The philosophical implication of Shi Tiesheng’s novel life is like a string

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“Life is like a string” is a famous short story of Shi Tiesheng, a novel with profound philosophy of life, which contains multiple philosophical implications.

The Existential Philosophical Implication of life as a string

The story of “life is like a string” is very simple: a little blind man in his early twenties follows an old blind man in his sixties to play the piano and tell stories for a living. The little blind man was so miserable that he often wanted to give up his life. The old blind man told him that his master had left a last word. He said that he would break 1000 strings, burn ashes as a medicine guide, and take it with the prescription medicine left by Shizu. The blind man could see the light again. The little blind man is doubtful. Let’s see the result. Finally one day, the old blind man snapped the 1000th string, excitedly found out the prescription and went to the pharmacy. But the man who picked up the medicine told him that the prescription was not completely blank. As soon as the old blind man heard this, he wanted to kill himself in front of the pharmacy. Suddenly, he turned around and read. When he got home, he answered the blind man, “I mistakenly remembered what master said. Master said that 1200 strings should be broken.” But before he broke the remaining 200 strings, the old blind man died; When he was dying, he told the little blind man to continue playing.



Picture @ Mr. crooked front teeth

When I read that the prescription that gave the old blind man unlimited expectations turned out to be a blank sheet of paper, the author couldn’t help stirring up; The author was even more shocked when he read that the old blind man did the same and deceived his apprentice with a false hope; However, then there was a sudden awakening, looking up to the sky and sighing: life is just like this! Life is like this!

This novel undoubtedly expresses such an existential idea: the world is absurd, and life is absurd. The wordless prescription left by the old blind man’s master is the symbol of this existential idea. Being called a prescription but not having a word in fact means that life is meaningless, it is so, it must be so, and it can’t be changed (hopeless); Pursuit is meaningless, and struggle is fruitless; Just like Sisyphus who pushed a boulder up the mountain, the result of his constant struggle was in vain and he would never have a bright future.

If we stop there, it is not existentialism. Sisyphus in the works of Camus, an existentialist thinker, is a kind of person who knows that it is meaningless but still insists on doing it. Camus believes that life is absurd and meaningless, but there are two attitudes towards the unchangeable destiny:

First, yield to fate; Second, fight against fate. Camus’ attitude was to fight against fate and never give in. He believes that this attitude and behavior shows the value and significance of being human: autonomy, self-reliance and freedom. If there is no result in the struggle, I will ignore the result. The more people are not influenced by the actual results, the more they show the absolute autonomy, self-reliance and freedom of their choices. Such a life shows the value and significance of the tragic struggle and the tragic struggle. Perhaps it can be said that this is an existential change from meaningless to meaningful life planning or life choices.



Sisyphus in the Prado Museum

We can clearly see that the old blind man and his master in “life is like a string” are Sisyphus in Camus’ works: knowing that there is no hope of seeing the light again, knowing that it is meaningless to struggle, but still insisting on doing it. Thus their life has a tragic value and significance. Camus’ Sisyphus is the symbol of the whole human race in his mind. The old blind man should also be the symbol of the whole mankind in Shi Tiesheng’s mind. Life is so absurd: meaningless, pure nothingness; But people can’t stand a meaningless life; In order to survive, one must set a goal or hope; Without such a thing, we can not draw the time of existence into a clue (such as a tight string). Life will be lax, the spirit will collapse, and the existence will be difficult to sustain. All sentient beings do not know that the so-called goal is meaningless, and the so-called hope is hopeless, but Camus, his Sisyphus, Shi Tiesheng and his old blind man understand it; It is the biggest and deepest absurdity in life to understand the meaninglessness but still make unremitting efforts and struggle for the meaningless goal. Faced with this absurdity, we have nothing to do but shock.

The philosophical implication of Zhuang and Chan in life like a string

There is also a philosophical implication of Zhuang and Chan in “life is like a string”.

In the view of Zhuang Zen philosophy, life is also meaningless. To express it in Zen language is: life is empty. The so-called emptiness of life means that life has no meaning, and it is pure human delusion to think that life has meaning and value to pursue; All pursuers will ultimately be in vain.



In the view of Zhuang Zen philosophy, life is also meaningless.

Although Zhuangzi did not leave any words about “the emptiness of life”, it is well known that Zhuangzi’s philosophy most advocates “natural inaction”. “Chuang Tzu Pian Mu” says: “since three generations and below, the world has changed its nature with things. The villain has sacrificed his life for profit, the scholar for fame, the doctor for his family, and the sage for the world. Therefore, those who have several sons have different careers and different names. They are hurt by their nature and sacrifice themselves for one.” In Chuang Tzu’s view, the only real life is a natural life that seeks nothing. From here we can clearly see Zhuangzi’s value concept of “life first, nature to beauty”.

“Life is supreme, nature is beautiful” is also the value concept of Zen philosophy. Life is empty, and any man-made pursuit is meaningless. Therefore, Zen monks do not admire common names, pursue common interests, be pure and indifferent, and do nothing at ease. Life is empty, so Zen monks do not abstain from killing life, nor do they indulge in lust to harm life. Abstinence is promising, and lust is also promising; There is no thorough understanding of Buddhism: everything is empty and there is no need to be artificial; What should be done is: hunger, food and sleepiness, let nature take its course. Life is empty, life is empty, death is empty; Therefore, Zen monks are not happy with life and are not afraid of death; Life and death are natural.

