◎ Xia Mianzun
I am already a middle-aged man. At middle age, I feel sad to find my eyesight and memory failing, my hair thinning and graying, and myself no longer mentally and physically as fit as when I was young. I often suffer from a nameless loneliness. The most intolerable of all is the lack of friendly warmth and comfort due to the gradual passing away and estrangement of more and more old pals.
Needless to say, the number of acquaintances increases with one’s age. The older one gets, the more widely travelled one is and the more work experience one has, the more acquaintances one is supposed to have. But not all acquaintances are friends. We come to know many people either in the way of business or by mere chance — say, having been at the same table at a dinner party. We may be on nodding or hand-shaking terms, call each other “friend”, sometimes write to each other with the salutation of “Dear So-and-So”, etc., etc. All these are, in fact, nothing but civilities of social life, as hypocritical as the polite formula dunshou (kowtow) or baibai (a hundred greetings) used after the signature in old-fashioned Chinese letter-writing. We may call them social intercourse, but they seem to have very little in common with genuine friendship.
Real friendship between two persons originates perhaps from the time of life when they were children playing innocently together. Real friendship is easily formed in primary or middle school days when, being socially inexperienced and free from the burden of life, you give little thought to personal gains or losses, and make friends entirely as a result of similar tastes and interests or congenial disposition. It is sort of “friendship for friendship’s sake” and is relatively pure in nature. Friendship among people in their 20’s, however, is more or less coloured by personal motives. And friendship among those aged over 30 becomes correspondingly still less pure as it gets even more coloured. Though this is not necessarily due to “degeneration of public morality”, I do have good reasons to call it the tragedy of life. People at middle age, with the heavy burden of life and much experience in the ways of the world, have more scruples about this and that, and cannot choose but become more calculating in social dealings till they start scheming against each other. They always keep a wary eye, as it were, on each other in their association. Such association is of course fragile, especially in this modern age of prevailing sharp conflicts.
Of all my friends, those I have known since childhood are most worthy of remembrance. They are few in number. Some of them live far away and we seldom have an opportunity to see each other. Some of them are older than I am, and some a few years younger. But all of us are in late mid-life. Since we have each followed a different course in life, our ways of thinking, interests and circumstances are bound to differ, and often we lack mutual understanding somehow or other in our conversation. Nevertheless, when we talk over old times, we will always agree on things in the past — mostly about things in our childhood days. While we retell the dream-like childhood days in the course of our conversation, numerous scenes and persons of bygone days will unfold again before our eyes, and we will feel like reliving the old days. Often at this moment, I’ll feel at once happy and sad — like an old lady suddenly fishing out from her drawer or chest a photo of her taken in the bloom of her youth.
When chatting away with my old friends, I am in the habit of unwittingly channeling the topic of conversation toward things of former days. From that I unknowingly derive some sort of warm solace. But old friends are dwindling away year by year. They are originally few in number, so the disappearance of any of them is an irreparable loss to me. The news of any old pal’s death will invariably make me sad in my heart for a long, long time.
The imparting of knowledge is not the sole advantage of school education. Its greatest advantage is perhaps the opportunity it affords us for making friends. It was not until I had already left school that I began to realize this advantage. And in recent years I have come to understand it even more deeply. I much regret having carelessly frittered away my school days without making many friends. Recently, every morning or evening, whenever I see school kids with satchels walking in twos and threes, hand in hand or shoulder to shoulder, I always envy them for enjoying happy friendship, and inwardly offer them my best wishes.