Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Happy Death

◎ Lu Wenfu

A writer can die three kinds of death: natural death, painful death, happy death.

Natural death, caused by the discontinuation of heartbeat, is a common form of death with no characteristics of its own, and therefore may as well be left out without any comment. In the case of happy death and painful death, which are not caused by the discontinuation of heartbeat, the writer, alive as he is, has stopped or almost stopped writing!

When a writer no longer produces any works, it is tantamount to the death of his artistic life or the end of his career. Some writers lay down their pens because they are too old to be equal to the task. We call it retirement from art rather than death of art. They have nothing to blame themselves for. And society at large will pay tribute to the contributions they have already made to art.

Painful death is quite another matter. It occurs when a writer abandons writing even though he is still sound in mind and body. It results mainly from various kinds of sufferings and torments (including self-inflicted torments). Torments ruin his talent while sufferings demoralize him. Though still alive as a man, he is dying or already dead as a writer. This kind of death causes not only much pain to the writer himself, but much sadness to other people as well.

Happy death is a joyful thing, bringing happiness to both the writer himself and other people. Yesterday we saw him addressing a big meeting amidst thunderous applause, and today we saw him attending a banquet, drinking nonstop to this and that. Yesterday we heard him talking volubly to a gathering of distinguished guests, capturing the attention of all present, and today we heard him repeating himself at one of those endless forums. Yesterday we met him on a Beijing street, and today we saw him flying to Guangzhou… But never or very seldom do we find his new works seeing the light of day.

I do not fear natural death for nobody can avoid it, hence no use fearing. Nor do I fear painful death for it is something belonging to a bygone age. What I fear most is happy death, which is absolutely painless and full of bustle, excitement and even dramatic spectacle. It is difficult to exercise self-control, that is, difficult to keep within limits. Drinking is, to my mind, not always bad because a few spots may help blood circulation and is, as they say, good for the heart and blood vessels. Being no hermit, a writer stands to benefit in writing as long as he gets properly involved with social and literary activities to widen his field of vision and stimulate his thinking. But how can he avoid excessive drinking or becoming a drunkard? What is the safety limit in this respect? The trouble is after three cups of alcohol he will get wild and unrestrained and end in gulping down a whole bottle. One meal without liquor will upset him and set him complaining and searching around for drink. Alas, just to end up dying happily!