Having lived in a wrecked body for 31 years, ever since his lower limbs were paralyzed when he was 21, Shi Tiesheng has long prepared himself to bid farewell to this world.
As time goes by, his uraemia -- a raised level in the blood of nitrogenous waste compounds -- is gradually aggravated. He has to go to hospital for dialysis treatment every three days.
As his friend Chen Cun says: "Affliction makes one more keenly conscious of his existence." During the 31 years, the world has seen this widely-loved writer grow from a troubled, impulsive youth to a tranquil middle-aged man.
But all the while his tortured soul has never ceased obsessing over the "hows" and "whys" of his own special existence and that of the human race.
Writer from Qingpingwan
Most Chinese readers first met Shi through his story Wo na Yaoyuan de Qingpingwan (That Faraway Qingpingwan of Mine), which was published 20 years ago and won the National Excellent Short Story Prize of 1983. It is still widely read.
Born in Beijing in 1951, Shi, from 1969 to 1972, like millions of other urban middle school students of his age, went to a rural life in line with the policy of China at the early stage of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
Qingpingwan is where he went -- one of the innumerable small isolated villages strewn on the barren breast of the ancient Loess Plateau in northwestern China.
The story features the poignant existent drama silently staged on the vast land of yellow earth, where farmers painfully but doggedly managed to survive the sterile environment and nurtured little, humble dreams out of stark poverty.
That Faraway Qingpingwan of Mine, as well as Chadui de Gushi (Stories of Joining the Country Life), established Shi's reputation as an "educated youth writer" at that time. But these works have long outlived the genre of "educated youth writing" itself.
The most impressive thing about the Qingpingwan stories is the measured artistic control of narrative mood.
At the time he wrote them, Shi had been confined to a wheelchair for more than 10 years and, as he admitted in Wo yu Ditan (I and the Temple of Earth), was constantly seized by violent depression and spiritual turmoil.
But these stories are just like a serene music of humanity quietly flowing out of a loving heart.
Shi casts affectionate eyes over both sides of his heroes -- the innocent farmers who knew nothing except honest suffering and toil, and the same innocent students who, though hardly beginning to live, had already accepted a lot of ideas and cherished many vague expectations of life.
Under his pen there is no idyllic illusion, not even a sentimental or heroic utterance.
But the limpid, clean-cut narrative is easily radiant with warm human love and redolent of the author's green but sweet youthful age.
As critic Cai Xiang said: "With That Faraway Qingpingwan of Mine, Shi Tiesheng entered into a new domain where he showed love and well-wishes to the world, the attachment and devotion to life, and identity to people and earth."
Sad but Never Resentful
In fact, many critics are amazed by the mystery that although Shi can sometimes be extremely sad for the world, he has never been resentful or sarcastic.
He seems always to be watching the display of humanity with a benign, gentle heart of a wing-crippled angel.
The same warm human love is also permeated in his short stories about his family and the community workshop where he worked from 1974 to 1981 before his illness was further aggravated.
The best known among them are Nainai de Xingxing (Granny's Star), which won the National Excellent Short Story Prize of 1984 and Laowu Xiaoji (Something About the Old House), a 1995-96 Lu Xun Literary Price winner.
Many critics have considered I and the Temple of Earth as one of the best Chinese prose essays of the 20th century.
The image of the autobiographical essay's hero, a forlorn, withdrawn young man sitting alone in a wheelchair in some unknown nook of the Temple of Earth, a desolated ancient park near his home, and brooding away days and seasons, has stirred deep and complicated emotions in many readers' hearts.
Shi's life seems to be just a hopeless course of slipping from bad to worse.
"I was miserable enough when I knew I couldn't stand anymore. But after I had pressure sores and could only awkwardly lie in bed, I realized how nice it was to be able to sit upright.
And not until the failure of my kidneys set me in ceaseless fever could I have appreciated the privilege of having a lucid, unburdened head," said Shi in Bingxi Suibi (Fragments Written at the Hiatuses of Sickness).
