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11 A New Myth Of Sisyphus

People who are introspective and in the habit of sitting in quiet reflection, and for whom reading the newspapers is not enough, often look back to philosophize on the wonderful, floating, shadowy reflections of the events of their childhood that were steps along the path of their growth.

I am like this, because I know that there is nothing like regularly looking back on your past to help you understand the enigmas of human existence and the material and spiritual changes that are going on in the world we live in today. I have never been able to live a life limited to childhood, nor to one family, nor to a single courtyard, nor even to one country. But every human being's understanding of themselves and of the world can only be reached by crossing the bridge to their past experience and thought.

For me, this is the underlying implication of the sentence, "If you lose touch with childhood, you will never enter heaven."

Compared to my primary school years, my years in middle school were a time of momentous changes in China. I lived through and witnessed the closing years of the 1970s and the restoration of the university entrance examination system in the early 1980s, which pitted middle school graduates ruthlessly against one another as they converged like swarms of wasps on the universities. The close relationships between students of earlier years were gone, although, on the positive side, the entire student body joining together to isolate a particular student became a thing of the past. Getting higher grades than other students was tantamount to threatening their chances to attend university and their future as well. The ideals of collectivism were slowly but surely being swallowed up by a vigorous and untried individualism. In this vicious struggle, grades were everything. In school you were taught answers, not methods, and the answers were fixed. Individual ideas and imagination were of no importance or significance whatsoever.

In primary school, I lived my life outside the pale of the then current group happiness of collectivism that overrode the value of the individual, but although I was lonely, in the background, there was still a kind of indirect, shadowy illusion of belonging. But from the time I entered middle school, especially as the university entrance examinations drew near, I felt that I had become enmeshed in another extreme the then current net of individualism, which lacked completely the warmth of the old collectivism. Companions were brought together in a single classroom, but were as cold and indifferent to one another as strangers. The shattering of old feelings of group identity plunged me into a genuine psychological isolation and sense of meaninglessness, where I felt the fear of being alienated from my companions and trapped within myself.

When I think back on it today, the collectivism of our youth, which ignored the individual, was in fact the hotbed that nurtured our present inhumanly arrogant individualism. Any phenomenon that is carried to an extreme will gradually lead to the emergence of its opposite.

I remember the morning of the last day of the winter holiday of the year that I graduated from upper middle school. Snowflakes as big as goose feathers were falling everywhere, as if the sky itself were coming down. I awoke to the soft swish of the falling snow, snugly nestled in my quilt, with no desire to get up.

I stuck one arm out from under the quilt to turn the clock on the night table so I could see what time it was. It wasn't eight o'clock yet. We had to go to school that day at ten o'clock to register.

When I saw that it was still early, I snuggled back down into my bed to indulge myself in my fantasies.

I noticed that the arm I stuck out had changed. Because of my heavy workload and the pressure of exams, I had been neglecting my private conversations with the misses Do and Don't for a long time. My arms and legs, once thin as sticks, had become plump and sleek without my noticing it. I began feeling myself all over, and discovered that my body had indeed been undergoing great changes. I was amazed by how unobservant I had been. How could I not have noticed this when I was bathing? My former familiarity with my body seemed truly a thing of the past.

My breasts, now round and soft, were like two peaches stuffed into the top of my pajamas. My groin had suddenly become broad and flat like a field that seemed big enough to grow lush and fragrant wheat. My buttocks now boldly asserted themselves, full, round, and heavy, curving out from my waist so that I couldn't lie flat on the bed anymore, and my thighs were long, firm, and lithe, like a pair of exclamation marks.

Under my quilt, I kept feeling my Misses Do and Don't. I felt very clearly that since I was becoming an adult I didn't want to spend so much time conversing with them. My inner discourses had already quietly developed in new directions, for example, with my neighbor the Widow Ho and with my only friend among my schoolmates, Yi Qiu but especially with Ho. When I was alone, I often thought about when she was young and about how things had been between her and her husband, and if they had been happy together. She was almost the only light, the only support in my life. After a tasteless and depressing day, she would help me shuck off the pressure and the indefinable sense of emptiness that school engendered and let me enjoy for a moment the warmth of her conversation. We didn't have to be together for these conversations, nor did there have to be an actual exchange of words. We could meet in my mind.

