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.