Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Gradualness

By Feng Zikai

The subtle factor that makes life endurable is “gradualness”. It is by this “gradualness” that the Creator deceives all humans. Through the process of imperceptible gradual change, innocent kids become ambitious youths, chivalrous youths become unfeeling grownups, aggressive grownups become mulish old fogeys. Since the change takes place by slow degrees — year by year, month by month, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second, you feel as if you were permanently your same old self always seeing much fun and meaning in life, like one, walking a long, long way down an extremely gentle mountain slope, hardly perceives its degree of incline or notices the altered scenes as he moves along. You thus take a positive view of life and find it endurable. Suppose a kid suddenly became a young man overnight, or a young man suddenly became an old man in a matter of hours from dawn till dusk, you would definitely feel astonished, emotionally stirred and sad, or lose any interest in life due to its transience. Hence it is evident that life is sustained by “gradualness”. This “gradualness” is particularly crucial to women. Beautiful young ladies starring in an opera or stage show will someday end up becoming grannies moping their remaining years away around a fire. This may at first sound incredible and young ladies may refuse to accept it as true. Fact is, however, all aged women you meet today have without exception “gradually” evolved from beautiful young ladies of yesterday.

It is also due to this “gradualness” that one is able to reconcile himself to his reduced circumstances. Fiction and reality abound with instances of a good-for-nothing young man from a wealthy family “gradually” ruining his family by repeated business failures and becoming in turn a poor wretch, a hired labourer, a slave, a rogue, a pauper and a thief… Since it is a process of “gradual” change covering, say, ten to twenty years, he doesn’t experience any terrible emotional shock at all. Therefore, in spite of all the intense sufferings — hunger, cold, illness, imprisonment, torture, he continues to cling to the present life. On the other hand, however, if the wealthy young man were all of a sudden reduced to begging and thieving, he would definitely feel too aggrieved to go on living.

“Gradualness” is really the mysterious law of Mother Nature, the subtle artifice of the Creator! The unnoticed mutual replacement of opposites, the change of the four seasons and the survival or extinction of species — all is imperceptibly governed by this law. Budding spring “gradually” changes into verdant summer; withered autumn “gradually” changes into bleak winter. Though we have gone through several dozen years, yet on a winter night, when we sit around a fire or lie in bed, we can hardly imagine how we would feel on a summer day Consuming cold drinks and fanning ourselves busily, and vice versa. Th gradual change from winter to summer, or from summer to winter takes place day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second, without leaving any marked traces in between. The same with daylight gradually fading into night. When you sit by your window reading a book towards the evening, you’ll find the words on each page “gradually” becoming blurred. But if you keep on reading, with the words still legible (due to the gradual strengthening of your eyesight in the deepening twilight), you’ll be unconscious of daylight already transformed into night. Likewise, when at dawn you stand intently gazing out of a window into the eastern horizon, you never feel the transition from night to day. While parents living together with their children all the time never perceive their gradual growth, they may fail to recognize, however, a distant relative whom they have not seen for quite some time. I remember how, on each New Year’s Eve, we used to sit by a red candle to eagerly wait for our narcissus to come into full bloom. How silly we were! If the narcissus had really come into bloom in our presence at our desire, it would have meant the violation of the law of Nature, the weakening of the foundation of the universe, and the last day of humanity!

Through bit-by-bit change, “gradualness” conceals from notice the lapse of time and the change of things, so that people are misled into believing that everything remains the same eternally. What a trick the Creator is playing on humans! Here is a story by way of illustration. There was a farmer who would jump over a ditch holding a calf in his arms on his way to work in the fields every morning and also on his way back home every evening. A year later, the calf had grown bigger and heavier, almost like a cow, but the farmer, insensible to its increasing weight, continued the same old daily routine. One day, however, he didn’t go to work for some reason. And starting from the next day, he was no longer able to carry his calf in his arms in jumping over the ditch. The Creator uses the same trick to make you so obsessed with life that you become oblivious to its changeableness and hardships. You are kept jumping over the ditch nonstop day after day with the growing calf in your arms. While you suppose wrongly that life is immutable, you are in fact putting heavier burdens on yourself from day to day.

I think the clock is most symbolic of life. It normally seems to be “still” at first sight, but, of all things artificially made, it is the most busy with its hands moving all the time. The same is true of life. We are apt to think that we are forever our own selves and unchangeable, while in fact we are ever-changing like the hands of a clock. Alas, as long as we are alive, we are completely fooled by “gradualness” into believing that we will always remain the same and unchangeable, and therefore becoming only too ready to hold on to this life!

“Time” is the essence of “gradualness”. Ordinary people have only a superficial understanding of time. They seem to know it only as regards such small matters as boarding a train or boat, but not in things concerning a lifetime. They see the trees, but not the wood. Take the passengers of a train for example. Often some passengers are sensible and considerate enough to offer their own seats to the elderly or handicapped so that they themselves can enjoy peace of mind or momentary public praise. Some, when they see other passengers falling over one another in getting off the train, purposely make room by staying behind, or call out, “Don’t squeeze! We’ll all make it! Nobody will be left behind!” But few will be as sensible and considerate when making the long journey of life on board a big “social” or “global” train. Therefore, I wish man would live a much shorter life. If their lifespan could become as brief as the time they spent on a train or a boat, human society would probably witness far less bitter strife, and people would be as polite and modest as on the train.

However, we do have among us a few who know how to correctly view life. They are great, indeed! They refuse to be fooled by “gradualness” or the Creator.