Curled up there contentedly under my quilt, like a young heifer quietly chewing her cud, I savored my imaginary dialogues. It was as if I were building a house out of words, words chosen with meticulous care.

Then I became aware of the voices of my father and mother talking in the room next to mine. It sounded like they were "discussing" some problem. The reason I use the word "discuss" is that their tone was obviously neither sharp nor urgent enough for it to be an argument. It seemed more like they were casually discussing which brand of household appliance to buy. But I knew that my father never, either seriously or casually, exchanged views with my mother on the petty affairs of the household. When I cocked my head to listen more closely, I realized that Mother was talking about "divorce," and I could sense that she spoke of it freely and easily, as if she had been preparing for it for a very long time although her voice had become less mellow, a bit hard-edged, with the seriousness of the subject.

Feeling very depressed and gloomy, I was on the edge of tears, but I hated letting myself sink into helpless despair, so I immediately shifted my focus of attention. I got up and dressed, sneaked into the kitchen for something to eat, then left for school with my winter holiday exercise book to report for registration.

A light breeze whispered unhindered through the gray debris and past the doors at the top of stone steps along the almost deserted street. Like a great white coat, the snow had covered the city's crumbling walls and its withered yellow patches of grass. A four-wheeled horse-drawn wagon passed in front of me, the horses' hooves as quiet as a cat, the only sound the scarcely heard groan of the heavy wheels as they turned, as if the wagon too were shrouded in an invisible net as it slowly and silently progressed. A wan light glinted on the branches of the trees and danced and flickered on the coarse brown wooden palings at the road's edge.

I like to go for a stroll when it is snowing. You cannot see the sky or the horizon, and your mind can freely wander along any path it chooses. The pristine white snow squeaks under your feet like fluttering sparrows. The sound makes you feel as if you are walking among the living, and when you look back at your footprints, you know that you are alive. When you feel this way, you are in touch with the spirit of all things. The heavy despair that I'd felt before leaving home was dispelled by the grandeur of heaven and earth, and the griefs and worries in my life seemed small and insignificant.

After walking in the snow for a while, I was able to push my parents' discussion of divorce that morning out of my mind for the time being, and I also managed to suppress my grief.

When I got to the main gate, I saw that our school grounds were deserted, a layer of milk-white snow covering the courtyard, the paths, and the walkways. Because it was overcast, the lights were on in all the offices. I entered Mr. Ti's office to find him smiling at me. It seemed as if he had been purposely keeping an eye out for me, waiting for my arrival.

And indeed, as I entered the office, he said, "I've been watching you through the window every step of the way. You look like you stepped out of a fairy tale, you're so beautiful." As he spoke, he lifted his tall frame from his chair to greet me, as if I were a formal guest, not just one of his students.

His deep-set eyes revealed an uneasy urgency, as if he were suppressing all the things he had been longing to say over the entire winter holiday, and these things, clamoring for expression, were creating a tremendous pressure in his breast.

Just then, a number of my classmates arrived, including Yi Qiu, who came panting in, swinging her one bad leg.

Like everyone else, I handed in my exercise book, registered, and had my student card stamped.

When we were done and I was just about to leave with Yi Qiu, Mr. Ti suddenly said, "Ni Niuniu, don't go yet. There's still something I want to see you about."

Feeling uneasy, I asked, "What?"

He hesitated a moment, then said, "Why don't you go and sweep up the snow in front of our classroom first, then we can talk."

As he spoke, he was collecting the exercise books from the students who had come late.

I thought it was unfair that I had to stay and sweep snow while all the other students could go home, but I nonetheless obeyed his order, taking Yi Qiu along with me.

I let her wait on the classroom steps under the eaves while I started sweeping.

As I was sweeping, I looked up at the flurries of snow still drifting softly down. Without letup, the soft, fluffy down was busily covering everything. In no time at all my hair and shoulders were covered with a layer of white.

When I straightened up and turned to look back at the area I had just swept, the black pavement had already been covered with a fresh layer of white. I stood there hopelessly for a moment, then went back and started all over again.

I would sweep a bit, then look back, only to see that the place I had just swept had again been covered in snow.

