Grace Wang: The Old Man Who Lost His Horse

From CBS:

Grace Wang, the Chinese Duke University student in the CBS story above has written the following essay:

The Old Man Who Lost His Horse
By Grace Wang

There is a Chinese proverb: 塞翁失馬焉知非福 (Saiweng Shima, Yanzhi Feifu). It is the story of “The Old Man Who Lost His Horse” and all Chinese know it.

During the Han Dynasty—in the third century B.C.—an old man living on China’s border one day lost his horse. His neighbors all said what terrible luck that was, and sympathized with the old man. But Sai Weng said: “Maybe losing my horse is not a bad thing after all.”

Lo and behold, the next day the old man’s horse returned, together with a beautiful female horse alongside him. All the neighbors exclaimed: “What great luck!” But the old man responded: “Maybe this is not such good luck after all.”

The old man had a strong young son. The boy fell in love with the new horse and rode her every day. One day the new horse got spooked by a wild animal and threw the boy from her back. He broke his leg very badly and was permanently crippled.

All Sai Weng’s neighbors said: “What a tragedy, your strong son will never walk without pain again.” But the old man again said: “Maybe this is not such a bad thing after all.”

And so it went that when the New Year came, the emperor’s army passed through the border region and recruited all able young men to fight in the frontier war. Because the old man’s son was crippled he could not fight and was left in the village to farm with his father. Sai Weng said to his neighbors: “You see, it all turned out okay in the end. Being thrown from the horse and breaking his leg saved my son from fighting in the war and almost certain death. So it was in the end a lucky thing after all.”

Whenever a bad thing happens in China, someone will say “Sai Weng Shi Ma” (Remember “The Old Man Who Lost His Horse”) to remind themselves and others that apparently bad things sometimes have a silver lining.

I have been thinking of the story of Sai Weng over the past month as I experienced the most difficult event in my life.

On April 9 I was coming out of the East Campus dining hall when I saw a small group of people holding Chinese and Tibetan flags. I remembered that a candlelight vigil for those who had died in unrest in Tibet over the previous month was taking place. I walked over to see what was going on and talk to people I knew in both the “pro-Tibet” and “pro-Han China” groups.

My friend Adam Weiss—the organizer of the candlelight vigil—asked me to write the words “Free Tibet” on his bare back (the weather was warm and he had taken his shirt off). I agreed, on the condition that he attempt to communicate with the Chinese counter-protesters, who were standing 10 meters away and refused to interact with the other group. Adam agreed, so I wrote “Free Tibet” with a magic marker on his back. I did not think twice about doing this, because I believe that Tibetans should be free, Han Chinese should be free; all citizens of the Peoples Republic of China should be free to act according to their conscience, within the limitations of the Chinese constitution and law.

I was not advocating Tibetan independence—I am not an expert on this subject and have not researched it deeply nor ever even traveled to Tibet so I would never form such an extreme view based on no personal knowledge. But I do know that even the Dalai Lama has long renounced Tibetan independence and just advocates genuine autonomy for Tibet as is promised in the Chinese constitution.

Regardless, I never imagined that the act of writing the words “Free Tibet” would come back to haunt me so powerfully.

The two groups walked alongside each other the two miles from East to West campus where the main vigil was to take place. When they arrived on West campus, a large crowd of Chinese counter-protesters—several hundred people—were waiting for them. This group was waving Chinese flags, handing out propaganda posters showing photographs of dead fetuses supposedly sourced from Tibet before its liberation by the Chinese army in 1950, and singing patriotic songs like the Chinese national anthem (“March of the Volunteers”—commemorating the war against Japan’s invasion of China prior to World War II).

The pro-Tibet group walked to the Chapel steps, the area that they had reserved to hold their candlelight vigil. They propped up their colorful sky blue, scarlet, and gold Tibetan Snow Lion flags, held banners saying “Free Tibet,” and also waved Tibetan prayer flags—called “Wind Horses” because they are believed to carry the prayers written on them straight to Heaven.

