This is an original translation of this post on Hecaitou’s blog. Admittedly, it doesn’t directly address China but it’s interesting, and we’ll make some connections in the comments that follow it.
I’m not opposed to having a plan for your life, but making up a chart for it in Excel is terrifying. In life, you only get one trip to the end of the road [i.e., death], or only one chance up on the stage; I feel these all can rely on charts. However, getting out the abacus and counting up your life like an accountant, planning what you’ll do every year and saving money every month for your retirement, is a bit excessive.
In my college days I had a classmate from the same province as Lei Feng, who wrote meticulously in his diary from right to left every day. Once near the end of the semester, everyone had gone out to study and there was only me in the dorm room doing some light reading. Suddenly it occurred to me that he’d been writing and plotting away in his diary all day and I had no idea what he was writing. After a while my curiosity got the better of me and I hopped onto his bed and pulled out the notebook. All I saw was line after line of “Before day X month X, finish essay number X” or “Before day X month X memorize English vocab X” After it, there were four exclamation points, and often also an extra note: “Must do this.” Then another four exclamation points. What’s even more excessive is that he’d finished everything.
At the time, I thought the guy needed to see a psychologist, living his life according to a book with everything carefully planned and counted up. It’s as if that notebook were his soul, his god, and he lived his life in the world according to what was instructed therein, loyally and devotedly following every last order. I said forget about it, no matter how much success he gets in the future, I don’t envy this kind of life. I really don’t want to be writing “Tomorrow evening, 8:30-9:00 pm: have sexual intercourse one time with my wife!!!! Definitely must conceive a child!!!!” in a diary, then write a supplementary note a few months later: “insemination successful, responsibility complete.” I don’t think there’s any value in that.
Some people feel they already clearly understand life and the world, and so begin planning. I feel doing this is an affront to god, because your ‘book’ is in his hands, don’t try to seize power. Moreover, human life probably can’t be clearly quantified or defined. The people bought houses last year didn’t know what housing prices would be like this year. For Master Lei and Lao She [a famous writer], who could have known that in 1976 it would all come to a nightmarish end? Writing a plan for your life until you’re eighty, how do you know that you’ll even make it to forty?
You can “count up” your life, but you can’t be sure things will develop in the direction [you expect], otherwise couldn’t god have some time off? Even if things really go perfectly according to plan, if you think about it, wouldn’t that kind of life be incredibly boring? If you could predict everything that happened, why would there be words like “unexpected” and “pleasantly surprised” in the dictionary? If your life is neatly planned out, I fear you’re not far from falling apart.
These days, changes are big and they come quickly, no one knows what will happen tomorrow. To compare, perhaps having a plan is a little better than not having one, but this is really just camouflage to make you feel a bit more comfortable. The world will, as ever, advance according to its own calculations, and you drift and float along with fate, running into people and things you never planned for. You can feel that life is definitely so, or should be so, but that doesn’t make it so. On the other hand, there is one thing we can define clearly. Boring. Living your life this way is clearly boring.
You have an Excel spreadsheet, and so does god. He knows what’s in your spreadsheet, but you’ll never know what’s in his. His spreadsheet is called “being a person”, yours is really just called “desires”. There’s nothing worse than putting your desires in the form of a spreadsheet, it’s as if there was only one model of condom for the entire world. If life is something that you can really figure out, then god is an accountant.
The life-planning phenomenon is not, by any means, unique to China, but it does seem to have found root in more people here than one might expect given China’s turbulent recent history. Parents are often especially guilty of this, or perhaps guilty of the double-sin of putting their children’s lives into Excel spreadsheets, counting up classes and extracurricular lessons, pushing them forward to college, to good marriages and stable jobs.
But what is a stable job, exactly? Aside from government jobs, the “iron rice bowl” seems to be dying or dead, and one wonders what it is about the history of China that could lead parents to believe that government jobs are definitely long-term stable. Planning out your life, aside from being boring and a little bit soulless, also seems foolish. Having a plan is one thing I suppose, and counting on it another. But planning — dreaming, really — years in advance…does much often come of that other than dashed hopes?