I swept and I swept until I was overcome with hopeless exhaustion, feeling that I had been condemned to nothing more or less than an endless test or an unending labor detail. The test or the work would go on forever, all part of a plot or trap devised by Mr. Ti. I suddenly thought of all his rudeness, cunning, oppression, and unfairness. Not only did he hold back on my grades and criticize my morals, he also controlled my speech, my thinking, and even my feelings. All this was grossly unfair! How could I put up with this sort of humiliation? Why did I always submit to him, let him push me around as if I were a stupid melonhead?

At that moment I suddenly saw my endless sweeping of the snow as a symbol of my future life, my fate.

And only then did the despair and emptiness that I felt in the morning when I overheard that discussion of divorce come back to crush me.

At that time, naturally, I had not yet read the myth of Sisyphus. It was only after I entered university that I came to know this old western legend of how the gods punished Sisyphus by making him roll a huge stone to the top of a mountain, then letting it roll down again, only to have him push it back up again. He was forced to do this over and over, without cease. Exhausting himself at this futile and hopeless task was his life. But Sisyphus found a significance in this lonely, absurd, and hopeless existence. He discovered that something deeply moving and wonderful emerged from his struggle with the stone. In pitting his strength against it, he created a new energy with all the beauty of the dance. He was so intoxicated with this new joy that his old misery fell away forever. When the huge stone ceased to be a weight on his heart, the gods no longer rolled it back down the mountain.

Mankind possesses intelligence.

This kind of intelligent attitude toward fate was something I would only later come to understand.

Standing in the snow outside the classroom, I was completely swallowed up by the endless disaster that I had created with my excessive imagination.

Suddenly, I started to cry.

Yi Qiu looked up from where she was sitting under the eaves, watching me curiously.

I cried and cried as all my old resentments and my present hatred poured out.

It was already noon when, harboring in my breast all the hatred that I felt toward the men that Ti and my father stood for, I left Yi Qiu and burst into Ti's office to confront him.

Puzzled and concerned when he saw that I had been crying, he asked, "Ni Niuniu, what's wrong?"

As he spoke, he brushed the snow from my hair, my chest, and my back, with a blurred, dreamy look in his eyes.

Without uttering a sound, I glared at him, my eyes like sharp fangs that could slash his hypocritical face to ribbons.

Seemingly oblivious to the daggers flashing in my eyes, he continued to brush my shoulders as he asked me with great concern, "Whatever has happened?"

I jerked his huge hand free from my shoulder and shouted at him, "I've come to tell you something!"

"What is it?" he asked uncertainly.

I fixed my gaze angrily on his face, "I came here to tell you those are your private parts! There! There!"

I "returned the compliment," jabbing him where he had earlier touched me. And I did this with all my strength!

He looked astonished and perplexed.

Only after I had gotten control of my inner tension and excitement did I realize that I was still standing in front of Mr. Ti and that I hadn't moved a hair. My hands were still rigidly by my sides. I hadn't even raised them, let alone touched him. They hung there as stiff and lifeless as stones.

The scene I described above had taken place only in my imagination.

I realized then that there were two opposing people in my head trying to control me at the same time, leaving me in a state of confusion. I stood woodenly in front of him, unable to do a thing.

When I realized that I had not hurt him, I was filled with grief and indignation. I despised myself. I was totally ineffectual, incapable of striking back.

I spun around and ran out of the office.

When I left the school, I didn't go straight home. I wandered the streets aimlessly, oblivious of the crowds passing by and the shop windows with all their expensive goods, completely caught up in my own spiritless, confused thoughts.

I wandered the streets the entire afternoon, until the soft streetlights came on, pushing the evening shadows behind the rooftops along the streets. The glittering neon lights of the great buildings and the entertainment spots splashed the scene with iridescent color.

I have always treated the streets and alleyways as a kind of second home. When you feel lost, with no place to go, they are your hotel. When the people close to you are far away and you feel lonely and helpless, they are your friends. Even when the weather was icy cold, my love for them did not diminish. And as I wandered the streets, I conversed with the voices in my heart.

My home, not so very far away, was awaiting my return, but for the first time in my life I felt totally alone.

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