shattered rays from the sun, and a breeze was rolling the little lanterns around on the ground, as if they were countless little bells ringing silently. The brother helped his little sister to the backseat of the bicycle, and wordlessly took her home.
He was right to say nothing. If God made this young girl both pretty and retarded, the only right thing to do was to go home in silence.
Who could understand this world? A lot of things in this world are things one can’t bear to speak of. You can complain and ask why God had to send so many tribulations to the world; you can also struggle to destroy all kinds of tribulations, and feel lofty and proud of this, but as soon as you think a little more, you will drop into deep confusion: if there weren’t tribulations, could the world still exist? If there weren’t idiocy, what glory would lie in wittiness? If there weren’t ugliness, how could beauty be felicitous? If there weren’t evil and beggary, how could goodness and nobility be defined, and how could they become virtuous? If it weren’t for deformities, would healthiness be taken so much for granted that people would get bored with it? I often fantasize that deformities have been completely obliterated, but I can believe that if that were so, then the sick people would replace the deformed ones in bearing the same kind of tribulations. If illnesses could be completely obliterated, then their share of hardships might, for example, be assumed by ugly people. Suppose that ugliness, stupidity, meanness, and everything else that we dislike could all be obliterated, and everyone had the same good health, beauty, intelligence, and nobleness, what would the result be like? Probably the curtains would fall on all the world’s dramas. Without differences, the world would be a pond of lifeless backwater, an unfeeling, infertile desert.
There must always be differences. The only thing to do is to accept hardships: all of mankind’s dramas need them, and being itself needs them. God was right again.
And so when we come to the questions—who will take these roles of suffering? and who will embody life’s good fortune, pride, and happiness—the only conclusion leads to absolute despair. We have no choice but to leave it to chance; there’s no principle governing this.
It’s all about fate. Impartiality plays no role in this.
Then, where is the salvation from all the miserable fates? Suppose wisdom could lead us to salvation, could everyone possibly attain this sort of wisdom? I think it’s ugliness that brings up beauty, silliness that makes wisdom, and cowardice that sets off the heroic. It’s all living things that release the Buddha’s soul from suffering.
Suppose there is a god of the park: he must have noticed long ago that I’ve been sitting in this park for years, and sometimes I’ve been relaxed and happy, sometimes gloomy and depressed, sometimes leisurely, sometimes anxiety-ridden and lonely, sometimes calm and self-confident, sometimes weak and lost. Actually, there were only three questions that took turns plaguing me and keeping me company. The first was: did I want to die? The second was: why live? The third: why on earth did I want to write? Let me consider how they have been interwoven up to now.
As you said, you’ve seen through death—it’s something that doesn’t have to be rushed, it’s something that you can’t miss, in any case. Is that why you decide to go on living? Yes, at least it’s a major part of the reason. Why do you decide to keep trying? It seems it’s nothing more than that you’re not reconciled to your fate, so why not try? Your legs are done for anyhow. It’s as if everything is over, but death will come by for you on its schedule. You won’t lose anything more by continuing to try. And who knows? It might bring some unexpected benefits. Am I right? At this point, as I’ve mentioned before, I felt much better: I felt free. Why write? “Writer” is a word that people have a lot of respect for: everyone knows this. I wrote in the hope that someday in the future, the man in the wheelchair hidden in a corner of the park would have a little luster, would have a little place in everyone’s eyes. After that, I could reconcile myself to death. To be honest, this is the way I thought. There’s no need to keep it secret now.
I took my notebook and pen to the park and found a corner where I would least be bothered, and wrote in secret. The young guy who liked to sing was singing somewhere not far away all the while. If someone walked by, I closed my notebook and held my pen in my mouth. I was afraid if I wasn’t successful, I’d be embarrassed. I cared about face. But I did succeed, and published. People said my writing wasn’t bad. They even said: We never imagined you could write so well. I thought to myself, there are even more things you haven’t imagined. I was so happy that I didn’t shut my eyes for a whole night. I wanted to let the young singer know, because after all, he wasn’t a bad singer, either. When I told my long-distance runner friend, the middle-aged female engineer was just walking gracefully through the park. The long-distance runner was excited. He said, That’s great. I throw myself into running, and you throw yourself into writing. I was like someone possessed: all day I thought about which incident I could write about, which person I could write a story about. I was possessed. Wherever I went, I thought about it; I was always looking for a story. I wished there were a reagent for a story, so that I could drop a little of it on a person to see if he had a story. It would be better if there were a developing fluid for stories; then I’d spill it all over the world to locate all the places containing stories. I was possessed. At the time, I lived only for writing. And so you published a few more stories, and made something of a name for yourself, but you felt more and more panicky. I suddenly felt that I was living like a hostage. I had just been a little like an individual, and now I was like a hostage, as if I’d been framed to be a hostage: you’d be executed any moment, it would be all over any day. You worried that before long, your inspiration would dry up, and then you’d also be finished. How could I expect I’d always be able to write stories? How could I suppose that living material fitting for stories could always appear in front of a paraplegic? Other writers run all over the world and are still in danger of drying up, and yet how could I sit in this park and write story after story? You think again of death. Should I stop at this point? To be a hostage was too tiring and too much of a strain, too precarious. I went on living only for writing: if writing really wasn’t what I should be doing, wasn’t it foolish to hang on? With this thought, though, you went on racking your brains to write. For good or ill, I wrung out a little more water from a washcloth that was almost dry. The panic got worse and worse. The sense of being finished at any moment is much more frightening than actually being finished. I thought I’d be better off dead. It would be better not to have been born in the first place. It would be better if this world had never existed. But you didn’t end your life. I thought again that I needn’t be in any hurry to die. But not needing to rush didn’t mean making efforts to delay it. You always decide to go on living: what does this illuminate? Yes. I still want to live. Why do people live? Because they want to live. In the end, what is this about? Human beings’ real name is: desire. Yet I wasn’t afraid of death; sometimes, I truly didn’t fear death. That’s right—just sometimes. Not being afraid of death is one thing and wanting to die is another. Sometimes there are people who don’t fear death, but there is no one who has never feared death. Sometimes I actually fear living. But being afraid to live doesn’t mean not wanting to live. Why do I still want to live? Because you’re still thinking of obtaining a little something, you feel you still can obtain a little something—love, for example, or worth, for example. Human beings’ real nature is desire. What’s wrong with this? Aren’t I also entitled to a little something from life? Sure I am. But why I do I live fearfully, like a hostage? Later, you understood, you understood that you had been wrong: you don’t live in order to write, but you write in order to live. It was in a jocular moment that you came to understand this little bit. One day when you said again that it would be better to die, a friend of yours admonished you: You can’t die, you still have to write; you still have a lot of good stories just waiting for your words. Then, you suddenly understood; you said, It’s because I’m living that I have to write. Or it’s only because you still want to live that you have to write. Yes. After saying this, I was no longer so panicky. Is it like the relief you feel after you’ve seen through death? A hostage’s most effective revenge against the kidnappers is to kill himself. Are you still writing? Yes. Do you really have to write? People can’t help rationalizing their existence. Aren’t you afraid you’ll dry up? I don’t know, but I think there will always be problems in living until death eventually shows up.
