The Year of Being Twenty-One

Shi Tiesheng

Illustration by Monika Grubizna

Of the twelve sickrooms in the Friendship Hospital neurology ward, I have stayed in ten—all of them apart from numbers one and two. Of course, this is nothing to be proud of. No matter how proud someone might be, in my experience they are always meek and polite once they are lying on a sickbed. Numbers one and two are the intensive care units—a place just one step removed from heaven—and God hasn't made up his mind to send me there just yet.

Nineteen years ago, I entered the ward for the first time on my father's arm. Back then I could still walk, though with great difficulty and in a way that pained people to watch. It was then that I made a resolution: I'll get better, or I'll die, but either way I will certainly not be walking out of here like this.

It was midday, and apart from the faint snores of the patients the only sound was the light footsteps of the nurses. Everything was a spotless white; the smell of antiseptic wafted in the sunlight. Like a disciple stepping into a temple, I felt hope. A female doctor led me into ward number ten. Leaning close to my ear, in a soft and gentle voice she asked: "Have you had your lunch?"

"Just tell me please—am I going to get better or not?" I said.

She laughed. I don't remember her reply—I just remember that whatever it was that she said, it eased the worried look on my father's face. Ever since I saw the sashaying steps of that doctor I have been prejudiced: women make the best doctors, and a white coat is the most becoming garment a woman can wear.


That was the day after my twenty-first birthday. I still had no comprehension of either medicine or fate; I did not know what a nuisance an injury to the spinal cord could be. With a feeling of contentment, I lay down and settled into a deep sleep. Ten days, I thought to myself, or a month, or fine, even three months: then I would be back to the way I was. When my classmates from my countryside production team came to see me, they all thought the same thing. They brought me lots of books.

Room ten had six beds. I was in bed number six. In bed number five was a farmer, and he longed to leave the hospital. "The rent alone is one kuai, one and a half mao a day—you do the maths," said Bed Five. "Is it worth it, for a fatal illness?"

"Enough of that," said Bed Three, "you're not done for yet. Death, death, and death—you're such a pessimist."

Bed Four was an old man. "Come, come—it's like our Chairman Mao once said: seeing as you're here, make the best of it you can."

Smiling, the farmer turned his gaze towards me, though he was speaking to the others. "But of course, all of you have free medical care." He knew I had not yet finished mingling with the lowest strata of society.

Bed One said nothing. He would be able to leave the hospital once he had begun to speak. Bed Two seemed like a person with connections: without having to lift a finger he had managed to win everyone's respect. He had been fortunate enough to forget all the nouns he knew, which included his own name. When Bed Two spoke, he replaced all nouns with 'whatsit' and 'thingummy,' which meant that when he was excitedly telling us stories it was hard to tell who was doing what.

"Which is excellent," said Bed Four, "because it means no one's going to take offence."

I did not join in the conversation. When Bed Five had mentioned the cost of the hospital, my feeling of contentment disappeared. The room would cost more than one kuai a day, and that would come out of my parents' wages. Several kuai more for medicine and food every day—that would come out of my parents' wages too. My family would be laden with debt before the doctors even started treating my illness. Like the farmer, I was soon focused on only one question: when would I be able to get out of here? Realising my fists were clenched in anger, I tried to reason with myself: this was a hospital, not my home, and no one here would put up with me losing my temper. What is more, anything I broke would also have to be paid for out of my parents' wages. What luck it was that I had books by my side. No matter how I turned the situation over in my mind, there was nothing I could do but bury my head in a book. Fine! Even if I am here for three months. I firmly believed in this entirely unsubstantiated deadline.


Yet three months on, I had not left the hospital—on the contrary, my illness had actually gotten worse. At that time I was staying in room number seven with Bed Two. As we had suspected, he was a somebody. He was a bureau chief, a level-eleven cadre: one level away from the rank required to get a single room. Room number seven was the only room in this unexceptional hospital ward to have no more than two beds—it came close to being a single room, so it was just the place for those who came close to being a level-ten cadre. Apparently a level-thirteen had just moved out. It was an entirely appropriate room for Bed Two. But what about me? According to the head nurse, the fact that "this kid loves to read" meant I could help Bed Two relearn all the nouns he had forgotten. "Look at him—he doesn't even know who he is," said the head nurse. But this was the very reason that Bed Two had become increasingly likeable. Since 'bureau chief' was a noun too, it was one of the things he had forgotten. As the days went by, our relationship increasingly became one of equality and friendship.

"What do you do?" he asked me one day.

