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Have an Escape from Your Ambition

Song Xiaoyi

Editor's note: With the advent of the Autumnal Equinox, one of 24 China's solar terms to guide agricultural production, farmers should be busy with the harvest and Xinya College's labor-based study should come to an end. But due to COVID-19, Xinya College decided to conduct the 2020 labor-based study on campus. Under the instruction of teachers from the garden department, students enrolled in 2019 carried out a two-week labor practice on the Tsinghua campus. During the day, they worked on weeding, plowing and trimming hedges; during leisure time, they read theAnalects of Confucius in groups. After the labor-based study, they wrote down their feelings and thoughts.

I was staying alone in my dormitory, room 605, when I started to write this article. It was breezy but still muggy in Beijing although summer days were gradually overtaken by autumn days. I had no idea about who would read the article, our Dean, teachers or our counselor, nor did I know how to write the article. The only standard I can follow is "keeping real" as our counselor Mr. Zhan said. I also didn't know how readers would think of the article—They may just take a glance at it, or they may ruminate on what I try to convey. It felt funny at first as it's been a very long time since I wrote an article other than academic dissertation and publicity copywriting. I even tried to refer to some literature related to labor work and add some quotes in my writing to make it look "higher-level." But at last, I decided to write the article on my own as I came to realize that thoughts and feelings matter equally for an expressive article.

Tao Yuanming, one of China's greatest poets and a noted recluse during the Han Dynasty, wrote in his poemBack to Country Life (I), "When I escape from bitter strife with men, I live a free and easy life again." But I feel the very opposite — It is so hard to escape from bitter strife with men.That's my firsthand experience as a modern person. Leading the life of a recluse has been a dream pursued by people from ancient to modern times. Su Shi, one of China's greatest poets during the Song Dynasty, ever wrote in his poemXing Xiang Zi, "When can I go home at retirement to be a man free from all worries, before a lute, or a pot of wine, or a white cloud in the skyflying."That's also true of me. I choose to study in the School of Economics and Management as I dream of making more money to buy an orchard or open a homestay. My deep affinity with nature and tradition originates in my hometown and childhood, I suppose. When I close my eyes, I could conjure up green wheat fields on the hillside, falling flowers in spring light rain, beautiful fireflies on summer nights, and those vast mountains. When I was a child, the smartphone was far less popular than it is today. On summer nights, my family members often chitchatted with each other. Though we may forget what we had said, we just fell asleep at ease. There were no air conditioners and, of course, no arthritis. All the coolness came from my grandma's leaf fan and rustling green plants. If you want me to say something about the quality of modern life, I want to say it is decreasing. I don't want to boast about the role of the labor-based study in making me get close to nature and soothe my soul. After all, we are still living as "spiders" in a life attached to the extensive modern Internet. But getting close to nature, soil, and plants indeed makes me feel happy in a simple way. Or as my mom puts it, it is "down to earth."

During the labor-based study, I stopped staying up late, slept well every night, and got up early every morning. In a sense, I somewhat led the same primitive life as our forefathers did — "getting up at sunrise and going to bed at sunset." Actually, until I returned to school, I was still caught in confusion and anxiety. I studied like crazy to "make the best use of" every second, fearful of frittering my time away and being left behind. When I was reading, I would ask myself if the book was worth reading; when I volunteered as a social worker, I would ask myself if the work was meaningful. So the labor-based study offered me a proper excuse to stop thinking about whether what I did was meaningful and just devote myself to labor. Those labor activities I did every day gave me an opportunity to clear my mind. What was on my mind was whether I did well in plowing, when can I finish weeding, if coating the trees can prevent pests and diseases, and so on. As I was offered an escape from those convoluted essays, I did start to sleep well every night. As said in theTeng Wen Gong I,Mengzi, "He who uses his brain will govern; he who uses his strength will be governed." But to be a person who uses brain is very tiring! Besides, the words also inspire me to think: Maybe it is right because we are a generation that uses brain more than strength that many modern people are plagued by all kinds of psychological diseases. Anyway, questions along the line of "meaning of life" should be left to God rather than us ordinary people to find the answers.Of course, we can think about them occasionally. But living a full life every day is the greatest happiness for us.

This labor-based study also provided an opportunity for us to talk about everything we wanted. I ever chatted with Chenyi, Mengyu, Zhenyao, and Runze when we took a break. It is no exaggeration to say that their names would continue to be signs rather than real persons for me without the labor-based study. Till now, many scenes are still fresh in my memory, but most are trivial details. For example, Chenyi and I talked about Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, Stefan Zweig, Jerome David Salinger, and Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, as well asBlossomsby Jin Yucheng andThe Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi.These conversations reminded me again that the major most suitable for me was probably still literature. Literature always seems to be a useless major, but it is also literature that always creates topics for us to talk about. We also talked about movies. Though I knew very little about the likes of great movie maker Alfred Hitchcock and great female novelist Agatha Christie, I ever watched some Italian new-realism movies as recommended by our teacher Zhang Fen who taught us writing and communication. For example, I could still remember the heroine's hopeful and moving glance in the movieNights of Cabiria.

