Being Twenty-One During Coronavirus5 min read

Advice for students out of school, from Shi Tiesheng’s celebrated essay – Nick Admussen

Ed: Nick Admussen is an associate professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at Cornell University, where all classes were cancelled last Friday. He penned this letter, edited for publication, to his students before leaving his desk.

As cases of Covid-19 spread and we begin a period of social distancing, I want to give you my argument for continuing to do the two things university was designed for: to read and to write. Colleges often present themselves to students as a package excursion for youth: open quadrangles, energetic friends and lovers, deep conversation, light beer, live music, parties. It is that, and much more. Yet my colleagues and I didn’t become literature professors – we didn’t become literate – by going to class. We learned what we know in rooms that lacked conversation, friends, and open doors.

Today I’ve been rereading the Chinese writer Shi Tiesheng, a Beijing native who was assigned to rural labor during the Cultural Revolution, when at the age of 21 his spine was injured in an accident and he was rendered paraplegic. His 1991 essay ‘The Year of Being Twenty-One’, translated by Dave Haysom, records his struggles to come to terms with the new limits on his mobility and his future. In the essay, he watches carefully as the other patients in hospital respond to their own illnesses, and to the social and emotional sicknesses that constrain them. From his sickbed, Shi talks with a man with aphasia (“Bed Two”) who has lost all nouns. He remembers a seven-year old boy who fell off a truck and never walked again. And he tells of a pair of lovers pulled apart by an accident, and more. Their stories leap off the page, as if there is something bigger behind them, laboring to push its way through.

It is possible to read ‘The Year of Being Twenty-One’ as a story of lost youth. Shi cannot accept, for much of the essay, that he won’t be able to do the things he wants to. Yet I feel there is a better reading of the story, one that pushes back against easy ideas about what it means to be 21. Once Shi gives up on his fantastic negotiations with God, he gives up on ever getting well, and “there was nothing in my heart but a blank space: later, the word ‘death’ filled it up.” That moment is mercifully brief: books rush in and replace the word ‘death’ with all the other words. Shi writes:

What luck it was that I had books by my side. No matter how I turned the situation over in my mind, there was nothing I could do but bury my head in a book. Fine! Even if I am here for three months. I firmly believed in this entirely unsubstantiated deadline.

My sickroom as a little boy was the middle of the night. I had terrible nightmares: the shadow of a man in a trenchcoat and hat sliding along the wall of my bedroom; a pulsing light whispering evil things I couldn’t quite hear. I would muffle my bedside lamp so the adults couldn’t see it under the door, and I would read and read and read. Over time, the dreams in the books and the dreams in my mind twined together and shifted tone, and my relationship to both of them became more curatorial. It’s a hard thing to explain, because it happened in such a quiet place. Maybe it’s enough to say that I was young, so I adapted.

This is why I think of ‘The Year of Being Twenty-One’ as a story about the power of youth – the transformative power of serious attention and mental energy. The boredom that we all experience, the hunger to see something, to ingest words – that’s your body and your mind flogging you to chase down the things they need, trying to get you to move towards what you’ll become. I hope you are hungry for all the stimulation and life that you’ll be missing on campus. I hope that you can hear Shi’s doctor, Director Wang, speaking to you in your difficult place: why not read a book? Watch a film? Listen to music? “Not a single day of life should be a waste.” Some experiences grow to fill the space they’re in. Shi ends the essay with these words:

In the hazy patches of science; in the chaos of destiny; you can only turn to your own mind. Everything we believe in—no matter what that might be—comes from the promptings and the guidance of our minds.

Shi Tiesheng made it out of the hospital, but he never walked again. It’s very likely that each of us will return to a freer life before summer ends, and when we do, we’ll carry our losses with us. Shi didn’t overcome his situation in order to become a much-loved, famous author: he spoke from the life he saw. He wrote his most famous essay, ‘The Temple of Earth and I’, in Beijing’s Temple of Earth (Ditan) park, where he would wheel himself back and forth, meet people, and consider the ancient cypresses. He begins by describing the park like this: “It had waited for me to be born, and then it had waited for me to be suddenly crippled in both legs during my wildly ambitious youth.” It seems to me that the particular connection Shi made to the park and the people in it was contingent on the sickrooms of his youth. Some habit of attention he practiced in the hospital sharpened his vision to the extent that an abandoned, overgrown city park became as revelation.

I hope you and your families are well. I wish none of this was happening to you or to me. But class is not over. You are twenty-one, or twenty or nineteen: stay alert, read, watch, listen. Your Temple of Earth awaits you. Use these weeks in seclusion to become a person who can see it. ∎

Header: Empty campus. (Damian Gadal/Wikicommons)