This is a translation of an existential musing by blogger Wang Zuzhe. Daoist influences on mainstream Chinese culture force a certain acceptance and almost fatalism about death. Traditionally, Confucian tradition proscribed ritualized ways of grieving that could serve as an outlet for feelings after the death of a loved one. It’s rare, though, to see a frank discussion of the nuts and bolts of dying in China, and this is probably one reason why hospice and palliative care in China is still in its beginning stages. Wang’s article is interesting if for no other reason than that it gives a frank perspective about death and dying from a Chinese viewpoint.
Just take pigs for example. Pigs are much happier than people. You might say, oh, pigs are going to be killed in the end, and people (in general) won’t end that way. So in that way, people are still happier. This argument really doesn’t make much sense though. The reason you might think this way is because you know in advance that pigs will be killed, but pigs themselves don’t understand this at all. In this way, a pig is different than a criminal that has been sentenced to death. A criminal knows that he’s going to be killed, and therefore leads a tortuous existence from the time he learns of the verdict to the time a bullet shatters his skull. Pigs, though, are ignorant of their fate and are happy as long as they can eat their fill.
When people are young, they do not realize that life carries with it an unavoidable death sentence. Yet, when old age comes, people begin to frequently come face-to-face with this fact. First one’s own parents pass away, one after the other. Then come people your own age, shuffling off the stage of life like actors that are finished with their lines. This is a hint of things to come: the next one to go will be you. And then one day, when you receive the results of a health check-up, it comes: cancer. Now you feel just like a pig, and actually, your family will probably treat you like one too. They won’t tell you what’s going on and instead keep you locked away and ignorant: only this way can you avoid dying of pure fright.
In daily life, everyone is afraid to talk about death, and this is actually somewhat laughable. In this one area of life, people must purposefully suppress that which is so boasted of in other situations: the ability to know. People are all too eager to be ignorant regarding death. We especially hope that a child will be ignorant of death, lest this knowledge pollute his or her outlook on life.
On one point, humans and pigs are exactly the same: they will both die eventually. I don’t know whether it’s worse to linger in pain and suffering for years or to just get it over with now, but I do know that some people really can’t handle this kind of despair, and so seek their own demise. On this topic I have some experience: a neck problem once left me in excruciating pain for a month. Every day all day, I could only sleep in the gaps between the pain, and even then I’d often be awakened by it. In my conscious experience, the only thing I could feel was the pain. At the time, I thought dying would be a much better option: the only reason I managed to keep living until today was that I knew that I might not have to live like that forever.
Some animals can bring comfort to mankind, unhappy as it is. Those are the animals used by man for some purpose: cows, donkeys, horses and more. These animals plow the fields, pull carts, work millstones: none of these activities count as happy ones, but they are things that they must do. And some of the activities of human beings, too, are things that they must do.