Life, Existence

I was looking at a photograph earlier this evening and started thinking about existence. The photograph was taken in the summer of 2008, in or near Sai Kung Country Park in Hong Kong. Among those in the photo were my aunt, my wife, and myself.

My aunt passed away earlier this year. Her body, and perhaps her consciousness, no longer exist, but in my memory and imagination I can see her face, I can hear her speaking to me, and I can feel her touch. Does this mean that she still exists? I suppose that depends on how we define existence.

If I wanted to, I could completely recreate my aunt in my mind. But would it still be her? Or would it just be what I think she should be? Would she be considered existing?

When I am with my wife and we are happy together, I sometimes ask the question “why do we have to die and be apart someday?” It just seems like a cruel joke to bring people together, make them love each other, care for each other, and then break them apart at the end. People say that we should treasure the people around us, and the moments that they share with us. I wonder how much of a difference that makes, because it doesn’t make saying goodbye, or the prospect of saying goodbye, any easier. In the end, we all die.

I can still feel the warmth of the sun on that hot and humid summer day in the park. I see the giant ants crawling along the sidewalk. I feel my impatience at being out in the heat and not in the air conditioned saloon of my uncle’s van. Maybe that’s all existence is, just a collection of brain cells that can replay a memory over and over again. When the last memory of something fades, then that something stops existing, and it is as if it never existed. Not a very funny joke at all.

2010 Commencement Speech by Mr. Wang Jisi, Peking University

The following translation was published on July 29, 2010, on the South China Morning Post website, I enjoyed the piece and agreed with many of Mr. Wang’s assessments, which is why I am posting his speech on my website. The original speech in Chinese can be found on the Peking University website, along with Mr. Wang’s profile. Unfortunately, I was not able to ascertain the name of the translator.

A graduation ceremony is an occasion for congratulations and words of encouragement. But although I have been an administrator for many years, I have not learned how to make sensational speeches. I never know when to raise the tone of my voice or when to pause for applause. Of course, saying a few bland words appropriate to the occasion will not be too difficult. But a man past 60, as I am, is past minding what others say of him. So I will speak from my heart.

I’d like to talk about life goals and about being an ordinary person at ease with himself. My main field of study is America and Sino-American relations. Naturally these topics are close to my heart. China can learn from the United States in many ways, but in at least two areas we must not follow their example.

The first is America’s prodigious consumption of natural resources and its spending on credit. Both China and the US are vast in size. But while America’s geographical and natural resources are far more abundant than China’s, its population is just over a fifth of ours. If the Chinese were to consume as the Americans do – living in big houses and driving big cars – it would cripple our country and cripple the earth. So, in terms of material progress and per capita consumption, unless the Americans make a disastrous wrong turn, China can never catch up with America. Nor should it want to.

The second lesson for China is that it should not seek to be a superpower. America is unique in many ways. No other country can be a superpower to rival it; the Soviet Union tried to be one but fell apart. Chinese leaders since Mao Zedong have repeatedly said China should never be a superpower. They were not being diplomatic; they decided it must be so, given China’s conditions and development goals.

This is why China should not aspire to be another America; we cannot be so even if we try. What, then, is China’s strategic goal in the world? I think we should focus on our own development and help create an environment that is conducive to it. International rankings, such as which country is number one, are not important. What is important is that our people are healthy and happy, our society just and at peace, our ecology in balance and our country can stand on equal footing with the nations of the world.

National goals aside, let’s think about our personal goals. After graduation, you will go your separate ways. To those of you who will one day become a leading scholar, a company chief executive, a department head, a national leader, the secretary general of the United Nations, or in any way make your name, I will offer my congratulations. But, realistically, despite your bright hopes for the future and your enviable education here in Peking University, most of you will become ordinary people. Anyone who doubts this will see the truth of it after he attends an alumni meeting or a class reunion.

Mao Zedong once wrote about the 600 million Chinese [China’s population then] who were the equals of the legendary emperors of Yao and Shun. In another verse, he compared the Chinese people with historical giants. Those are inspiring words. But how many of us are the equal of Yao, Shun and their fellow greats? So, to those of you who turn out to be healthy, happy ordinary people, I’ll offer my congratulations, too – perhaps doubly so. Because as an ordinary person, you may live a more carefree life, one that is truer to yourself.

Not only do I hope you will become an ordinary person, I also hope you will become a good person. What is the definition of a good person? At the very least, a good person is kind to his family, friends and colleagues. He does not cheat in exams, or plagiarise another scholar’s work, or cut corners in construction projects, or sell fake goods or accept bribes. If you aim high and are thwarted in your ambition to be among the creme de la creme, you will be disappointed, and you may find your grasp on even basic moral standards slipping. Set your goals lower and you will find it easier to be a good person.

But being good does not mean being laid back and without ambition; it does not stop you from making a constructive contribution to society. As Zhuge Liang, a famous military strategist of the Three Kingdoms period, said to his son in a letter: “A gentleman keeps a tranquil mind and lives a frugal life to become a highly moral person. Live a simple life to identify your true aspirations; seek inner peace to accomplish your goals.”

In other words, the more virtuous you become, the more successfully you can identify and achieve your goals. Speaking of Zhuge Liang brings me back to my work in international politics. Zhuge Liang excelled in identifying and striving for his aspirations but not so much in ruling a country. Although the Shu kingdom had once had a glorious time under his rule, he failed to restore the damaged vitality of his country and eventually failed to unify the three kingdoms. He insisted on waging war with the much stronger Wei kingdom despite the weakness and exhaustion of his own kingdom.

If Zhuge had set his goals lower and overhauled his war strategies and made use of his diplomatic skills and charisma to call a peace summit in Chengdu, Shu’s capital city, and push for a peace agreement, there could have been a win-win situation and co-operation among the three kingdoms. His kingdom and the people would have avoided much suffering, and Zhuge Liang himself could have enjoyed a few more years of peace with his family.

I should stop before I make more inappropriate comments. I wish all of you health and happiness.

Wang Jisi is dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University. This is a translation of the speech he gave at the school’s graduation ceremony earlier this month.

Buffet Dinner @ cafe TOO, Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong

On June 25, 2007, my family and I enjoyed a buffet dinner at cafe TOO inside the Island Shangri-La Hotel in Hong Kong. These are some of my selections from that evening.

Buffet Dinner @ cafe TOO

On this plate we have grilled lamb, cheese-breaded chicken, salami, prosciutto-ham-wrapped asparagus, and pan-fried fish.

Buffet Dinner @ cafe TOO

A hearty noodle soup (pork bone base) with sliced beef, bok choy, bean sprouts, and shiitake mushrooms.

Buffet Dinner @ cafe TOO

Cream of tomato soup.

Buffet Dinner @ cafe TOO

A selection of raw oysters, a crab claw, salmon and tuna sashimi, a prawn, and shrimp cocktail.

Buffet Dinner @ cafe TOO

Here we have an Indian selection: basmati rice, naan bread, various curries, and tandoori chicken.