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Shi Tiesheng: 我的丁一之旅 (My Travels in Ding Yi)

Ding Yi is not, as might seem to be the case from the title, a place, but a person. The traveller in question is an unnamed spirit who occupies the bodies of various people. He started, in fact, with Adam, and was there, in the Garden of Eden, when Eve gave Adam the apple. He has since moved on to a Chinese boy, Ding Yi (born Ding Er) though he also flits into the body of our author, Shi Tiesheng.

Had this novel been written by a Westerner, our spirit would undoubtedly have been mischievous. While he does have a bit of the mischievous in him, he is more reflective, more philosophical and more curious about the human mind and the human soul.

Ding Yi may not be the ideal subject. It seems the spirit has an element of choice when selecting his host, not least because, at one stage, he considers abandoning Ding Yi, though he later relents. He also partially inhabits, as mentioned, our author. Other spirits, whom he talks to, seem to do better, one claiming that he inhabits the body of the US athlete Carl Lewis.

It is not entirely clear what form he takes. Others clearly cannot see him but Ding Yi is well aware of his presence. Indeed, the pair spar on several occasions (he tells Din Yi, for example, to stop smoking to which Ding Yi tells him to mind his own business). He can see not only Ding Yi’s physical body but also, to a certain degree, his mind and his dreams.

Despite his long history – Adam may have been the first but we learn that he has occupied many others, though details are not given – he seems to be remarkably ill-informed about what motivates humans. There are various aspects of humans that he does not really grasp. Two obvious ones are found in pretty well all humans, namely the desire to eat and sexual lust.

As regards eating, he comments apes, fish, dogs and horses have more difficulty evolving …because those apparatuses spend too much time eating. He, of course, does not. Ding Yi, when he grows older, spends much of his time lusting after various women, something the spirit cannot understand. Love, as we shall see, is something he does understand. Plain sexual lust he does not understand, though he sees its purpose. Why have sex? The answer seems simple – it’s the best way to pass genes on to the next generation while maintaining its diversity.

There is one other area where he does not fully understand human behaviour – nudity. He cannot quite see the function of clothing. What a bizarre business this is. First, why is nudity shameful? Why does having one’s bottom out incite ridicule? Bottoms and those wonderful buried slots are proper body parts.

In short, he is not terribly impressed with humans as a species. When first entering Ding Yi, he comments on my long journey I’ve actually mistakenly landed in an ape’s body – that useless tool! It led me around all day eating, sleeping, climbing. No passion, no love! Weary ignorance was always tied to me like a rope, though he admits humans are better than other animals. Why? What do you think the most prominent advantage of the human machine is? It’s play! It’s recreation! Moreover, it’s thought and taste! Poetry and painting, literature and drama, song and dance.

He does see the difference between humans: The difference between people is larger than that between people and pigs.

Much of the book is about how he observes Ding Yi, not always accepting what Ding Yi does, trying, often unsuccessfully, to influence Ding Yi in his behaviour and commenting endlessly to us, to Shi Tiesheng and to Ding Yi.

Ding Yi is alive during the Cultural Revolution and, as he is outspoken, gets into trouble. His father comes from a bourgeois family but they seem to have hidden this successfully and his father now works a a cook. However, Ding Yi is ashamed of him and tries to conceal his relationship with him.

One area where he does admire Ding Yi is his fortitude. Shi Tiesheng himself suffered considerably from ill-health and was ill while writing this book. Ding Yi gets cancer and considers suicide. (This is the point when the spirit thinks about leaving him). Ding Yi pulls through, being miraculously cured of the cancer and the spirit is certainly impressed.

The spirit has his own love life (and it is love not lust). He had fallen in love with Eve (the biblical Eve) and is now in constant search for her. He has seen her, he thinks, as a dancer and frequently looks at women, wondering whether she is Eve.

Sex, however, seems to be the big issue and when Ding Yi sees the film Sex, Lies, and Videotape (whose plot is described in great detail) and falls in love with the actress Qin E, it starts to dominate. Sex, Lies, and Videotape informs a lot of what Ding Yi, Qin E, the spirit and others talk about and do, ranging from erectile dysfunction (Graham, in the film suffers from it) to the love/sex issue. Ding Yi even writes a play based on the film.

The play, Empty Wall Night, and the film take up the rest of the book, as it influences the discussions and activities relating to love and sex. The spirit and others pose various questions on the subject. Why do people love? Because of loneliness. Because of distance. Because you’ve been surrounded by other people since you were born. and Why is love, the most beautiful feeling in the world, confined as much as possible instead of expanded as much as possible?. The spirit cannot fully grasp why it is not possible for someone to love many people or, indeed, for a group of people all to love one another. As he only seems to love one person – Eve – this seems an odd stance for him to take.

I must admit that, while I found this book interesting, I did find that it digressed a lot and that the spirit did go round and round endlessly on the topic. Yes, love and sex have many aspects and he did consider quite a few but at times I found myself skipping some of his discussions on love and sex. I fully accept that this may be the difference between a Western and Eastern approach. I also accept that this was Shi Tiesheng’s final book and, given the state of his health, he probably knew it, so felt he wanted to put everything into this work. However, if you want a detailed examination of love and sex from the point of view of a non-human, this book certainly does that.

Publishing history

First published in 2006 byRen min wen xue chu ban she
First English translation in 2019 by Alain Charles Asia Publishing
Translated by Alex Woodend