Epilogue of My People and My Country
In the general survey of Chinese art and Chinese life, the conviction must have been forced upon us that the Chinese are past masters in the art of living. There is a certain whole-hearted concentration on the material life, a certain zest in living, which is mellower, perhaps deeper, anyway just as intense as in the West. In China the spiritual values have not been separated from the material values, but rather help man in a keener enjoyment of life as it falls to our lot. This accounts for our joviality and our incorrigible humor. A heathen can have a heathenish devotion to the life of the present and envelop both spiritual and material values in one outlook, which it is difficult for a Christian to imagine. We live the life of the senses and the life of the spirit at the same moment, and see no necessary conflict. For the human spirit is used to beautify life, to extract its essence, perhaps to help it overcome ugliness and pain inevitable in the world of our senses, but never to escape from it and find its meaning in a life hereafter. When Confucius said in reply to a question by a disciple on death, “Don’t know life—how know death?” he expressed there a somewhat bourgeois, unmetaphysical and practical attitude toward the problems of life and knowledge which has characterized our national life and thinking.
This standpoint establishes for us a certain scale of values. In every aspect of knowledge and of living, the test of life holds. It accounts for our pleasures and our antipathies. The test of life was with us a racial thought, wordless and needing no definition or giving of reasons. It was that test of life which, instinctively I think, guided us to distrust civic civilization and uphold the rural ideal in art, life and letters, to dislike religion in our rational moments, to play with Buddhism but never quite accept its logical conclusions, and to hate mechanical ingenuity. It was that instinctive trust in life that gave us a robust common sense in looking at life’s kaleidoscopic changes and the myriad vexatious problems of the intellect which we rudely ignored. It enabled us to see life steadily and see life whole, with no great distortions of values. It taught us some simple wisdom, like respect for old age and the joys of domestic life, acceptance of life, of sex, and of sorrow. It made us lay emphasis on certain common virtues, like endurance, industry, thrift, moderation, and pacificism. It prevented the development of freakish extreme theories and the enslaving of man by the products of his own intelligence. It gave us a sense of values, and taught us to accept the material as well as the spiritual goods of life. It taught us that, after all is said and done, human happiness is the end of all knowledge. And we arrange ourselves to make our lives happy on this planet, under whatever vicissitudes of fortune.
We are an old nation. The eyes of an old people see in its past and in this changing modern life much that is superficial and much that is of true meaning to our lives. We are a little cynical about progress, and we are a little bit indolent, as are all old people. We do not want to race about in a field for a ball; we prefer to saunter along willow banks to listen to the bird’s song and the children’s laughter. Life is so precarious that when we know something truly satisfies us, we hold on to it tight, as a mother hugs her baby close to her breast in a dark, stormy night. We have really no desire for exploring the South Pole or scaling the Himalayas. When Westerners do that, we ask, “What do you do that for? Do you have to go to the South Pole to be happy?” We go to the movies and theaters, but in the heart of our hearts we feel that a real child’s laughter gives us as much real joy and happiness as an imaginary child’s laughter on the screen. We compare the two and stay at home. We do not believe that kissing one’s own wife is necessarily insipid, and that other people’s wives are necessarily more beautiful because they are other people’s wives. We do not ache to reach the foot of the mountain when we are in the middle of the lake, and we do not ache to be at the top of the hill when we are at its foot. We drink what wine there is in the pot and enjoy what scenery there is before our eyes.
So much of life is merely a farce. It is sometimes just as well to stand by and look at it and smile, perhaps better than to take part in it. Like a dreamer awakened, we see life, not with the romantic color of yesternight’s dream, but with a saner vision. We are more ready to give up the dubious, the glamorous and the unattainable, but at the same time to hold on to the few things that we know will give us happiness. We always go back to nature as an eternal source of beauty and of true and deep and lasting happiness. Deprived of progress and of national power, we yet throw open our windows and listen to cicadas or to falling autumn leaves and inhale the fragrance of chrysanthemums, and over the top there shines the autumn moon, and we are content.
For we are now in the autumn of our national life. There comes a time in our lives, as nations and as individuals, when we are pervaded by the spirit of early autumn, in which green is mixed with gold and sadness is mixed with joy, and hope is mixed with reminiscence. There comes a time in our lives when the innocence of spring is a memory and the exuberance of summer a song whose echoes faintly remain in the air, when as we look out on life, the problem is not how to grow but how to live truly, not how to strive and labor but how to enjoy the precious moments we have, not how to squander our energy but how to conserve it in preparation for the coming winter. A sense of having arrived somewhere, of having settled and having found out what we want. A sense of having achieved something also, precious little compared with its past exuberance, but still something, like an autumn forest shorn of its summer glory but retaining such of it as will endure.
I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its leaves are a little yellow, its tone mellower, its colors richer, and it is tinged a little with sorrow and a premonition of death. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor of the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and is content. From a knowledge of those limitations and its richness of experience emerges a symphony of colors, richer than all, its green speaking of life and strength, its orange speaking of golden content, and its purple of resignation and death. And the moon shines over it, and its brow seems white with reflection, but when the setting sun touches it with an evening glow, it can still laugh cheerily. An early mountain breeze brushes by and sends its shivering leaves dancing gaily to the ground, and you do not know whether the song of the falling leaves is the song of laughter or of parting tears. For it is the Song of the Spirit of Early Autumn, the spirit of calm and wisdom and maturity, which smiles at sorrow itself and praises the exhilarating, keen, cool air—the Spirit of Autumn so well expressed by Hsin Ch‘ichi:
“In my young days,
I had tasted only gladness,
But loved to mount the top floor,
But loved to mount the top floor,
To write a song pretending sadness.
“And now I’ve tasted
Sorrow’s flavors, bitter and sour,
And can’t find a word,
And can’t find a word,
But merely say, ‘What a golden autumn hour!’”
adj. not able to be changed ↩︎
n. a person who doesn’t belong to a widely held religion ↩︎
adj. not based on metaphysics
metaphysics (a branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things) ↩︎
n. deep-seated feeling of dislike ↩︎
adj. relating to city ↩︎
adj. made up of a complex mix of something ↩︎
adj. countless ↩︎
n. (formal) diligence ↩︎
n. the quality of using resources not wastefully ↩︎
n. avoidance of excess ↩︎
n. (unpleasant) change of circumstances ↩︎
adj. doubtful as to whether something is worthwhile ↩︎
adj. wanting to avoid activity ↩︎
v. walk in a slow, relaxed manner ↩︎
adj. not securely in position ↩︎
v. climb up ↩︎
adj. lacking passion ↩︎
v. feel an intense desire ↩︎
n. a disorganised or absurd situation ↩︎
adj. appealing in an exotic or exciting way ↩︎
n. a recollection of past events ↩︎
n. the quality of being full of energy ↩︎
v. waste in a reckless manner ↩︎
adj. cut off; deprived ↩︎
adj. making one feel animated ↩︎