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    A Chinese Author Asks: What Makes People Great?

    In an excerpt from “Pleasure of Thinking,” a collection of newly translated essays out this month from Astra House, Wang Xiaobo muses on the sources of greatness.
    Jul 08, 2023#literature

    Editor’s note: Wang Xiaobo was just 44 years old when he died of a heart attack in 1997, but he left behind a formidable body of work. The author of more than a dozen novels and essay collections, Wang was a committed liberal, but one who always made sure to cut his idealism with a hefty dose of wit.

    Nearly 30 years after his death, Wang’s writings have lost none of their bite. Although best known for his novels, which drew on his experiences as an “educated youth” in the Cultural Revolution and his time living and studying abroad, Wang’s essays contain perhaps the purest distillation of his unique mix of humor and profundity.

    For decades, however, they were largely inaccessible outside of China, an oversight that the translator Yan Yan — who previously translated Wang’s novel “The Golden Age” — set out to correct with “Pleasure of Thinking,” out this month from Astra House. “Pleasure” sees Wang apply his trademark sardonic wit to everything from a maverick pig to his nephew’s rock ‘n’ roll dreams. In more reflective pieces, Wang muses on getting mugged in Pittsburgh and wonders why he writes at all.

    In the excerpt below, “Concerning ‘The Greatness Tribe,’” Wang contemplates a question that haunted many Chinese of his generation: At a time when everyone only seems to care about getting rich, does anyone still dare to dream big?

    The following essay, translated from the Chinese by Yan Yan, is included in the collection “Pleasure of Thinking.” It is republished here with permission.

    An old classmate of mine returned from America to visit his family. We had not seen each other for almost eight years. He’s not doing poorly: even though his salary isn’t very high, he lives comfortably in a two-income household. Since last seeing him in America, he’s moved on to his third home, upgraded to his fourth car, and as far as PC computers are concerned, the moment a newer, faster one comes out, he runs to buy it, so you can’t keep track of how many of those have passed through his hands. He hasn’t upgraded his wife yet, and isn’t planning to, which is the part I like about him. Even though he hasn’t ridden in a Rolls-Royce or stayed in a mansion on Palm Beach, and even though he doesn’t hold a stack of stocks in his hands, only a buttload of debt, still, as we like to say in the Northeast, at least he has “spent” a good time. Right now, I am without a roof or a plot of land to my name, so of course, I am a little envious. But when we got together, this was not what we talked about — that would have been far too inane.

    This brother and I have ventured in all four directions. We’ve farmed the land, herded livestock, worked in factories, and twenty years ago when we shared the same window in college, our hearts burned with the same fiery ambition, and together, we dreamed of accomplishing great things. By great things, I just mean making our dreams come true. As for what we dreamed about, I’m too embarrassed to mention now, so I’ll just use other people’s dreams as examples. Take the big boss of the Microsoft Corporation, Bill Gates — for example, when he was young, he wanted to take the unassuming little microprocessor of his day and turn it into a useful computer that everyone could own and use, ushering in a scientific era that would truly sweep across mankind — that’s the stuff great dreams are made of. Today, this dream has largely come true, and he has made a significant contribution to that progress, truly admirable. But as for his business success, that seems less admirable to me. Another example would be Martin Luther King Jr. who once declared “I have a dream,” and now on American campuses, you can see Black boys and girls strolling along with white boys and girls. From such a beautiful image, one can sense the greatness of Dr. King’s dream. But fast-forward to the present, there’s not much more for me to add, and my cheeks are starting to get hot. All I can say is that we once had these kinds of dreams too.

    Every person has his or her own dream, but such dreams aren’t always the start of something great. Mr. Lu Xun once wrote about a certain kind of person in his essay: his biggest dream was to cough up half a mouthful of blood on a snowy day and have his maid support him as he lazily ambled into the courtyard to enjoy the plum blossoms. When I read this, it made me furious: how can someone have a dream like that! At the time, I thought: if this old mister wasn’t so particular about the snow, the plum blossoms, the maid, and just wanted to cough up some blood, then that’s something I could help him with. At the time, I was a young man with muscles on my arms and a hard fist. Nowadays, I wouldn’t offer this sort of help. I’m past that age. Now, when I look in the mirror and see a wrinkly face, I hardly recognize the person. When I’m walking on the street and come across a colossal object that upon closer inspection turns out to be the girl of my dreams from back in the day, I can’t help but swallow a mouthful of cold air. When you swallow too much cold air, you start to forget things, so I should get all I have to say off my chest while I still can. Not every dream is the start of something great, but all great things start from a dream — of that I am certain.

    Young people today have their “celebrity fan tribes” and “office worker tribes,” but the ones who want to achieve greatness don’t have a name so let’s call them the “greatness tribe.” Back in the day, campuses (whether it was in China or America) were full of these types. When Mr. Gates showed up on campus with his casual wear and a head full of messy hair, he was just like us, a part of the “greatness tribe.” When I first got back to China, at least half of the students I taught belonged to the greatness tribe. Their eyes sparkled with the dream of greatness. I could always tell with one glance who was or wasn’t a part of the tribe. But this tribe has gotten smaller and smaller, and one day, maybe they will go extinct like the dinosaurs. I asked this brother of mine, what are you doing these days. He said he sat around and helped people run software packages. I yelled at him in anger: people like us should be doing research — who wants to run software packages? But he said, they pay me, so who cares. It made sense. If someone paid me thirty or forty thousand American dollars a year to run software packages, I’d run his packages too. This shows that even I am no longer a part of the greatness tribe. But when we were young, we had grand dreams. The greatness tribe isn’t a bunch of daydreamers, nor are they just loud voices in an angry mob; and they certainly aren’t teenagers whose blood rises to a boil before they’ve even figured out what’s going on. The greatness tribe believes that all beautiful dreams can come true — in other words, dreams that can’t come true aren’t beautiful to begin with. If you don’t succeed, then you must have done something wrong; and if you succeed and the results aren’t beautiful, but more like a nightmare, then you must have thought about it wrong to begin with. No matter how it turns out, this road must always exist — prepare a dream and prepare to work toward that dream. Whether or not this way of thinking is correct, I’m not yet certain. One thing I am sure about is: there exists a greatness tribe.

    This article, translated by Yan Yan, is an excerpt from the book “Pleasure of Thinking” by Wang Xiaobo, published by the Astra Publishing House in July 2023. It is republished here with permission.

    Editors: Xue Ni and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Wang Xiaobo’s books on display at an exhibition, 2005. VCG)