Skip to main content

Why Can't I Write Essays?

By Su Tong, translated by Haiwang Yuan, published in Open Air Cinema, Sinoist Books, 2021.

Read in Chinese here.

Regarding non-fiction, I like to read great essays by prominent writers the most. I remember reading Lu Xun, particularly his famous caricature of the follow-the-crowd mentality: someone gazing at his spittle on the ground would attract a curious throng of spectators around him. Reading the passage gave me such a shocking pleasure that I had a hearty laugh. Since then, I have had a model and criteria for such a style of writing in my mind.

In the eyes of writers, the world is a heavyweight giant. Novelists run around his body to glimpse the expression in his eyes, describe every detail of his life, and even assiduously tell their own stories about him or make their assumptions about the giant’s dream. Novelists have deified the world. Nevertheless, the emergence of some great essayists has disrupted the relationship between the world and literature. These people who have broken away from superstitious beliefs treat the world as a patient. They are truly brave and daring. Knitting their brows, they auscultate (examine) the giant here and there with their home-made stethoscopes and have identified that the patient’s focus of disease is festering and bacteria are multiplying. Then, they accurately mark the infested locations on the patient’s body with flags. Since then, we have been able to read a kind of text that deviates from traditional literary concepts. It opposes the practices of beautifying things, being sentimental, sighing all the time, making a mountain out of a molehill, skimming the surface without going deeper, and failing to get to the root of a matter. Here, we have learned about the combative quality of the text, the spirit of which is as sharp as a scalpel ready for an operation on the world.

A writer like me has been watching this giant of the world wide-eyed for many years, trying to observe the expression in his eyes. But sometimes, he’s asleep and I cannot see it. I then sit near his mouth, where I hear the breath exhaled from his nostrils mixed with a faint touch of halitosis. A writer like me sometimes tries to treat the world with a scalpel and some flags to mark the focuses of diseases. Busying myself around the giant, I find that I can’t turn its massive body over. I don’t know where to start. When my hand reaches under the giant’s armpit to locate the point of balance, I feel his actual power and weight. I feel that his body temperature is as high as the melting bath in a furnace that gives me a burning sensation. Scared, I let out a scream of alarm like someone timid and hurt. A writer like me wrings my hands in frustration, at a loss what to do. Unable to stand their master’s hesitation and incompetence, the carefully prepared colourful flags held in my hand have decided to betray me. Going against their original intention, they turn themselves into festive flags and make clamorous utterances to the effect of ‘Welcome! Welcome!’ Their betrayal puts me in a more absurd situation and causes me to be more scared. A writer like me makes a last-ditch effort to point out in an uncertain voice that the world is suffering from periodontitis. After hearing it, the world says, “I have known it for a long time. Almost everyone suffers from periodontitis, anyway”. I feel extremely embarrassed. I lean over to auscultate the world and hear some rales or irregular breathing. I know that the lungs of the world may be infected. I want to tell others about this discovery. But the listeners also betray me. They leave me without saying goodbye. I find the effort of my labour is ultimately lost. What's more important is that I don’t think it a problem for anyone to have some rales. Medical common sense doesn’t see it as a big deal. I’m thinking, “What have I kept myself so darn busy for and why don’t I go to sleep while the world is in a slumber”? Therefore, with an illusory passion, I fall asleep by the head of the giant.

A person can do nothing but dream in their sleep. Therefore, the yield of my dreams is very high. That’s why I’ve never been able to come up with essays like Lu Xun’s.