A young friend of mine has just set off for China. For a year he has been learning its language, practicing its calligraphy, studying its lore. He has been supporting himself, meanwhile, by working on a construction crew in the midst of the city. I saw him recently on the job, a slight figure among his burly companions, wearing his hard hat with a certain debonaire aplomb. The weather was frigid; from time to time the men would pause to warm themselves at a small fire built within a metal drum. And now, with the coming of spring, he has gone off, fulfilling an old and deeply held desire.
This, of course, is not the first of my friends -- young and old -- to go to China. Almost eveyone has made the visit, returning with marvelous tales that they could not forbear to tell. I have listened to these travelers; in fact I have been unable to escape listening, so urgent were they in their insistence that I be enlightened on the arts, the social system, the urban and agricultural revolutions in that country. Always there was implied the underlying question: Why had Im not been to China? And when would I be likely to be going?
Work and pleasure have brought me in my time to a good many of the fabled places of the world, from Rangoon to Katmandu, from Tasmania to Kuala Lumpur. Not for gold or spices would I give up the memories of those places or renounce the journeys, were I to live my life over again.
If I now reply to friends that I have no immediate plans to go to China it is not because I would not like to see the Great Wall, or to wander (if one does wander) amid the gigantic figures of Xian. Yet sometimes a man must take a stand, and amid the flux of the world decide that there are some things that, for the time being at least, he is not prepared to do -- some places he is not prepared to go.
To be swept along by currents of enthusiasm, to be the child of impulse or of fashion, is very delightful. It may also be a morally superior course to pursue. Often I have said "Yes" to a proposition simply because to say "No" seemed so easy and safe.When the negative has been uttered, everything continues in a familiar way. But let the dreadful fact of affirmation be decreed --then the whole of existence may be transformed by a syllable! We find ourselves buying a house, or getting married, or embarking upon a journey, with all that these involve in the way of uncertainty and possible pain. The suspicion that he is timidly avoiding the glories or defeats of life is enough to make a man rash. Is it not better --take the risks of the yea-sayer?
These are good arguments for going to China -- quite apart from the fact that China contains a considerable portion of the people of this globe and is rich in experiments which may or may not affect the future of us all. Nevertheless in the occasional and perhaps quixotic refusal to go along there is a kind of virtue not to be overlooked. To be the master of one's fate, one must possess a liberal stock of denials; to be saved from this world's confusions one must resolve to hold to a fixed path. Every time I see a man whose life has something of the quality of a work of art, I think of the renunciations that have gone into it. When a collector shows me his treasures, I am impressed as much by what he has refused to purchase as by what he has acquired.
The truth of the matter may be that times and seasons rule in this question as in so many others. There are recurring periods in everyone's life when it is good to be expansive and accepting; others when hard choices must be enforced. I do not tell my acquaintances that I will never go to China; I only say that I am not going nowm . I am, for the time being, like Charles Lamb, who said that whenever a new book appeared he read an old one. This year, I would visit an old place when a new one is proposed -- Paris rather than Peking, or Maine instead of Manchuria. My young friend may be sorely disappointed in me; but he may be sur prised one day to find me following in his footsteps!