It was then that the Han Chinese counter-protesters pushed forward and pressed the pro-Tibet group up against the Chapel doors. They were shouting “Liars! Liars! Liars!” and it looked like the situation could become violent. Finally the Duke police intervened and physically separated the two groups. Because the pro-Tibet group had reserved the area in front of the Chapel, the Chinese counter-protesters were required to stand along the grassy area 20 meters away from the Chapel steps.

The two groups just stayed like this, each shouting their own completely unrelated slogans—in Chinese we call this 鸡同鸭讲 (chickens and ducks squawking at each other)—and no one from either group talking to or debating with anyone from the other.

It was then that I decided to attempt to promote some dialogue. I walked into the neutral area between the two groups and began to ask the two sides—first in English then in Chinese—to come together in the middle and see if they could discover some common ground between them.

At first, neither side was willing to talk to the other, and those on the Chinese side began shouting at me in Chinese that there was nothing to discuss, that the issue was non-negotiable. They also criticized me for speaking English, shouting: “Are you Chinese? If so you should speak only in Chinese!”

I responded: “I am Chinese. But being Chinese does not mean that I should only speak in Chinese and not also in English and other foreign languages, and being Chinese does not mean that I cannot think for myself.”

I also told them that this is an American college campus and that we should follow the wisdom of the aphorism: 入乡随俗 “When in Rome, do as the Romans Do.”

Many continued to shout at me, and even started to make personal attacks. But others tried to be reasonable, and said “Let’s not get too emotional, what she says has a point.”

But the angry people just shouted louder, drowning out any views they did not want to hear. They could not hear me, they could not hear their fellow counter-protesters appealing to them for calm and reason, it seemed that being loudest was their sole objective.

It was then that people began asking me for my personal information, what my name was and where I was from. I felt that I had nothing to hide, so I told them that my name is Wang Qianyuan and I am from Qingdao in Shandong Province and that I graduated from Qingdao Number Two Middle School.

Because I was between the two groups and going back and forth between them urging dialogue, and the Chinese counter-protesters who were shouting could not hear my words, some assumed I was advocating Tibetan independence—which I was not—and started to shout: “Traitor!” and other abusive personal attacks, insinuating that I must be insane to take this mediating stance.

It was then that the most aggressive of the Chinese group surged forward and surrounded me, some shouting at the top of their lungs right in my face, “Child, what do you think you’re doing?” “You are brainwashed, you cannot be saved,” “You look like Chai Ling (the female student leader during the Tiananmen Protests of 1989) and everyone wants to boil her in oil. You can be killed too!” and “You should be careful, you could be killed!”

What surprised me most was seeing a female visiting scholar from my “Grassroots Democracy” class together with the others. She was emotional to the point of being in tears as she told me that I should “Wake up!” and stop what I was doing. It disappointed me because I felt that what I was doing was simply exercising the basic rights that we had discussed and learned about in our Grassroots Democracy class. Moreover, this woman is a social activist in China and should understand these principles.

Eventually I began to feel threatened, and as the crowd became larger and closed in on me the police intervened and I asked them to escort me back to my dorm room.

When I got back to my room, I logged onto the Duke Chinese Students and Scholars Association (DCSSA) website and read the new postings related to the counter-protest.

Qian Fangzhou, a DCSSA officer, had gloated, “We really showed them our colors!” and called for another protest to be held the following week. It was in response to this extreme message that I sat down and composed a letter in response.

My dear compatriots:

Today’s demonstration has already ended, but the continuing reverberations have not quieted.

I am the person who stood today between the two sides trying to mediate. There are some unwelcome words of loyal advice that were not appropriate to say in front of other people. Now that your extreme anger has slightly subsided, I must speak them in full.

Today’s demonstration can be called grandly impressive, and the participants’ fully expressing their feelings can be called enjoyable. But if we only think of this event as one of physically confronting opponents, and of venting our anger, that would be a sophomoric attitude lacking the magnanimity of a truly educated person. Don’t you know that “when the sandpiper and the clam grapple, the fisherman profits,” and they fall into the trap set by one who acts after his opponents have erred.

Cao Zhi (3rd century CE), under compulsion [from his brother, the emperor], composed the [satirical] “Seven-Pace Verse”, which remains unforgettable today: “To cook beans one heats the bean stalk, and the beans in the kettle crackle loudly. Originally sprung from the same root, why are they, being heated, all so agitated?”