"I work in a countryside production team."

Bed Two said his whatsit did too—both his whatsits did. He gestured to a point half a head taller than him. "Those two—I raised them myself."

"Are you talking about your sons?"

That's right, he said, sons. Well, he said, it is the revolution, isn't it? You can't be afraid of a bit of suffering, can you? You need to go and mingle with the masses. "We came from there, back in the beginning."

"The countryside?"

"Right, right. The countryside. You can't forget where you come from!"

I agreed with him. "And where is it you come from?"

He clutched his head for long time. This time there was nothing I could say to give him a prompt. Finally he swore and gave up, saying, "I used to herd those whatchamacallits." He extended two fingers above his head.


He shook his head, and pressed his fingers down to a lower position.


"Yes, sheep. I herded sheep." He lay back, with both hands propped behind his head, and stared happily at the ceiling. He didn't speak again for a long time. The doctor said his illness was called Gerstmann syndrome, or aphasia. While he forgot nouns, the illness had no effect on the rest of his memory, and the events of the distant past were particularly distinct. I reflected on the fact that, as a bureau chief, he had acquired a much more impressive illness than mine. He suddenly sat up. "My... whatsit... hey—the younger... what did you call it?"

"Your younger son?"

"Right!" He leapt out of his bed in a rage. "That little whatchamacallit—the fucker! He wants to go mingle with masses, I say fine, I'll support you. He writes for money, saying he wants to start a thingummy." He gestured at his surroundings; I thought that the little whatchamacallit had perhaps wanted to found a medical centre. "Fine," he said, "I say how much? And I give it to him. But that little whatchamacallit!" He furiously paced back and forth with his hands locked behind his back, before stopping and spreading out his hands. "But then he wants to get married there!"

"In the countryside."

"Right, the countryside."

"With a peasant?"

"With a peasant."

Perhaps it was because of my political awareness back then, or perhaps it was because of all the messages in the newspapers and on the radio, but I couldn't help finding this worthy of the deepest respect.

"Putting down roots," I said admiringly.

"Fuck the roots!" he said. "Do you still want to go back, or not?"

At this I could only stare blankly.

Seeing my expression, he stamped his feet. "Do you still want to continue the revolution or not?"

This time I understood. For now we didn't need to go into the specifics of what a revolution entailed—Bed Two's frank sincerity was refreshing in itself.


There was no point in getting worked up over his mysterious logic. Winter was almost over, though on my crutches I was still unable to get as far as the hospital garden. Day by day, my legs were becoming increasingly numb, and the atrophy of my muscles was impossible to arrest—this was the only thing worth worrying about.

The real reason I was in room seven was because the medical staff felt sorry for me. Because I was so young, because the treatment was at my own expense, because they already knew my prospects of recovery were far from encouraging, and because I loved to read. In that era, when "the more knowledge you had, the more reactionary you were," the doctors and nurses were especially fond of a child who loved books. They treated me like a son. Many of their own children had been sent to work in the countryside too. The head nurse often praised me when my mother was around, always ending with: "ai... this kid..." This sigh was the sound of modern medicine's frustrated desire to help. There was nothing else they could do for me, beyond making my stay a little more comfortable and quiet, and encouraging me to read—perhaps they thought that somewhere within books this kid might find his path.


But by then I had no interest in reading. I lay in bed all day, listening to the footsteps of those in the corridor outside my room. I wished for them to stop, for the door to open and for them to come inside. At the same time there was nothing I wished for more than for them to keep going, pass by, carry on without bothering me. In abject despair, I prayed from deep down inside: God, if you're not going to take me this time, then leave me with legs that can walk! When there was no one else around I honestly put my palms together and told God my wishes. It was only many years later that I read the words of an anonymous philosopher: there are very few atheists to be found on deathbeds. Thinking about it now, the existence of God hardly seems worth arguing about, but when people's lives are on the brink of the abyss it is natural enough for them to overlook science and commit their reverent prayers to the darkening void. The absence of any concrete evidence for mankind's most glorious desires has not led to their disappearance.


The doctor on duty did the rounds every day, and every day they spent the most time by my bed. "Righto, no need to worry." According to usual practice, the directors of the hospital went round the wards once a week, but there were several directors who came to see me more frequently. "How are you feeling? Mmmhmm—be sure not to worry." There were some days when the entire faculty all came to see me—within the eight working hours or not, alone or in groups—and after a check-up, each of them gave their opinion. "Don't worry, okay? Whatever you do, don't worry." From their cautious manner of speech I gradually came to understand one thing: if this illness were caused by some tricksy tumour then they could just knock it out, cut it down, toss it in the trash can, and I'd be able to walk upright again. If not, the advantage I'd been granted by my ancestors' several million years of evolution would most likely be lost to me.