At the thought of Mengyu, what entered my mind was the military training when her sober and calm face impressed me. As we were busy with labor, Mengyu and I talked about a lot of topics, from major selection to our outlook on life. At that time, I happened to face an interpersonal relationship problem that I failed to solve reasonably. Thus, the two-week labor-based study indeed gave mean opportunity to declutter my mind.As the type to be introspective, I felt deeply frustrated as I failed to manage an interpersonal relationship, and without Mengyu's encouragement, I would not have decluttered my mind and gotten over it so soon. When I cried, Mengyu also cried, which touched me the most. As a student majoring in liberal arts, I had much fewer opportunities to get along with boys, which somewhat caused my "fear of men." It's embarrassing to say that I still had no idea about how to get along with boys during my first year in university. I was afraid to look at their eyes and would be at a loss in front of them. Fortunately, this labor-based study helped me completely overcome the fear of men that has nagged me for years. As I knew more about them, I got on better with them. For the mowing activity, Runze, Jiayu, and I were in the same group. Jiayu and I were girls and were not physically strong enough to operate the mower. But we insisted on having a try. When it was our turn, Runze always stood beside us and helped us hold the handle, lending us a hand while not embarrassing us.

For the trimming activity, Zhenyao and I were in the same group, with one for trimming and the other for picking up dry sticks. Among other plants, there was a flowering plant. As it was prickly, we nicknamed it "dreadful Little Red." When we met it, Zhenyao always offered to do the picking-up work so that my hands would not be pricked. Till today, these trivial details still make me feel heart-warming. Maybe my stories sound a little bit affected. But as I got on with them, I gradually steppedout of the stereotype that I had before.Previously, I thought maybe virtually all those studying at Tsinghua were self-serving elites. But it turns out that I'm wrong. This reminds me of the conservation I had with Dean Gan in my first year at the university. I complained to him that my classmates were too independent and impersonal. But Dean Gan said that it's because I didn't know them well enough. Now, it proves that he is right.

I do have great admiration forThe Analects of Confucius.Personally rather than academically, I believe that Confucianism pursues a philosophy of happiness. Although Confucianism advocates an introspective approach that encourages self-reformation, what Confucius expects ultimately should be a superior man who enjoys complete inner peace—what he believes is systematic and consistent and he is capable to see things with an impartial attitude and deal with most situations in a thinking way. It's indeed a sphere of living that makes people yearn for. People in the sphere of living may live humbly and eat poorly. Even so, they can still lead a peaceful and free life. Confucius has made many requirements on self-improvement and put "benevolence" at a supreme place, which convinces me that very few people can achieve the sphere of living. From my personal experience, I can remain soft-hearted and treat people around me friendly in normal times. But when I encounter some contradictions or emergencies, I will become a little bit hard-hearted and find it hard for me to keep composure. In this connection, it must be incredibly hard to achieve the sphere of living described inLi Ren, theAnalects of Confucius, "The superior man does not, even for the space of a single meal, act contrary to virtue. In moments of haste, he cleaves to it. In seasons of danger, he cleaves to it."

theLecture Notes on Confucianism During Pre-Qin Period by Mr. Chen Lai, I start to think that Confucianism advocates an ideal state of living. Those who succeed in the pursuit can be called superior men. But those who don't achieve the state are not necessarily inferior men.In my view, it's fine to take it as what we are striving for. Frankly, I always believe that I'm a qualified follower of Confucianism that fits the bill as I prefer to reflect on my own mistakes rather than hold grudges against others. Confined by these strict moral requirements on myself, I'm inclined to blame myself when there is a contradiction. As a result, I get frustrated easily and even feel anguished, so I sometimes want to resign myself to being an inferior person. Maybe it would make me happier.But when I recover my composure, I would feel happy that I was tolerant at that time, or I would not have kept my demeanor and dignity. Maybe it is what I really desire. Although Confucius criticizes those who "love a man and wish him to live, and hate a man and wish him to die". But the same idea did come into my mind when I was struggling in some matters not long ago. Thinking back, I did inevitably become a selfish person at that moment. As a saying goes, "people subject to desires are only able to see themselves and people subject to emotions are only able to see others". I always praise my sincere and wonderful emotions but ignore that I would also be blinded by my own desires and lose my mind for the sake of possessiveness. Most importantly, readingThe Analects of Confuciusmakes me realize my inborn deficiencies.I'm born with a strong desire to excel over others and a sense of self-respect. Meanwhile, I'm very sensitive and vulnerable. That's why I could take things to extremes. Perhaps it is right because I'm the type to be introspective that I can keep my inner peace now. Certainly, I will reveal my real nature when facing some problems, so much remains to be done for me to be a superior man.

During the labor-based study, I felt that I can behave myself in a more natural manner, which, I think, can be seen as a kind of "improvement". But such improvement should come as a combined result of my previous participation in enrollment campaigns, practices, and voluntary activities. I know very little about gardening maintenance, so I do not have much to suggest in this aspect. Moreover, even informed decisions to make a change can not necessarily make things better. In the world, there are always some things we can do nothing about, so there is no need to insist on excelling over others.

Though I feel a little bit reluctant to see the labor-based study come to an end, I know I will embrace my life and study in the School of Economics and Management in a braver and more thinking way in the future. In the end, I wish I can keep my passion and hope towards life and have the ability to love and be loved.

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