I can never remember which books I’ve read, or which films I’ve seen. The more I read, the faster I seem to forget. I’ve tried many things in attempt to overcome this. I’ve folded pages, underlined sentences, copied excerpts, and written comments. Friends say I’m stupid for doing these things, but after a while, they gave up on trying to convince me of my error — laziness is harder to cure than stupidity.
It came to the point where I began to think that perhaps I should just give up reading altogether — it only burdens my memory, after all. What’s so hard to attain in one’s own life that one must seek it in the records and creations of others anyway?
It is sentiments like this — the complete rejection of others — that initiate the venomous process of self-dejection.
I started to become aware of the enlightening potential of reading. First of all, reading is self-liberating. I’m compelled to implore myself questions like: are others truly visible to me? Am I curious about the unfamiliar? Do I even feel anything for the outside world?
When I was young, I took particular interest in reading instruction manuals. I’d read drink bottle labels meticulously, absorbing information like the material composition, or details of the manufacturer — trivial, but in many situations, this was the only source of sensory stimulation I could find. To me, even these shards of seemingly useless information were like the chime of a bell that I blindly followed in my yearning for stimulation.
Second to this is all that stuff that not everyone will necessarily pick up on — knowledge, aesthetics, ideas, values — ‘added value’, or bonus gifts to the attentive reader. This is where I diverge from those who read incessantly. When did reading itself become some sort of goal? In the eyes of more prolific readers, the process of reading is to be carried out bit by bit, characterised by spontaneous encounters, articulate adjustments, and, following an appropriate level of laziness and forgetfulness, the formation of a web of hazy impressions. It’s quite possible that from this haze, the true purpose of reading might emerge.
I have to tell myself this, in order to occasionally escape from my reading-induced memory loss and anxiety.
I’ve recently finished readingThe Du Fu from Tang by Feng Zhi, and while it’s still fresh in my mind, I’ll exploit this opportunity to use it as an example. The book describes Du Fu’s journey, in which he travels great distances in order to seek out officials (or escape from them), stays with friends and visits relatives, and, finally, dies aboard a boat on the Xiang Jiang river. Though I can’t recall the specific course of events of Du Fu’s life or even his exact travel route, not unlike the astonishing accounts of the earliest travel writers, his journey is impressive tale. Some critics have praised Feng Zhi’s writings on Du Fu for his near impeccable account, in which his frequent sentiments of longing for friends and family are described vividly, as well as his concerns for the welfare of the general public, and the constant sacrifice of integrity he made in pursuit of a meaningful career. In the postscript of a the book, an attached commentary supplements some omissions in the main text. However merit-worthy, the average reader likely doesn’t care for such detail. Feng Zhi remarks, for example, that despite having endured “national disasters, widespread suffering, and individual tragedies”, poets somehow maintain their “resolute spirit of optimism”. His argument is in fact a simple one, where one concluding remark would suffice: irrespective of how vagrant life may become, a poet will continue to write.
Last year, I read From Khanbaliq to Xanadu. The story-like narration of historical and geographical knowledge is admirable, and accessible to the average reader. It was another aspect of the narrative, however, that attracted me to this book — Professor Luo Xin’s account of his own journey. Throughout his travels, he observes subtle transitions in the social and natural landscapes as well as changes in himself. In one instance, he vividly describes the pain in his foot induced by several hours of walking — from the cause, his painstaking forbearance, to reaching a point of agony beyond tolerance, and finally, to finding some sense of pleasure in his pain. This anecdote affords us an opportunity to reflect on the layered complexity of ostensibly simple experiences.
This is basically how I read, and how my memory functions. In recalling those great people, their books and their journeys, it is not the greatness of those people themselves that I revere, but that of their journeys — the marks left by each individual, more or less merely objects of similar mass in the eyes of the universe, at different points in time, and the that place they occupy.
In the present issue of OW Magazine, we are concerned primarily with exploring questions to do with hardship, but what we discover is that in many cases, the answer is courage. In a way, this is an answer to my earlier pondering on what we seek to attain from others by reading. There is a good chance that, with some recollection of daily life, it is the different lives you’ve read about that will remain in your memory most vividly, because your life is so starkly different to theirs.
On Orwell, Yun Yetui comments, “Orwell describes fear in such a way that we are given the power to overcome it.” The poet Dai Weina once remarked, “the weight of our bodies is the result of enduring pain. The earliest humans certainly realised the nature of their humanity through the experience of manual labor and subsequent pain.” Li Jingrui commented on Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time”, a biography of Shostakovich which employs a narrative-like writing style that vividly portrays his courage. Kong Yalei introduces James Salter’s novel with these words: “apart from fame, what really makes someone great lies beneath the surface, something more noble, but, at the same time, something.far simpler. That is true courage. Moreso than fame, it is the courage to completely invest in and create oneself that is truly admirable.” During a trip to Moscow, Berlen wrote that all writers and poets existed in a void, where they spoke to her in loud whispers. Among the present was Mayakovsky:
“You are alone, often angry and unstable,
impatiently urging on fate,
You know, soon you will be happily and contently
Immersing yourself in the battle for greatness.”
Hardship is merely one cognition to do with the relationship between humans and this world. It is that which successfully converges with its essence that forms a valuable source of enlightenment for humanity. After reading enough, you’ll discover that your supposed internals crises are really just the eternal struggles of humanity. Through the countless accounts of others describing the same phenomena, you’ll likely find someone to share your burden with. You might even be able to begin to recognise it, identify it, and describe it, rendering it no longer an object of fear.
This should form OW Magazine’s literary standard. Mere accounts of dejection are uninteresting, one’s own hardships negligible in the grand scheme of things. What is more important is the recognition that all humans constantly endure hardship. Literature is inseparable from the world in which it is conceptualised. Whether it has been pursued intentionally or otherwise, literature materialises as a result of constant social interactions. In an interview, Zhu Tianxin told us, “when one finds oneself in a period of hardship, it is necessary to think past it, and push through it — there’s no sense in getting hung-up on whether or not there is an easier way out.” The most important thing is, in accepting that victory is not a given outcome, making the decision to face hardship.
Just like good writing, there are only two proper ways to live one’s life: with courage, either bring it to end, or carry on. Neither of these alternatives offer an easy way out, especially in comparison to the lives of those who live under the pretence that this decision is not one they ever need to make.
Once you get past all of that, you’ll find that hardship is nothing extraordinary at all. Often, the only thing we need is just a bit of luck, or a sunny day. Like the Beijing spring, before you’ve fully shaken off the blues, jasmines begin to line the streets, peach blossoms liven up communities, and green patches of grass signal the arrival of bright new season. Humans are different, though. Transitions through periods of life are not seasonal, or well-defined in terms of time.
At that very moment, you realise, there are still countless winters awaiting you.
— Wu Qi
Translated by Jacob Tomkins
The translator is grateful to Callum Smith for his editorial suggestions.