The garden beyond the window was already full of the red blooms and green shoots of spring. Twenty-two springs, and not one of them had been able to make my heart convulse like this one did. I no longer dared envy healthy people who strolled side-by-side amidst the flowers and trees, or the youths playing badminton on the path. For a long time I watched an old man in his hospital gown, basking in the sunshine as he took measured steps across the grass. Just let me have that, I thought, let me have that! Just that would be enough. I summoned up the memories: soft grass beneath my feet—what did that feel like? Being able to walk wherever you felt like walking—what did that feel like? Kicking a stone by the side of the road, kicking it along with you—what did that feel like? Those who have never had to remember in this way will find it hard to believe that you could find yourself unable to remember these things. After the old man left the garden, I continued to gaze at the patch of grass on which he had walked. The sunlight gradually faded and fell away, and then thickened into a lonely, desolate red beam which climbed, bit by bit, up the wall and onto the roof. I scribbled down a bit of poetry:

Lightly push open the little window to see the colours of spring; a setting sun leaks into the mortal world.

Some time later, I went outside in my wheelchair just to look at that patch of grass. From there I looked back to the window of room seven, wondering who was behind that glass now. What sort of future was God planning for him? God, of course, had no need to ask for any input from the patient in this matter.

I prayed that God was playing a temporary trick on me, and that the tumour planted in my vertebra was a benign one. Sure, it could grow in my vertebra, but it was only allowed to grow outside the membrane, because only then could it be cut out without harming my precious column of bone marrow. "Isn't that right doctor?"

"Who told you that?"

"It's true though, isn't it?"

"It doesn't look all that much like a tumour, though," said the doctor.

With my eyes I traced the words 'may God protect me' everywhere. Perhaps, I thought, if I wrote those four words a thousand times, ten thousand times, I could earn the God's compassion, and it could be a tumour—a benign tumour. Or if it turned out to be a malignant tumour—the potentially fatal kind—then so be it, God. Just let it be a tumour.


A friend had given me a bag of lotus seeds. When I was bored I picked out a few and soaked them in a bottle. How about a bet? I thought. If they sprout, my illness is no more than a tumour. And yet I was always so scared I never dared to make that bet. But who'd have thought it? A few days later, all the seeds had sprouted after all. Okay then, I thought, let's have that bet after all! I had really come very close to making the bet anyway—close enough, I thought, that it was basically as good as made. Well, a new bet then: surely, these sprouts will grow leaves! (This much was obvious.) I changed their water every day, and I moved them onto the west side of the windowsill early in the morning and then back to the east side in the afternoon, so that they were always in the sunlight. In order to do so, I had to move while clutching onto the rail of the bed or leaning on the windowsill. Moving just a few metres had me dripping with sweat. If I don't speak about these things, nobody will know. Before too long, the sprouts put out leaf after perfectly round leaf. Their roundness—their intact completeness—was a good omen. I became very attentive, watching them as I sat, panting on my bed, peeking at them in the moonlight when I woke up in the night. Good: I was in for a change of luck. I also realised that the character for 'lotus' is a homonym of 'pity,' and so with the utmost deference, I wondered: will God send some mercy my way? The leaves grew up out of the neck of the bottle. I wouldn't permit any passers-by to touch them, and if they insisted on touching them, I silently said a few extra prayers to make up for it. But it was science that triumphed over my prayers, saying time after time that there was no tumour there, none, nothing. As suspected, God had been meddling with that delicate spinal cord. On the day of the verdict I raged against the world like a ghost wrongly condemned. I forced myself to my feet, telling myself there was no reason why I couldn't just get up and run, and teach that unconscionable God a lesson. There was nothing complicated about the outcome: if you don't fall down dead, you eventually figure out that you can't get one over on God.