Good. You no longer need to panic, you’re no longer a hostage: you’re free. Nonsense! How can I be free? Don’t forget that human beings’ real nature is: desire. So you need to understand: the most effective way to obliterate panic is to obliterate desire. But I also know that the most effective way to obliterate human nature is to obliterate desire. To obliterate panic by getting rid of desire, or to preserve life by keeping desire: which should we choose? As I was sitting in this park, I heard the god of the park tell me, Everyone is a hostage, kidnapped by his own desire in life. A wise person can be a spectator, watching his drama at the same time that he acts in it. Anyone who is unaware that he is also a hostage is lackluster. Every unfortunate spectator is so because he sits too close to the stage.
As I sat in this park, the god of the park never tired of telling me, Child, this is no other than your sin and your blessing.
If there are some things I haven’t said, Temple of Earth, don’t think I’ve forgotten them. I haven’t forgotten anything, but some things are best stored away. They can’t be spoken of, they can’t be thought about, but they can’t be forgotten, either. They can’t be transformed into language: they have no way to be transformed into language, for as soon as they are, they no longer exist. They are an obscure warmth and desolation; they are mature hopes and despairs. They have only two domains: the mind and the tomb. Take postage stamps, for example: some are used for mailing letters, some are just for collecting.
Now, as I moved my wheelchair slowly through the park, I often had a certain feeling: I felt that I’d been coming alone to enjoy myself too long. One day when I was organizing my old photo albums, I saw a photo from more than ten years ago of myself in the park—that young person was sitting in a wheelchair. Behind him was an old cypress tree, and still farther away was the ancient altar. I went to the park and looked for that tree. With the background in the photo as my guide, I found the tree quickly. I identified it by the shape of the branches in the photo. There was no mistake. But it had already died, and a thick vine was twined around it. One day in this park, I encountered an old lady. She said, “Oh, are you still here?” She asked, “Is your mother still well?”
“Who are you?” “You don’t remember me, but I remember you. One time when your mother came looking for you, she asked me if I’d seen a big boy in a wheelchair. . .” I suddenly thought, I’ve enjoyed myself too long in this world. One night, I sat alone reading under the streetlight next to the altar when suddenly from the black altar there came the music of a woodwind instrument. All around there were only tall old trees. The several hundred meters of open land occupied by the square altar faced the firmament. I couldn’t see who was playing the horn: its sound rose and fell in the starlit, lonely night air, sometimes sad and sometimes joyous, sometimes lingering, sometimes bleak. Probably these few words aren’t enough to describe it. I could hear it echoing in the past, echoing in the present, echoing in the future, whirling and turning back to time immemorial.
There would surely be a day when I would hear it summoning me back.
Then, you can imagine a child, tired out from playing but wanting to play some more. Indeed, some new ideas in his mind just can’t wait until tomorrow. You can also imagine an old person, taking sure steps toward his resting place, walking willingly. You can imagine a couple deeply in love, telling each other time after time, “I don’t want to leave you for even a second,” and telling each other time after time, “It’s getting late.” It’s getting late, but I don’t want to leave you for even a second. I don’t want to leave you for even a second, but it’s getting late.
I’m not sure whether I want to go back, I can’t say whether I want to or not—or perhaps I don’t care. I can’t say if I’m like the child, or like the old person, or like a sweetheart deeply in love. Very likely I’m all three at the same time. When I arrived, I was a child: it was because he had so many childish notions that he arrived—wailing, yelling, and making a commotion. As soon as he arrived, as soon as he saw this world, he became a desperate lover, and from a lover’s viewpoint, it doesn’t matter how much time there is, it’s all fleeting. Then he understood: every step, every step, in fact, was a step on the road going back. In the season when morning glories bloomed, the funeral clarion call would sound.
The sun: it is setting and rising simultaneously in every moment, in every second. While it is stepping downhill to collect the desolate fading light, it is precisely at that moment that it is burning splendidly as it climbs to the summit from the other side. Someday, I will also quietly descend the mountain, leaning on my crutch.
One day, in a certain valley, a merry child will certainly come running up, carrying his playthings.
Of course, it won’t be I.
But: isn’t it I? With its ceaseless desires, the universe forges an eternal life show. We needn’t name the desire.