Pine, Bamboo and Plum Blossom:
Remembering my Grandfather
During the coldest of months, pine trees and bamboo trees and plum blossoms can withstand the cold and sometimes even flourish. In Chinese it reads like this: (岁寒三友). My grandfather was just like this. In his eyes, bitterness brings about not only sadness and tears but also grittiness, optimism and a sincere heart. These are more important than even the setbacks he has suffered, and they inspire me every day of my life.
Let me turn back the clock to 1937, when the World War Two broke out in the East. It painted the land bloody red; it burned houses to ashes; and it turned children into orphans. During such gloomy days, my grandfather came into the world. A few months later, the flames of war spread to the whole country, including his hometown, Dongwang. Nobody could escape the evil flames of war. To stay alive, my grandfather’s parents decided to move to another place where the Japanese soldiers could not find them. However, they had too many children to carry. If they all went together, the whole family would be easily found and killed. Unfortunately, my grandfather had to be left behind.
I have asked him whether he hated his parents, because they abandoned him in the hardest of times, nearly killing him. He just shook his head slightly and said: “No, never. You know what, this is life.”
As expected, the enemies burned the house where a one-year-old boy, my grandfather, had been hidden. Five days later, when the enemies left, my great-grandparents came back to the house. To their surprise, my grandfather had somehow survived the fire by leaving the house, but had gone five days without food. He was almost dead. My great grandmother immediately gave him some milk which saved his life. Often this story has left me thinking about big questions. Although God let the war happen, he also let my grandfather survive. Why?
In the war, even being alive is quite a hard thing, just like being a pine in winter. I believe that my grandfather is one of the strongest and highest pines in the coldest winter. There is a saying in the United States which says that people with perseverance and courage have true grit. My grandfather’s roots are true grit. Bamboo is the junzi ( 君子), gentleman, of all the plants, not only because of its beautiful appearance but also its gritty spirit. After the war, my grandfather still had to bear hard suffering. He had to become like bamboo.
My great-grandparents were landlords before the war. They were kind and nice, not black-hearted or mean-spirited. But in the Cultural Revolution, landlords were the symbol of vicious people. The government confiscated all their belongings. They became the people in the lowest status. At that time, my grandfather was a student in high school. He was one of the top students in his class. With his excellent grades, he was accepted to Tsinghua University. However, the children of landlords were not allowed to receive the highest level of education in that time. Therefore, my grandfather missed his chance to go to college.
Several days later, after he lost the chance to go to Tsinghua University, he found a job as a laborer in a steel and iron factory. He started with only a little salary and very long work-hours. Have you seen some thin bamboo in the hard cold wind still not willing to fall down? Have you seen a man who lost everything, but was able to give you an indomitable smile? That is the smile of grittiness, the smile of optimism, the smile of bamboo, the smile of life.
My grandfather is a plum blossom in my eyes, which most people believe is the purest and strong flower in winter. The man who seldom talks to me teaches me the most, and his teachings will influence the rest of my life: to be gritty like a pine, to be optimistic like bamboo, and to be pure like plum blossoms. This is the light in the dark. This is the light which can guide me through setbacks. Now, my grandfather is a very old man with lung cancer. But I know, years only can wrinkle his skin, not his soul. I love him forever.
A Letter from the Editor
Your grandfather is an inspiration to us, too. We do not know him as you know him, but we hear the feelings in your words and, through you, we learn from him. We, too, want to have true grit like your grandfather.
When we think about your relationship with your grandfather, we take note of many things. One is that your grandfather lives inside you even as he also lives inside his own body. Whitehead criticized what he called “the fallacy of simple location.” This is the fallacy of thinking that someone or something- your grandfather, for example, or even an atom in the depths of a molecule is -located in one region of space and entirely absent from other regions of space. Whitehead said instead that all entities are present in all other entities, even as they have their independence. Your grandfather is present in you and now, with your help, present in us, too.
The second idea concerns your grandfather’s courage and grit. Those of us influenced by Whitehead believe that there is indeed a light at the end of any tunnel, and that this light dwells within each human heart, moment by moment. The light consists of what Whitehead calls novel possibilities for responding to the situation at hand, whatever that situation is. When your grandfather endured the worst aspects of the Cultural Revolution, he was responding to one such novel possibility, and when he managed to accept his own past, including being abandoned by his parents, he was also responding to such a possibility. These possibilities are not always happy ones; they are simply the best for the impasse at hand. But somehow your grandfather responded to these possibilities and became a man of grit, optimism, and sincerity. In the language of process philosophers, he was creatively transformed into the person he is today. And even as he now faces the end of his life, there are still such possibilities for him.
The third idea is that the spirit of God is present in him through these possibilities. We realize that many people in China and other parts of the world picture God on the analogy of an old man in the sky who can make anything happen and who knows the future in advance. But for Whitehead this is not the way God really is. God is an embracing compassion, everywhere at once, who dwells within each human heart through fresh possibilities, enabling people to find peace of heart and creativity, relative to their situations. In your grandfather we see this kind of peace and this kind of creativity. We see true grit. We see it in you, too.