Si Wei escaped from the 8 to 5 drudgery of her previous work life when she joined the staff of PERK,* an art studio in Shanghai that crosses multiple disciplines. In the process of discovering herself and seeking to connect with the world through her art, Si Wei found herself caught in a personal paradox. Somehow, she who had broken free from the rules of society was now bound by her own need for recognition and affirmation. As the grips of success fastened tightly around her, the thing she once saw as her salvation began to slowly drain away her joy and life.
Where to next? How had this happened and what could she do to find freedom? In this two-part series, Si Wei shares her journey and explains why she sees success as the greatest spiritual disaster for those born in the 80s.
*Note: PERK, the art studio mentioned throughout Si Wei’s story, is alternatively referred to as “PERK” and “破壳." The Chinese“破壳” is a created name using the character “破” (po) which means "to break, split, or expose the truth of" and the character “壳” (qiao) which refers to a shell or crust, like the shell of an egg or crust of the earth. The idea is of something hatching or breaking free from its shell.
This is a translation of an article in the mainland online journal Territory.
Success—Our Generation’s Greatest Spiritual Disaster
The Transformation of a Millennial (Part 1)
Is Life Just a Series of Sculptures?
I worked on a series of sketches, “The Big Machine,” in the winter of 2007 at the peak of my confusion about life and myself. At a young age I had felt confused about the question of why I existed. Later, this was forgotten. However in 2007 these problems once again pestered me:
Why was I on this earth? Why had I grown up like this? Why work hard? Why do people get old and die? After death, all that men have thought, all of their confusion, their hard work—what does it even mean?
At that time I was not stuck in the depths of some circumstantial valley. In fact, I had just started a career I truly enjoyed in art and design at PERK Studio, and was living with a friend in Shanghai.
We blossomed there, working on so many different projects—drawing pictures, creating animations, publishing books, and even developing an independent clothing line. We eventually opened a true brick and mortar store. I started exploring photography and wanted to try my hand at making music. I was really having a great time.
We started getting the attention of the outside world and were invited to participate in a cutting-edge design show—a fashion show—and were getting lots of media coverage. Just as our name implied, we had sprung out from the powerful rules of the world, and debuted beautiful and fresh.
But after a season of reveling in my own abilities and creativity, a massive sense of emptiness enveloped me. Every time I returned home after yet another splashy event, my heart felt hollow.
In the past I felt that doing these things that I enjoyed would change me, that they would make me feel as though life was more beautiful, that it had more meaning, and that at the very least it would affect my own faith in myself.
And I guess I did experience this to some extent. But once the event was over I would feel as though something had left me, and if there wasn’t another event planned, I would panic.
I began thinking about trying out for the larger exhibitions in order to to give myself a new starting point, but it was an endless circle. It was as if these outer things had become the essence of me. Slowly they become my all, and the only medium I had for communication with others.
Life is like creating sculptures; you finish one this time, and then you still need to create a new one next time. The only thing spanning the distance between one sculpture and the next is a feeling of emptiness., You constantly need to create new sculptures in order to feel full. Finally, your life will be the sum of these sculptures. But you find that you still haven’t changed, and the feelings of helplessness and a sense of confusion remains.
Jumping Off the Empty Path
I was born in a small town in Hebei province. After graduating from the Academy of Fine arts I worked in a Shanghai clothing company. I found work very boring, and pretty much my only pleasure came from inviting a classmate out for hotpot on the holidays. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore, and ventured out to have my own studio.
I finally started doing the work I enjoyed, and I did it with all of my heart. But over time I began to have an unexpected but very clear sense that somehow I had hijacked my very self. I had been hijacked by my own hobbies, and hijacked by the need for recognition and approval of others. How could I be hurting my own self?
I really didn’t understand this. At first, I just wanted to do things well. But then came both the affirmation from others and at times the lack thereof. How could my value have become so completely wrapped up in what I could do? How had my self-acceptance and sense of security shifted to find its source in what I produced? And whatever happened to my first dream, of being able to just “be myself”?
Our group chose the name PERK (“破壳”), to represent the idea of something shabby and old on the outside that hides something secretly magnificent and just waiting to burst forth on the inside. Ever since we were small we’ve been labeled bothersome, so our generation wanted to give ourselves a new definition, free from the boundaries drawn by others. We wanted to establish a new system, a better system, rejecting the powers that used to control us.