I lay in bed all day, not speaking. At first there was nothing in my heart but a blank space: later, the word 'death' filled it up. Director Wang came to see me. I'll never forget that old lady, or Head Nurse Zhang either. There were two subsequent occasions—eight years later, and seventeen years later—when I really did arrive at the threshold of death, and it was these two old ladies who pulled me back. That first time, I lay facing the wall; Director Wang sat behind me in silence for a long time. Eventually she spoke, but she did not say much. The gist of it was: why not get back to reading? You love books, don't you? Not a single day of life should be a waste. In the future you'll have to work—you'll be so busy you won't have any time at all, and you'll regret having spent this period of time doing nothing. These were not words that were capable of dispelling my thoughts of death, but they are words I have benefited from my whole life. In the years that followed I frequently felt myself drawn to Death, but, remembering Director Wang's words before I got there, I chose to busy myself with life instead. There are many reasons I didn't die (I have written about them in another essay), and 'not a single day of life should be a waste' is one of them. Gradually starting to get busy meant gradually starting to have an interest in life, and an appreciation of its value.

Many years later, I went to the hospital to see the director and give her a copy of one of my books. Her hair had turned completely white, and she had retired, though she was still busy at the hospital from morning till night, just as before. Looking at her, I thought: during that first conversation, this old lady must have known that I wouldn't die, and it was she who had pointed the road to life out to me. What I don't know is this: back then, once I'd moved out of room seven, who was it that first found the coil of electrical wire? And what did they make of it? This is a secret that need not be spoken of now. Let us assume that at that time there was nothing in the world I would have had any misgivings about discussing, and when I was happy I might even softly sing a little something—some folk songs from Shanbei, or some of our own songs—the songs of rusticated youth.

When my friends had left in the evening, I found myself wanting to write something by the lonely, rowdy rays of my little reading light. It was the beginning of my desire to create. For a time I forgot all thoughts of death—and why? Because the shadows of love still faintly hovered. For a long time they continued to hover within me, bringing happiness, and suffering, and—above all—passion to the days ahead: drawing a life without hope away from the vale of death. No matter whether these shadows are of happiness or of suffering, they all become eternal treasures, sacred keepsakes.


Twenty-one, twenty-nine, and thirty-eight years old. The fact that I went three times into the Friendship Hospital, and three times I came out again, and did not die, is entirely due to friendship. On the second and third occasions I had no intentions of colluding with Death, but Death took a shine to me. I had a high fever, with a temperature above forty. My friends carried me to the hospital; in the internal medicine ward they said they had no experience of treating patients with paraplegia, and so Doctor Bai went in search of Director Wang and Head Nurse Zhang, and I ended up back in the neurology ward again. During my hospitalization at twenty-nine in particular, my fever just wouldn't break. I spent the whole night drowsy, vomiting; for about three months I didn't dare even smell food, and only took in glucose solution through a drip. My blood pressure was unstable too: first it would rise suddenly to a hundred and twenty, then drop back down to sixty. There was a time when the doctors feared I wouldn't make it through the winter. It seemed like my kidneys were more or less done for, and there were no more methods of treatment left to try. My classmates went to talk things over with Doctor Bai, and then together they went to find Doctor Tang. Should they tell my father about this? They decided not to. Wouldn't telling him just make him worry? And then they divided up the work: informing my father of my death would be the job of my classmates and Doctor Bai; looking after me while I remained alive would be Doctor Tang's concern.

"Very well," said Doctor Tang, "I can keep him here for educational purposes—every day that he survives is another day of problem-solving for us." Of course, I only heard about all of this later. I could only have known it at the time if I had joined the ranks of the departed. Once winter ended, I was alive again—and it looked entirely possible I might live on into the next century. Doctor Tang was the very person who had taken me into room ten, back in the beginning—the doctor of the sashaying steps—but eight years later her hair was already greying at the temples. Nine years after that, when I was in the hospital for the third time, she was already gone. When they heard I had come back, all the old doctors and nurses came to see me, to send me their greetings, compliment me on how well my novels were written, and chat about life in general. Doctor Tang was the only one who couldn't come. I'd already known she wouldn't be able to come: she was gone. I had come in once before, in my wheelchair, to give her a small garland of flowers, and everyone had told me. "She worked herself to death—without a doubt, she worked herself to death." I've never forgotten that afternoon when she welcomed me into the ward, when she leaned close to my ear and softly, gently asked: "Have you had your lunch?" So how, as suddenly as that, could she be gone? She had only just passed fifty. This is the truly dumbfounding thing, the incomprehensible thing—like someone must have made a logical error.


I can only wish for Doctor Bai to have a bit of good luck in life. Only in front of a large group of patients would I call her Doctor Bai. Normally I called her 'Little Bai' and she called me 'Little Shi.' She'd jokingly refer to herself as my 'private physician'—but this was closer to the truth than jest. In the last couple of years I have been calling her 'Old Bai,' and she has been calling me 'Old Shi.' It was in the late autumn, nineteen years ago, that a new health worker arrived in the ward. Her hair was combed into a short braid, and she wore a long scarf and a pair of black corduroy shoes. Although she spoke in a proper Beijing city accent, she was still radiant with the spirit of the countryside.

