Selected Modern Chinese Essays: No Title

◎ Xia Yan

Often, in my calm moment of contemplation, I find it amazing that a man like me who was born of a poor family and has suffered a lifetime of frustrations should have lived to the age of 92.

When I was in my eighties, people often asked me for advice on how to keep in good health. But the fact is, instead of a recipe for healthy living, I have some very bad habits.

I’m impetuous and tend to rush all things. I walk quickly, I write quickly, I eat even more quickly or, so to speak, just wolf down my food. As a result I became ill with duodenitis. The doctor at last cured me of my stomach trouble, but not of my bad habit of eating quickly.

I’m a picky eater. Prior to the outbreak of the 10-year domestic political turmoil in 1966, I refused to eat melon, and seldom took vegetables and fruit. During the seventies, when I was confined in jail in Qincheng, my daily three meals consisted of nothing but corn buns plus turnip and Chinese cabbage. That, however, cured me of my being choosy about food. But, once out of prison, I slipped back to my old self, taking little vegetable and fruit.

I’m a teetotaler, but I began to smoke at the age of 30. At first I did it only occasionally, but later I became addicted to it. During the ten years when I was with the Ministry of Culture, I used to consume two packs a day, containing 40 cigarettes, till my fingers were yellowed and my lips and tongue parched. But I still couldn’t get out of the tobacco habit. Smoking was banned in prison, but as soon as I was released the first thing I did was to ask my folks for a cigarette. Once, by way of testing my willpower, I stopped smoking for several months, but only to end up in a relapse. Some people dwelled on the harmfulness of smoking in articles published in newspapers or magazines. To me, however, they were exaggerating things just to scare people and sort of manifesting a rebellious mentality. I reasoned lamely that decades of heavy smoking hadn’t shortened my life at all. Strange to say, early on a certain morning two years ago, my first cigarette of the day happened to be so sickening that I stubbed it out immediately and from then on smoked no more. That marked the beginning of my clean break with cigarettes.

Three things, however, have much to do with one’s health, namely, physiology, psychology and adaptability. That I’ve lived to this age is probably due to my effort to sum up my personal experience of the past decades and draw a lesson from it. I’ve never been weighed down by cares. I never get angry or become pessimistic. Another strong point of mine is that I’m always thirsting for knowledge and have many-sided interests. My interests range over a wide field, from major events at home and abroad to plants and trees, and fish and worms. I used to raise birds and dogs, and now I keep cats. I was once crazy about philately and collecting books and paintings. I watch TV or listen in to the radio, not only for news but mainly for ball games, soccer in particular. I watch each and every Italian Serie A Match without fail. Only, due to my eagerness for national honor, it always makes me mad to see the Chinese Team lose out in international matches.

In recent years, when friends write or call on me, they have often greeted me by saying, “May you have good health and a long life!”Well, I think life shouldn’t be excessively long. Some come into this world while some depart from it, that’s the way of all flesh. What if everybody should live an undying life?What would become of this world if Confucius, Qinshihuang[1], Yuan Shikai[2] and Chiang Kai-shek were still alive today!

In this human world, things all go by certain rules. Only by grasping these rules can we make reforms and create. I think habits do not come under the category of ideology, but have something to do with inertia. That’s why the ancients say, “Old habits die hard. ”Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that habits are impossible of being broken. With strong resolution and perseverance, we can certainly break ourselves of old habits.

[1] Qinshihuang (c. 259-210 BC), first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, who united China for the first time in history.

[2] Yuan Shikai (1859-1916), president of the Republic of China (1912-1916), and chieftain of the Northern Warlords.