Tibet is our country’s territory; how could it be abandoned or given to others without good reason? Putting people inexorably under pressure will only result in turning friends into enemies. Forcing the naturally peace-loving Tibetan people into desperate opposition, into a fight for survival with their backs to the wall, is to create a serious and irresolvable conflict. Ask yourself: is Tibet more akin to China or to America? How can outsiders be allowed to rest comfortably in [our] home? Only when kin forget their discord will the enemy not be led into our lair, causing China’s Tibet to be pushed into the arms of others. The more we treat Tibetans with proper kinship, the more distant the Americans will seem to Tibetans. Otherwise, they will rebel against us, and will become an extended part of America, set next to China.

Sun Tzu (the author of the treatise Art of War) wrote, “Do not put adversaries under extreme pressure,” and also said, “diminish the hard and increase the soft.” Lao Tzu said, “The highest virtue is to be like water” [i.e. soft yet forceful]. In strategy, a psychological offensive is the best tactic. Propitious timing is not so crucial as material circumstances, which are in turn not so crucial as unity among the people. Those who achieve great things can endure what others cannot endure, only then can they accomplish what others cannot accomplish. For the sake of China’s rise, this is precisely a moment for knowing how to apply human abilities; we must have the scope and the depth to tolerate other people.

I am not asking you just to wait passively, but to positively prepare for battle; only by voiding angry feelings will your minds be clear and alert, and your decisions correct; only by seeing the situation clearly can you respond without anxiety.

When two boxing masters contest, the wiser one often takes a step back, and lets the other one first reveal his weak point, then deals a decisive blow with a single stroke. A foolish boxer launches a furious assault from the start, exerting all his best abilities; however, an opening for counter-attack will be found by the opponent, and he will be constrained by his rival.

At present we have just arrived in America, and we have not established ourselves here. Behaving so hot-headedly and acting impulsively, the outcome does not bear thinking about. Haven’t you heard that “filial devotion does not grow by caning [the child]?” When people are placed under threat of compelling force, how can their fulsome expressions of compliance be sincere? Rather, we should adopt the principles of “using virtue to govern the country” and “gaining people’s consent by reason.” We should avoid active engagement now and advance only later; we should first endure hardships and then be capable [of resolute action], not hoping for speedy results or attempting a decisive victory in one day.

Before Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty employed aggressive policies [against foreign powers], he first employed cunning deceptions through “edicts bestowing favors” [on foreign nations]. Apparently following the wishes of the various [powerful] bordering vassal states, he spread his gracious favor in all quarters. In fact, this policy converted great powers into numerous small states lacking the power to act effectively, so that contradictions between them and the Han dynasty were resolved naturally.

We should energetically strive to shift the moral balance in our direction, and turn the pressure of public opinion against our opponents, to make their blows strike against cobwebs, and cause them, like clowns, to taste the bitter fruits of their own misguided efforts. Why should we harshly engage with them, which on the contrary only would create endless troubles for ourselves? “Know yourself and know your enemy, in a hundred battles you will meet no danger.” We don’t understand their viewpoint well, and do we really comprehend thoroughly our own perspective? From this consideration we can see that, intellectually speaking, we have not yet occupied the strategic high ground, and are not much more enlightened than our opponents. On the contrary, by displaying our own wounds, we reveal before others’ eyes an unattractive image; doing that does not help to establish a favorable example of China as a great and civilized nation.

Of course mainstream western media lack balanced reporting. But if we reflect on our own situation, can we say that our own media are perfectly balanced, and lacking in bias? Precisely because [foreign media] lack understanding, therefore [we] must actively communicate and take the initiative; only thus can we overcome the enemy and gain victory.

Apart from this, regarding the matter of speaking English [for which I was criticized by fellow Chinese students], in response I would like to urge that you consider these thoughts: Language is an important tool of communication; highly skilled persons, who respond comfortably in their native or other languages, can be winners whether at home or abroad. In fact, as I see it, if some Chinese are outspokenly unwilling to speak English, that’s not some grand issue of principle. Rather, it’s just due to their lack of proficiency and shrinking from appearing foolish in front of foreigners. On the contrary, [their expressed disdain] is an indirect confession of their own shortcoming.

