Those acquainted with modern Chinese literature tell us that Lu Hsun (1881-1936) is one of its most towering figures. His stories are of the most intimate type: he chronicles his thoughts, feelings, and impressions in a free-flowing manner, unrestrained by convention or rule. He did not subscribe to any political affiliation, preferring to remain beholden to no one. It is this streak of stubborn independence that attracts us to his writings.
I recently came across some of his thoughts on death. Things in life happen for a reason. Last week I learned that an old friend had died in a tragic car accident. This news affected me deeply. I began to think about the fragility of life, and somehow was led to this Chinese writer. He almost sounds like one of the old Greeks or Romans. The sense of humor is sharp, self-deprecating, but laced with poignancy.
Like his father, he suffered from a long illness; but this seems to have sharpened, rather than blunted, his senses. His essays combine the best of the classic Chinese sages with the modern taste for stream-of-consciousness writing. Even though the fog of translation, his observations are startling for their honesty and perceptiveness. The following passages were written while he was in the grips of a persistent illness:
This, too, happens during illness. There are things which a healthy or a sick man ignores, either because he does not come across them or because they are too insignificant. But a man just recovering from a serious illness experiences them. In my case, two good examples are the fearfulness of exhaustion and the comfort of rest. I used often to boast that I did not know what it was to be tired.
In front of my desk there is a swivel-chair, and sitting there to write or read carefully was work; besides it there is a wicker reclining chair, and lying there to chat or skim through the papers was rest. I found no great difference between the two and often boasted of the fact. Now I know my mistake. I found little difference because I was never tired, because I never did any manual labor.
Here he meditates on the approach of death:
Since last year, whenever I lay on my wicker chair recovering from illness, I would consider what to do when I was well, what articles to write, what books to translate or publish. My plans made, I would conclude, “All right–but I must hurry.” This sense of urgency, which I never had before, was due to the fact that unconsciously I had remembered my age. But still I never thought directly of “death.”
…It is only now that I am finally sure that I do not believe that men turn into ghosts [after death]. It occurred to me to write a will, and I thought: If I were a great nobleman with a huge fortune, my sons, sons-in-law, and others would have forced me to write a will long ago; whereas nobody has mentioned it to me.
Still, I may as well leave one. I seem to have thought out quite a few items for my family, among which were:
1. Don’t accept a cent from anyone for the funeral. This does not apply to old friends.
2. Get the whole thing over with quickly, and have me buried and be done with it.
3. Do nothing in the way of commemoration.
4. Forget me and live your own lives–if you don’t, the more fools you are.
5. When your child grows up, if he has no gifts, let him take some small job to make a living. On no account let him become a writer or artist in name only.
6. Don’t take other people’s promises seriously.
7. Have nothing to do with people who injure others, but who oppose revenge and advocate tolerance.
There were other items, too, but I have forgotten them. I remember also how during a fever I recalled that when a European is dying there is usually some sort of ceremony in which he asks the pardon of others and pardons them.
Now I have a great many enemies, and what should my answer be if some modernized person asked me my views on this? After some thought I decided: Let them go on hating me. I shall not forgive a single one of them either.
No such ceremony took place, however, and I did not draw up a will. I simply lay there in silence, struck sometimes by a more pressing thought: if this is dying, it isn’t really painful. It may not be quite like this at the end, of course; but still, since this happens only once in a lifetime, I can take it…Later, however, there came a change for the better.
And now I am wondering whether this was really the state just before dying: a man really dying may not have such ideas. What it will be like, though, I still do not know.
[Translated by Yang Xianyi and Sladys Yang].
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