Selected Modern Chinese Essays: The Living Present

By Li Dazhao

Of all things in the world, I think, the present is the most precious, and also the most apt to slip through our fingers. We, therefore, treasure it all the more because of its transience.

Why is the present so precious? The following quotation from the philosopher Emerson best serves for an answer: “Make use of time if you love eternity; yesterday cannot be recalled; tomorrow cannot be assured; only today is yours. One today is worth two tomorrows.”

Why is the present so easily lost? Because the universe as well as human life is changing non-stop all the time. Time never tarries with us a bit longer because we treasure and love it. It is hard to tell which moment in the ups and downs of life is our present or now. What we call our present or now at one moment will at the next be quickly gone and become the past. Isn’t it a pity to unthinkingly idle away the present?

Some philosophers say that we have the past and the future, but no present. Others say that the present is inclusive of the past and the future. I, however, incline towards the latter view because the present is where all the past empties itself or, in other words, where lies hidden the entire legacy of the past. The prevailing thought of any age does not come into being all by itself. It is the synthesis of the popular thoughts of numerous previous ages or probably of all the past. The rippling sound stirred up by a pebble thrown into the current of the times will keep spreading forever. Li Sao, authored by Qu Yuan, will continue to touch a deep chord in the heart of every reader through all ages. The lethal shot that hit Abraham Lincoln’s head will keep echoing through all lands and all eternity. The changes of each age, instead of becoming extinct, will pass on to the next. The process will go on endlessly to form an eternal link in the world. The events of yesterday and today will combine to form several complicated events which will in turn combine with those of tomorrow to form several new complicated events. Thus one influence combines with another; one problem gives rise to another. The infinite past results in the present, and the infinite future results from the present. It is the present that serves as a connecting link between the past and the future to bring about continuity, eternity and a boundless big whole. Ring the bell of the present, and you will hear the distant echoes of the infinite past and future. That accounts for the fact that the present is inclusive of the past and the future and that the living present is the most precious.

Nowadays two kinds of people don’t know how to care for the present. One kind are sick of the present; the other are crazy about it.

Among those who are sick of the present, some are so dissatisfied with everything of today that they become nostalgic about yesterday. To them, things nowadays, including politics, law, morality and social customs, are all inferior to those in the past. They place their only hope on turning the clock back to days of old. They throw themselves heart and soul into the back-to-the-ancients campaign. Some, though also dissatisfied with everything of today like those mentioned above, long for the future instead of the past, so much so that they abandon themselves to dreams and fantasies and even give up many things that can be achieved right now through their own efforts. People of these two categories hinder social progress instead of furthering it.

People who are crazy about the present are generally apathetic and lack high aspirations. They see nothing wrong in the present. Complacent about their present circumstances, they feel no need for progress or creation. Such people abuse the present and stem the tide of progress. There is no difference at all between them and those who are sick of the present.

It is common among human beings to be discontented with the present. They usually dream of something that has not yet come into being with fantasies about its being extremely agreeable and beneficial. But, once that something has become a reality, they call it just so-so and then fall into despair and grow weary of the present. Or they may feel a new environment rather unimpressive, but once things have changed, they begin to think well of it and recall it with tenderness. The former case has to do with future expectations, and the latter with past memories. However, given a combination of the two cases, dissatisfaction with the present will become a great moving force of social development. Being content with things as they are is a kind of inertia. We need to understand that the present is precious not because it can allow us to idle about in the midst of comfort and pleasure, but because it offers us an opportunity to strive to create the future.

Those keen on returning to the past keep telling us how dark and vile the status quo is and what serious wickedness and heavy misfortune it brings. They should understand, however, that what they speak of, if true, is a long-standing inheritance from the past, definitely not a product of today. It is utterly wrong to attribute it all to the present. The only way to change the status quo is to strive to create the future, not to attempt to revive the past.

Now let me sum up briefly as follows:

We should not let the present slip away idly, being displeased with it and lost in past memories and future dreams. Nor should we rest content with the present and thus make absolutely no efforts to achieve future development. Let’s make the best of today so as to create tomorrow. Our deeds of today, good or bad, will have an everlasting impact on the future. It is therefore our duty to keep up with the trend of the times and strive for the well-being of future generations.