Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Time Is Life

◎ Liang Shiqiu

It is most startling to hear a watch or clock clicking away the seconds, each click indicating the shortening of one’s life by a little bit. Likewise, with each page torn off the wall calendar, one’s life is shortened by another day. Time, therefore, is life. Nevertheless, few people treasure their time as much as their life. Time must not be wasted if you want to do your bit in your remaining years or acquire some useful knowledge to improve yourself and help others, so that your life may turn out to be significant and fruitful. All that is foolproof, yet few people really strive to make the best use of their time.

Personally, I am also a fritterer. I don’t play mahjong. I seldom go to the theatre or cinema — I go there maybe only once every few years. I seldom spend long hours watching TV — usually I watch TV for no more than 30 minutes at a sitting. Nor do I go visiting and gossiping from door to door. Some people asked me, “Then what do you do with most of your time?” Introspecting with remorse, I found that apart from the time earmarked for my job and unavoidable social activities, most of my time had been wasted. I should have concentrated my energies on reading whatever books I have not yet read. I should have utilized all my time in writing anything I want to write. But I’ve failed to do so. Very much of my time has been frittered away aimlessly. As the saying goes, “One who does not work hard in youth will grieve in vain in old age.”

Take the translation of Shakespeare for example. I had initially planned to spend 20 years of my spare time in doing the translation, finishing two plays a year. But I spent 30 years instead, due primarily to my slothfulness. The whole project would probably have fallen through had it not been for my fairly long life. After that I had other plans for work, but, because of my approaching senility, somehow I failed to do what I had wished to. Had I spurred myself on in my youth, I would have done more and better work. Alas, it is too late to repent.

Another example. The reading of Chinese classics is a must for all Chinese. But it was not until I was over 30 that I came to realize the importance of self-study in the matter of classics. I did read carefully though, marking words and phrases for special attention with small circles and dots. But my efforts at self-study were off and on. Confucius says, “I shall be free of great faults if I can live long enough to begin the study of Yi 〔10〕 at the age of 50.” I feel ashamed to admit that I haven’t even touched Yi though I’m now over 80. Chinese history books are equally important. When I was leaving China to study abroad, father bought a set of the Tong Wen lithographic edition of the First Four Books of History 〔11〕 , and crammed them into my travelling box, taking up half of its space. Several years later, however, after drifting along abroad, I returned home carrying with me the same books all unread. It was not until 40 years later that I plucked up enough courage to read through Tong Jian 〔12〕 . So many books still remain to be read, and I much regret not having enough time to do it.

Whatever you do, you need a sound body first of all. In my school days, in response to the so-called “compulsory physical exercises”, I went in for many sports at the expense of many pairs of sneakers and rackets, thus luckily building up a minimum of good physique. When I was approaching old age, I did taiji quan (shadow boxing) for several years. Now I only do some walking exercises. Dear young friends, my advice to you is: Do physical exercises perseveringly. That has nothing to do with merry-making or time-wasting. Good health is the wherewithal for a successful life and career.