"Were you sent to work in a production team too?" I asked.

"Were you too?" It sounded like she knew already. "Which year were you?"

"Second year of middle school. You?"

"Class of sixty-eight. First year. Where were you?"

"Shanbei. How about you?"

"Inner Mongolia."

That was all I needed to know. This was our generation's patented method of introduction: these inquiries and responses immediately drew us closer together. I am certain that in several decades' time, this kind of conversation will continue to be popular between certain white-haired old folk, and will still be their most intimate way of exchanging greetings, and their most effective means of communication. It will be the subject of painstaking textual research for some future linguist, whose earnest dissertation on the topic will earn him his degree. But how did our generation earn our degrees? We stopped studying at the age of fourteen or fifteen, going down to the countryside at seventeen or eighteen, and then returned to the city after a few years to take up the most menial jobs going. And yet, having been in the countryside, what work was there that we could not do? If we did not give up on our studies, if we kept slaving away in our free time and finally made it into university, when we graduated we would still be looked down upon; we would be known as 'proletarian scholars,' and have to find a way to shake that label off.


Exams, exams, and more exams—our generation certainly saw a lot of exams. For my generation, the road to a degree was blocked by all those who doubted your ability and your potential. And this was not even the hardest of roads, compared to what it took to turn from Little Bai into Old Bai, from a mere medical worker into a doctor. I know, because we have been good friends for many years. Her husband took a similar road to get to where he is now. All of us are friends, and even her son calls me Old Shi. When I take the time to appreciate the life that I have had, I realise the most admirable thing about it is the way it is suffused with friendship. It is entirely possible that this is all connected with that year I happened to spend in the Friendship Hospital at the age of twenty-one.


This is why people occasionally say I'm living at the 'the Heavenly Peach Blossom Spring' and their tone of voice can't help but reveal a hint of mockery, as though they think I'm merely amusing myself, or even deceiving myself. I take exception to this. I do not live at the Heavenly Peach Blossom Spring—I don't believe such a place even exists. But I do believe there exists an Earthly Peach Blossom Spring—that there really is such a spring in the world. If there wasn't such a place, I fear that no one would want to go on living. Though this spring may sometimes seem to ebb, no amount of ridicule is going to make it any stronger, as far as I can see. For thousands upon thousands of years it has been a reality, and more than that, a conviction—and this never ceases. It springs from within the heart and it flows into the heart; it exercises the heart and it comes from the heart—and this never ceases. With desire as strong as this, where is humility going to be found?


There are others who say I have been living in a fairy tale, and their tone reveals admonishment, as well as praise. I can accept this completely. The presence of the praise means the admonishment isn't necessarily a suggestion that we should be building up walls between each other, but is there to remind me: the regrettable thing about fairy tales is not that they are too beautiful, but that they are perhaps too fragile for the convoluted and bitter world they must one day enter.


In fact, God had already given me just such a reminder when I was twenty-one. He revealed to me, long ago, a hint of his divine fairy tale and his eternal riddle.


The first time I was in hospital, I met a boy in room four. He was seven years old, and he was from a distant mountain village. One day the villagers heard that a highway was going to be built right up to their doorstep. The children all waited anxiously, dreaming many a happy dream in eager anticipation. The highway was finally built; the automobiles finally came. Every time a car passed the children watched from afar, scared and astounded. Days passed, and they made an interesting discovery: that by hanging on to the tails of trucks they could soar like the wind. They cheerily amused themselves behind the backs of their parents. But there was one time—just one time—when this seven-year-old boy lost his grip and fell down from the truck. By the time he arrived in the hospital he could no longer run—all of his limbs were suffering muscular atrophy. Lonely in his room, the kid limped around all over the place. He was exasperating—all the other patients asked him: 'tell us—how did you get injured?" The kid lowered his head at once, and stood there, meek and motionless. "Well?" "Tell us—what happened?" The kid started to stammer. "Come on—why won't you tell us? Have you forgotten?"

"Because I rode on a truck," he said, quietly. "Because I was naughty." He admitted his mistake with complete sincerity. Everyone was silent. He was the only one who didn't know that he had injured his spinal cord, and that the damage was irreversible with an injury of that sort. The kid still didn't dare move, standing there obediently, wiping his tears with a little hand that had already begun to wither.

