Selected Modern Chinese Essays: I Love Composition

By Xie Bingying

At the beginning of my first year at Peking Women’s Normal University, our teacher of Chinese said to the class,

“Now that you’re university students, you may write on any subject of your own choice. You must each hand in for each semester at least seven or eight compositions. The more, the better. But, mind you, each composition should be well written, not slipshod.”

“Sir, what if it’s beyond my ability to do so?” a classmate, whose name was not personally known to me, suddenly asked.

“Beyond your ability? Then how did you pass the examination for admission to the university? You’re supposed to have learned composition as long ago as your middle school days. A university teacher’s job is little more than giving you guidance in advanced studies. It’s up to you to improve your writing ability. I’m in no position to do much to help you.”

“You’re too modest, sir,” mumbled another classmate.

“Sir, shall we do the writing in the classroom or after school?”

That was a silly question raised by my humble self, a country girl. Some classmates started giggling at me. But I wasn’t embarrassed at all. On the contrary, I thought their giggling was totally uncalled for.

“Do as you please. It’s OK if you want to do it in the classroom. But write on a subject most favourite to you. Well, see you!”

We watched him passing out of sight around a corner of the long corridor. Thereupon, two thirds of the students also left the classroom. A student sitting on my right asked me in a whisper,

“What are you going to write about?”

“Mother’s Longing for the Return of Her Wandering Child,” I answered without the slightest hesitation.

“A short story?”

“No. It’s a lyrical essay.”

I was overjoyed at the advantages enjoyed by university students. First of all, we were given more freedom to do what we thought best. The composition class was just one example. I remembered what had annoyed me most in middle school was that the teachers of Chinese then never gave us composition subjects in advance. They would write a subject on the blackboard at the last minute when they came to meet the class. Some of them gave two or three subjects for us to choose from. Some gave us only one subject like Learn the New by Reviewing the Old, The Destiny of the Nation Is the Concern of Every Citizen, Thoughts on National Day, etc., all of which I found extremely boring. I preferred our teacher to make public the composition subject several days before the class met. I preferred lyrical, descriptive and narrative subjects to argumentative ones because being enthusiastic, young people are fond of lyrical and descriptive writings and also eager to write about their own emotions and aspirations. Only by giving a true account of our feelings, thoughts and life, can we produce good writings. Forcing students to do hollow theorizing in composition will not only fail to improve their writing ability but also subject them, so to speak, to an ordeal of invisible mental abuse. In my school days, I chose to write on whatever subject I liked best. Later, when I became a school teacher, I, by keeping firmly in mind the maxim “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”, always took care not to impose on my students anything that would cause mental torture. Sometimes, I would set 20-30 subjects for them to select from. Sometimes, I would just let them decide on a subject by themselves so that they could write about anything as they pleased. Occasionally, they even let me polish up the love letters penned by themselves, which, to tell you the truth, would read much more smoothly than the compositions they usually did.

As mentioned above, after I became a university student, there was nothing more agreeable to me than the freedom I enjoyed in writing. During this period, being poor and busy, I lived a hard life. I was so hard up that I couldn’t even afford the streetcar fare. And though I worked nonstop day and night, I still felt hard pressed for time to finish correcting papers and preparing lessons. That was because while I was a first-year student at the university, I concurrently taught Chinese at two middle schools. Just imagine a country girl fresh from middle school having the audacity to teach those husky young northerners! They certainly had every reason to call me “Child Teacher”.