Maimed at "the most impetuous age" of 21, Shi has for some years gone to the Temple of Earth every day, wandering aimlessly in the unattended park, dangling half-heartedly at the border between life and death.
After dwelling alternatively on despondent depression and fitful hysterics, he finally came to the conclusion as he writes in I and the Temple of Earth: "The existence of one is nothing but a fact that God shows us.
And when God shows us the fact, he has guaranteed its outcome altogether. Hence death is a thing one never needs to be anxious to seek -- it is a festival bound to advent."
He finally settled once and for all the nagging question about "to be or not to be," and felt great relief. But then there is still the question of how to live, which "perhaps will haunt my whole lifetime without securing a decisive answer."
That is why for 15 years Shi "had to return to the ancient park again and again, go to its aged trees, withered grasses and dilapidated walls, sitting in silence, musing in a trance, pushing away the din and noise, putting in order my entangled thoughts and peeking into my heart and soul."
At the same time, the world captivates his responsive heart with its various charms.
A file of footprints on the snow or a remote voice reaching him from somewhere in the city can tremendously touch the subtle strings in his heart.
And the animated changes of nature can often immensely thrill his imagination and direct it on a wild expedition.
Little by little, he found the temple no longer an island where he banished himself and his soul no longer the prisoner of his body.
It is obvious that he had fallen in love with the world as soon as he decided to embrace it rather than shun it.
Among all the wonderful things of the world, sports appeal to Shi more than any thing else.
He can tell you all the details about the world records of every athletic event.
"Actually I love athletics first, football second and literature comes in third," he once said.
In an essay called Wo de Meng (My Dream) written in 1988, he said he adored the former 100-metre world record holder Carl Lewis beyond any and his dream was to be a man like him.
In April 2001, when Lewis visited China, he met Shi, giving him his autographed photo and a pair of autographed Nike shoes.
The Lao She Literature Price winner, Fragments Written at the Hiatuses of Sickness marks another peak in Shi's career.
The book's six long prose essays consist of 243 pieces of fragmentary writings from 1998 to 2001, penned at intervals between the height of his sickness.
All of the essays were first seen in the literary periodical Tianya (End of the Earth) and then published as a collection by the Shanxi Normal University Publishing House in 2002.
Most of Shi's former writings are significantly distinguished by a philosophical meditation overtone and deep concern for general human existence, such as his numerous stories in which he quietly narrates troubled or confounded human life, his several experimental allegorical fictions, his many fresh, prose essays and his only novel Wuxu Biji (Note on Building an Emptiness).
Fragments can be seen as a memoranda over all the contemplation and perceptions developed during Shi's long-period thinking.
The book is full of intuitive discoveries, magnanimous wisdom and inspiring philosophy. He scrutinizes the world and age where he lives with intent attention and penetrative eyes, and with his characteristically quiet, untroubled voice urging people to think more consciously about the issues essential for human life.
Setting out from his individual experience, Shi nonetheless invariably ends in meditation about the common destination of human beings.
"When he suffers from his own ill fate, he feels he is shouldering the perpetual sufferance of humankind as a whole," said Chen Sihe, a critic.
Realistic concerns and transcendent, metaphysical concerns are interwoven together in all the topics of the book, such as growing up, sickness, survival, disability, arts, love, death, religion and belief.
Critics agree that Shi is one among the few Chinese writers who have a truly grave religious sense.
The direction of his reasoning always lead to the horizon of belief.
But just as the writer Han Shaogong said: "While he has a thirst for values and faith, he doesn't have specific theological worship. His thinking is characterized by vivid knowledge and warm understanding of human life but never by fanatic superstition."
Shi ends the six essays with the question of "How to solve this?" He still does not find the answer to the mystery of life.
But just as he says: "The spiritual road precisely exists in the process of seeking. As soon as you are seeking, you have found."
(China Daily March 17, 2003)