Finally someone spoke, in a tone softened with sadness: "Will you be naughty next time?"

The kid knew the deal as far as lenience or forgiveness was concerned: he shook his head vigorously—"no, no, no!"—and sighed with relief. But it was different this time. How come this time there was no one to tell him everything would be fine, he'd learned his lesson, he was still a good boy? Opening his eyes wide, he looked at all the grown-ups around him. What he meant was: isn't that enough? To never be naughty again—isn't that enough? He didn't know, didn't understand that there were some mistakes in life that you just had to make once, and then could never be undone; that there were some mistakes in life that weren't even really mistakes (like being naughty—what kind of a mistake is that?) but even so, could not be forgiven. His nickname was 'Fifth Egg.' I remember him, only seven years old. He didn't know, he didn't understand. The day would surely come when he would know—but would there ever be a day when he would understand? That day, in any case, would be the end of a fairy tale. All fairy tales, when they reach their ending, teach us this: that it is for the tempering of our souls that God has orchestrated the cruel riddle yet to come.


When I was in room six I met a pair of lovers. At the time they were the same age that I am now: forty years old. They had been university classmates. He had been planning to go and study abroad when he was twenty-four—the date was fixed, the luggage packed—but destiny is unpredictable. For some piddling reason or other he had to put it off for a month, and that turned out to be the month in which he was paralysed in a hospital accident. She remained passionately devoted to him. She waited for him. First she was waiting for his recovery—which didn't happen. Then she was waiting for him to agree to marry her—which hadn't happened yet either. But many obstructions were placed in their way, by both the outside world and their own inner feelings. Year after year, he longed for her to stay even as he tried to persuade her to leave. But year after year, love proved to be just as hard to escape as the illness, and she continued to wait. She had once managed to harden her heart and relocate away from Beijing—but severing emotions is not as easy as that. Getting transferred back here didn't prove easy either, and now she would come rushing back to Beijing from that faraway place whenever she had as little as three days of holiday. His illness had become more serious: no longer able to move any part of his body, he was put in the same room as me. "If you love her," he said to me after she left, "you can't hurt her. It could only be if you didn't love her—but then why would you marry her?"

"I know it's because he loves me," she said to me when he was asleep, "but he doesn't understand that this is actually hurting me. I've wished I could leave—I've tried—but I couldn't. I know it's impossible for me not to love him."

"No, no," the man said when she wasn't there, "she's still young, she still has a chance, she needs to marry—she can't have a life without any love in it."

"A chance—what's that?" she said as he slept. "Chances lie in the heart, not the world outside. Outside there might be chances to marry, but the chance to love can only ever be in the heart."

When she was not there, I told him what she had said. He began to cry in silence.

"Why don't you marry her?" I asked him.

"You still don't get it," he said. "It's hard to explain. Because we live in the whole wide world," he said, "and that means sometimes there are decisions that can't be made by just two people."

At the time I really didn't understand. I found a chance to ask her: "Why isn't it a decision for two people to make?"

"Actually," she said, "I disagree. But what's true," she said, "is that it's so hard sometimes." She hesitated for a long time. "Honestly—you couldn't understand it now, even if I told you."

Nineteen years have passed, and those two lovers should be old people by now. I don't know where either of them is—all I know is what I heard later on: that in the end they broke up. In those nineteen years, I've had experience of love too—and if a twenty-one year old were to ask me now what love is? Probably I could only answer: honestly—perhaps this is just something that can never be explained. No matter what she is, only a fraction of her belongs to language—but she belongs to the heart in her entirety. The Taiwanese writer San Mao got it right. Love is like a koan: you can't say it, and as soon as you try to put it into words, it's gone. And this is the kind of thing that belongs at the end of a fairy tale too: in order that we will never lose the desire to keep chasing life, God has set us a riddle that is cruel, but fascinating.


The year of being twenty-one was over. I was carried out of the hospital by my friends; this was a possibility I hadn't imagined when I first arrived. I hadn't died, but nor had I walked out. I still felt both hope and fear, as far as the future was concerned. Later on, a lot happened that I could never have imagined, and—just as before—when I found myself lost in confusion, I sometimes silently mouthed to myself: "May God protect me." I did see God, one day—but he went by a different name, and that name was the mind. In the hazy patches of science; in the chaos of destiny; you can only turn to your own mind. Everything we believe in—no matter what that might be—comes from the promptings and the guidance of our minds.


translated from the Chinese by Dave Haysom