According to the philosophy of Zhuang and Chan, the life without desire and purpose is a natural life. Facing the meaningless life in the way of no desire, no desire and no purpose, we have just achieved the most meaningful life. In the language of Zhuangzi’s philosophy, it means that “all actions” are achieved because of “Inaction”. In the language of Zen philosophy, it is: emptiness is wonderful, and wonderfulness is emptiness.



Life is supreme, nature is beautiful.

From this, let’s interpret “life is like a string”: life is meaningless, just like the white paper left by the old blind master. Is it empty or not. However, that piece of paper is really like a void. Is it meaningless? No! If it weren’t for that piece of paper, could the old blind man persist in his life for decades and walk to the end of his life? The prescription seems to be empty and empty. As the saying goes, “nothing is wonderful, and nothing is wonderful”. The old blind man’s previous state of life was to believe that the prescription had its meaning (it could make him see the light again); This is a secular delusion. This worldly delusion supported him to play 1000 strings and survive. But when he realized that the so-called prescription was a blank sheet of paper, what supported him to continue his life? It is the clear state of mind after Enlightenment: life is empty, and there is no need to worry about gain and loss between the bright and the blind, and ask for trouble; Hunger, food, sleepiness and natural survival are the life practice of “life is supreme and nature is beautiful”.

At the moment when he realized the truth, the old blind man thought his master had cheated him. After a sudden realization, the old blind man realized that master had not deceived him: life itself was the goal, and the highest value was to spend life, experience life and enjoy life naturally.

Similarities and differences between Zhuang Zen philosophy and Existentialism

It is the common idea of Zhuang Zen philosophy and existentialism that life is meaningless. But a careful analysis is not the case. Perhaps it can be said that existentialism holds that the world and life are absurd in an absolute sense. This absurdity is unalterable and can not be eliminated. It is the fate of man. There is no other way except to desperately resist to prove his unyielding; There is no possibility of salvation for mankind. However, Zhuangzhen’s philosophy believes that the absurdity of the world and life is the result of human beings’ egocentrism and the supremacy of human intelligence and desire (the supremacy of will, power, consciousness, purpose, result and self-respect). The way to save is to dispel human egocentrism, eliminate individual egocentrism, abandon the supremacy of human intelligence and desire, return to simplicity and truth, and return to the natural natural and true state of life, so as to get away from the absurd and get a harmonious and complete life experience between nature and human (the unity of nature and human), individual and Society (the same as others), body and mind (the integrity of body and mind). This is the life of “life is supreme, nature is beautiful”.



Western wisdom has brought about a scientific civilization beyond the reach of the East, but at the same time, it has buried a disaster for people’s living conditions.

Zhuang Chan philosophy is Oriental wisdom. Existentialism is the extreme result of the development of Western wisdom from Plato and Aristotle to today. Since ancient Greece, Western wisdom has established the line of human egocentrism and the supremacy of human intelligence and desire. Finally, it has developed to self-centered, with the purpose of understanding, grasping, controlling and conquering all other things. As a result, it has caused the division and opposition between people and society, people and people, and even their own physical and mental flesh. This line of wisdom has brought the west a scientific civilization beyond the reach of the East, but at the same time, it has buried a disaster for human survival.

“Life is like a string” is a story of pursuing light. Oriental wisdom believes that the light is in people’s hearts. The so-called “heart lamp is self-evident”. When the heart lamp is lit, everything in the world and the world of life will be bright and clear before your eyes. Western wisdom believes that the light is outside the human body and must be illuminated by the light from the outside to support the heart; As if the existence of self must be supported by the domination and control of external things. The existence based on the control of foreign things has finally degenerated into the reality of human and material servitude.

“Life is like a string” can also be said to be an event of pursuing freedom. The blind man pursues light in order to win freedom. Western style freedom is the absolute freedom of self supremacy, the freedom to completely cut off the root of existence, and therefore is the absolute hopeless freedom. The freedom of the eastern way is the freedom of the unity of heaven and man, the unity of self and others, the unity of body, mind and flesh, and the freedom of harmony with the root of existence, so it is the freedom of infinite enrichment, tranquility and contentment.



Freedom in the west is absolute self supremacy, while freedom in the East is infinite enrichment, tranquility and contentment.

Existentialism is the inevitable result of the development of the above-mentioned Western wisdom line to the extreme. Existentialism reveals the crisis of the decline of Western civilization with the idea that the world is absurd and life is meaningless, but it is neither possible nor possible to put forward the antidote to the crisis. As long as Western wisdom does not realize the true meaning of “returning to simplicity and nature”, it will never be able to embark on the path of rebirth. However, the Western wisdom line has not been running across the western world for a long time, but is increasingly running across the world in the trend of global integration. Perhaps the prescription for modern people to avoid the disaster of nihilism and absurdity of existence lies in the eastern Zhuang Zen philosophy.

However, the treacherous thing is that the contemporary Chinese people have been assimilated by western philosophy and have completely lost the wisdom of life in the East; Contemporary Westerners gradually realize the subtlety and magic of Eastern philosophy, and are increasingly free from the shackles of western traditional philosophy.

(the author is a professor of Nanchang Normal University and vice president of Jiangxi aesthetic society)


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