In sum, “the sword’s sharp point is produced by patient grinding”, and “the fragrance of the [virtuous] plum blossom emerges from bitter cold.” For “cultivating ourselves, putting right our family relationships, ordering our country, and bringing peace to the world” [four steps of the Neo-Confucian curriculum], we rely on great wisdom. How can we give up eating due to a moment of choking, or neglect the great goal because of a small distraction?

“When the city’s gate catches fire, the harm spreads to fish in the moat” [i.e. in a disturbance, innocent bystanders suffer]. Tibet and China are as close as lips and teeth; therefore in handling relations [with Tibet] it is only correct that we be more cautious and circumspect than America will be. The Americans want to roast us in the hot coals [of ill-considered contention]; be sure not to let them take advantage or show off their cleverness.

Duke [University] is a place for “cultivating oneself” and “nurturing one’s nature” [two Neo-Confucian practices], and I hope that in future you can all vigorously deploy farsighted strategy and bring order to the world, grasp firmly the core essentials and astonish mankind. “Ruling a large country is like frying a small fish” [as Lao Tzu said]. Become highly talented people who bring practical good to society, and “show self-respect in the presence of the unenlightened” [as Tao Qian said].

Wang Qianyuan
Posted in the early morning of April 10, 2008

In writing this letter, I tried very hard to put myself in the mindset of those emotional Chinese, even though they are much more nationalistic than I am. So my words reflected their suspicious state of mind, sounding more extreme than I myself actually feel.

So it came as a surprise when I woke up and saw many people criticizing this letter. The strange thing is that they did not even address its contents, instead picking apart its literary style and arguing that a 20-year-old female freshman has no right to speak out on such important matters anyway.

Next, photographs of me taken at the protest began appearing online with the words: “Traitor to Her Nation,” written in Chinese across my forehead.

But then I really got a shock. Probably because I told the people at the counter-protests where I was from, they posted all my personal information—including where I live—and, more alarmingly, my parents’ names, national identification numbers (important for doing everything in China from using a bank account to buying airline tickets), work places and our home address.

And then the real danger and tragedy were brought home to me when photographs of my house in China were published with people gloating over the fact that they had smashed the windows, poured a bucket of feces on the door, and written “Kill the Traitors!” and “Kill the Whole Family” in red spray paint over the door.

Soon afterward I received a short email message from my mother saying that they had gone into hiding, but were safe. She cannot call me on the telephone because that is like a tracking device and can be used to trace their whereabouts. So all I have received are short email messages, and I suspect that they are not telling me everything that is happening to them.

It is now one month since the protest, and it has been the longest and hardest month of my life. The media has interviewed me almost every day. These included NPR, BBC, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CBS News and many Chinese-language newspaper, radio and television outlets. I have told this story dozens of times, and witnessed how each reporter portrays the story in their own way and in accordance with their publication and audience’s preconceptions.

This has been a real eye-opening experience for me. Many Chinese people have accused me of distorting aspects of the story, when all that I tried to do is describe it as accurately as possible. When I saw that each reporter told the story differently, it reminded me of the subjective nature of how all of us recount facts and describe something that we have witnessed, and reinforces even more strongly the need for better cross-cultural communication and understanding, not just between China and Tibet but also between China and the United States.

I believe that this is the silver lining in this difficult experience. I am more determined than ever to serve as a bridge and cultural ambassador between different languages, cultures and countries. Indeed, because of all the publicity surrounding this unfortunate event, I have received messages of support from people from different countries and cultures all over the world, stating their agreement with my action and belief that individuals must speak out and promote cross-cultural understanding.

Perhaps the biggest silver lining of all is the large number of supporting messages I have received from Chinese both inside China and overseas. Many say that through this event they have become more aware of their own individual rights and why it is important for people to stand up for and exercise these.

All these gestures of support have give me the strength and renewed enthusiasm to make good on the wisdom contained in the proverb “Sai Weng Shi Ma.” Like the old man who lost his horse, I am determined to turn this apparent misfortune into a positive experience and equal opportunity for learning and growing for my fellow Han Chinese, Tibetans and Americans.


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