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    When Two Chinese Scholars Went for a Walk

    Did they both want to be there?

    What’s the most important quality a friend can have? For the Song dynasty (960-1279) Chinese poet and writer Su Shi, better known as Su Dongpo, the answer may have been a touch of insomnia. The literary great was fond of off-hours strolls during his long exile from court — and at least on one occasion brought his friend and fellow exile Zhang Huaimin along for a walk in the moonlight.

    That famous saunter, the subject of a famous 96-character prose piece by Su still studied in Chinese schools today, took place 940 years ago last week. For centuries, Su’s description of it has been considered among the best celebrations of friendship, tranquility, and optimism in the entire Chinese literary canon.

    More recently, however, some Chinese have begun to reconsider the story’s central premise: Zhang’s willingness to get out of bed and go wandering about with his friend. Was Zhang really as excited for the pair’s walk as Su makes him out to be? Or, perhaps, might he have been awakened by a careless, possibly drunk Su, then gone along with the idea to avoid upsetting his friend?

    According to Su’s short tale, on the 12th night of the 10th lunar month of the sixth year of the Yuanfeng era — or Nov. 24, 1083, in the Gregorian calendar — he was preparing for bed when he caught a glimpse of the moon. Changing his mind, Su headed over to Chengtian Temple, hoping to find Zhang, who resided there, awake. He wasn’t disappointed. Zhang “was also not yet asleep,” according to Su, and the two enjoyed a moonlit stroll through trees of bamboo and cypress.

    “What night has no moon?” Su muses toward the end of the piece. “Where can’t you find bamboo and cypress? But there are not many idlers like the two of us.”

    The pair, both victims of intrigue at the Song court, had been demoted to low-level posts in out-of-the-way Huangzhou — today the central Chinese city of Huanggang — affording them plenty of leisure for off-hours walks. But many are wondering whether Su’s account might have glossed over Zhang’s feelings. Some slotted Zhang’s name into old meme templates of a confused man being woken from a deep slumber; others joked that Su was like that friend who bangs on your door until you answer, then smiles and says, “Oh, good, you’re up.”

    The memes reflect a recent trend of Chinese deconstructing literary figures without displacing them from the canon, perhaps best exemplified by this summer’s blockbuster retelling of poet Li Bai’s life, “Chang An.” “In textbooks, they (Su and Zhang) are intellectuals with the aesthetic sense to appreciate moonlight,” reads one highly upvoted comment on the Quora-like platform Zhihu. “It’s a lovely image, but it feels far away. By contrast, the memes of the pair on Douyin feel relatable, despite the 10 centuries dividing us.”

    The popular re-imagining of Su as a careless friend also touches on the recent popularity of personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in China: specifically, the desire to sort people into either “i(ntroverts)” or “e(xtroverts).” Are you an “i” or an “e”? A Zhang or a Su?

    Of course, not many people, regardless of personality type, like to be roused from bed in the middle of the night. But there also seems to be a widespread agreement that the two sides — “i”s and “e”s, Zhang’s and Su’s — need each other. After all, isn’t there something romantic about having a friend who’s thinking about you when they are alone and sees you as someone with whom they can share their joy? Or having someone who’s willing to put up with you, even at your most exhausting?

    That may be all the more true now that such connections feel so rare. Official statistics reveal that there are over 125 million “single-person households” in China, a phenomenon fueled by the rising number of unmarried urban youth. The challenges of maintaining work-life balance in a highly competitive workspace have rendered in-person interactions increasingly difficult, while helping fuel a “loneliness economy” of dating apps, “solitary eating” menus, even solo karaoke booths.

    Meanwhile, social media, which began with a promise to connect people, seems only to exacerbate our loneliness epidemic. When young Chinese talk about “revenge bedtime procrastination” — a reference to stealing back free time by staying up later and later into the night — they’re almost certainly referring to scrolling through their social media feeds by themselves, not hanging out with friends or loved ones.

    Some of these are new problems, but Su knew the taste of isolation all too well. A political underdog, he barely escaped a death sentence for his involvement in factional struggles at court. Instead, he suffered a series of demotions that separated him from his family, friends, and loved ones, sometimes permanently. Yet it was during his exile that he composed some of his best-known poems and prose pieces, many of which extol the companionship of friends, moonlight, and food — work that earned him the moniker “the gay genius” from his modern biographer Lin Yutang.

    We will never know for sure what exactly Zhang thought about the pair’s moonlit jaunt. As for Su, he’d be unlikely to take offense at the public’s recent reevaluation of him. A master humorist as adept at mocking himself as his friends, he once summarized his “political achievements” in three words: Huangzhou, Huizhou, and Danzhou — three of the cities where he spent his exile.

    And to those expressing sympathy toward the unfortunate Zhang, Su would probably just shrug. “And since you’re also awake,” he might add, “why not go for a walk with us?”

    Visuals: Ding Yining.

    (Header image: A portrait of Su Shi from a collection of poems printed in the Qing dynasty, collected by Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library. Visuals from IC and, reedited by Sixth Tone)