Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Throwing off My Dark Shadow

By Ba Jin

It was a cool evening. I was walking down a rain-drenched street by myself. In the faint light of the street lamps, all was a blur before me. The footfalls of two old women disappeared in the distance as well as their receding figures. I was faced with darkness or, perhaps, emptiness.

I had been searching for dazzling brilliance, only to find a few dying lamplights around me.

The walk didn’t tire my feet. I didn’t know how long I had been walking, or how far I still had to go.

I found a shadow following me closely and quietly. It seemed that he had been whispering into my ear.

I looked back, but not a soul in sight. Then, when I walked on, I heard the same voice again.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“Me,” sounded a familiar voice.

“Who are you? Why have you been following me closely?”

“I’m your shadow. I’ve always been at your heels.”

“Then please come out so that I can take a look at you. I’m tired of your gabbling.”

He fell into silence, but kept tailing after me.

“Say, please show up and let me see you,” I demanded again out of impatience. “Why have you been hiding yourself in the dark?”

“No, I won’t show up,” he faltered. “I can’t go without darkness. Darkness provides cover for me.”

“Then you know where I’m going?” I asked suddenly.

“No, I don’t, but I want to follow you.”

“Let me tell you, I’m going to look for light.”

Thereupon, I seemed to hear a voice exclaiming, “Aiyo!” Then, after quite a while, I heard the whisper again.

“You’ll never find light. You’d better turn back and take another way.”

“I’ll keep going forward, and never stop until I find light.”

“But do you know how far from here you’ll have to go before you find light? And how long will you be able to walk in this life?”

“I don’t care about all that. So long as I live, I go where there’s light.”

“You’ll die of exhaustion before you find anything. And nobody will care to bury you. Your dead body will be left unburied in the wilderness for vultures to eat.”

“I would rather have my dead body pecked by vultures than fed to dogs. I would rather die of exhaustion than lie comfortably in my warm home.”

“All people will laugh at you and forget you. Nobody will hand you a cup of water when you are thirsty. Nobody will come to your help when you fall down. People will throw stones at you when you groan. You’ll never gain any sympathy all your life.”

“Why should I need other people’s sympathy? Do I disbelieve myself or the way I’m following?”

“Then aren’t you afraid of loneliness? Don’t you know the way ahead is all paved with loneliness?”

“Yes, I do. I’ll walk with even more vigorous steps the moment I set foot on loneliness. Loneliness will be my faithful companion.”

“You bloody fool, even if you got light, what good would it do you? Would it keep you adequately fed and clad?” He even had the audacity to start sneering at me.

I gave a clear-cut answer, “If I get light, I’ll share it with everybody and let it shed its brilliance all over the world. If I fail to get light, I’ll be just ready to die a solitary death halfway.”

“As to yourself, what would you keep for yourself?”

“When light shines all over the world, I’ll enjoy my share of its brilliance —”

“What if darkness predominates?” he cut in.

“I’ll fight with darkness as best I can. I’ve made up my mind to break through it.”

“Break through it, eh?” he burst out laughing. “Ha-ha! Are you that powerful? I’m telling you not to overestimate your own power.”

“Never mind if I have the power or not. I have ambitions and determination. It doesn’t matter if I should fail. Other people will achieve what I failed to do.”

“You lunatic, you dreamer! You forsake happiness and honour. You treasure loneliness and regard it as your lifelong companion. And you’re trying to go after light and break through darkness without ever thinking how I could exist without darkness!”

He grinned, he laughed, he roared.

“That’s enough,” he continued, “I’d better give up. What good will it do me to keep following you? I shouldn’t make a fool of myself by ruining myself for nothing. From now on, we each go our own way. You can go ahead embracing loneliness and hugging death. Let me count on seeing your dead body gobbled up by vultures and your bones trodden to pieces by horses’ hoofs.”

Laughing a few derisive laughs, my shadow disappeared from behind me. He walked away noiselessly. I no longer knew his whereabouts. I only saw a dark shadow flash past the corner of my eye.

Now there was no more whispering in my ear.

The twilight was deepening. A long murky road stretched far into the distance. As I raised my head to strain my eyes to see through the darkness, a ray of light seemed to flash from afar, though definitely a long, long way from where I was.

I moved along slowly by myself in the prevailing silence of the night. I couldn’t remember how far I had covered, and nor did I know for how long I still had to travel.