At first we saw ourselves as mavericks, people who would live a different life; but as time moved forward I began to feel that I was a endlessly rotating cog in an immense machine. When a person steps onto one line of this machine, it seems at first that you were in control, but in the end it is the endless track that moves you along its path.
Perhaps you don’t recognize that you have been caught on this line, but once you are on it there is no way off. Or, perhaps you don’t see the need to get off the track. Each person is compelled forward in this same way.
The weight of these ideas drained away my former fearless momentum. I closed the studio then moved to an art district in Beijing.
One day as I was chatting with my neighbor, Yezi, I shared my confusion. I asked, “Why do we exist? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What are we even doing? Why is a human a human, and a pig a pig?”
Yezi had been attending church for some time, and she responded: “Si Wei, stop being absurd. You’re a child of God; you have a Father. Humans rejected God’s commands and sinned, which brought death to this world. Jesus bore the punishment of our sins and took our place on the cross. If you accept him as your savior you will be forgiven and have eternal life. You will not become a pig or a dog in the next life. There is no “next life;” there is only heaven and hell.”
This idea of a Father in heaven deeply moved me. It felt right. I am God’s child, created by him, and suddenly I understood my identity. I recognized that I was guilty. I’ve lied and coveted, and now I understood that death is related to these errors.
I was willing to accept Jesus as my savior, to receive eternal life, and this made me truly and deeply happy. This is how I came to believe in Christ. I started voraciously reading the Bible and faithfully going to church. This person who used to sleep until noon now got up at 5am each weekend and spent a very long time on the bus to attend worship.
After I became a believer I read the book of Ecclesiastes and saw this: “What has been, will be again. There is nothing new under the sun.”
I think that the emptiness I felt in 2007 was exactly what Solomon described. I created a work of art trying to express the “Big Machine.” One of the images I created for the series was even published in the 2014 New Weekly.
Ecclesiastes encompasses all the circumstances of life, wherein God allows humans to toil under heavy labor and become filled with emptiness in order to bring them to a place of revering God. I am thankful that God didn’t allow me to stop wondering about the emptiness of life, because it was the process of analyzing these things that finally brought me to him, and caused me to begin the process of exploring the root of the human problem.
Damaged by a Narrow Standard
When I make notes or keep records I like to draw pictures on them. Sometimes [as a child] I would use broken pieces of brick to draw on the walls of our hutong, popsicle sticks to draw in the dirt at my grandmother’s home, or I would trace images in the fog of our mirror after I breathed on it. In those days it felt like each day wandered by in leisure, with no end on the horizon. So actually, I realized, life would not continue eternally; in the end there was death.
The day my grandfather died I cried like a madman, even crying in my dreams and waking to where I had fallen from my bed to the floor, only to remain there crying.
I was also crying for myself: We will all die! I don’t want to die!
Before the fourth grade I often received perfect marks on my report card. Later on, I dropped from number one in my class to down near the bottom. The attention I received in school plummeted. I realized that the standard by which it was determined whether a child was good or bad was one thin report card. Once I got to middle school, this standard became even more pronounced.
During that time my strongest feeling was that no one understood me; they just wanted to hear what the “good students” had to say. I chose not to play with others and to ignore them. I had a vague idea that more or less came to: “They have their system, I have mine.”
I went to trade school to study art. I didn’t do well in my culture class. I wasn’t beautiful or clever, and my teacher was relatively indifferent towards me. Once when I was having a discussion with a couple of classmates about clothing and who dressed well I said, “Sometimes I think the rag pickers clothes look nice.” They laughed at me. I felt hurt.
Later, I would use the art studio, PERK, to resist being labeled. Maybe on the outside a person appeared awfully shabby, but on the inside that same one may hold some bright and dazzling thing you never imagined. I wanted to use my work to defy the labels and standards that had been applied to me throughout my life and shout, “You’re wrong!”
Back in my junior high class there was a sort of “overlord,” the son of the principal. The boys liked to play a game after school, led by the principal’s son—beat up the fat boy. In the last two minutes before class you could see this boy tightening his shoelaces and preparing to run out as soon as the bell rang so he could hop on his bike and race out of the schoolyard to avoid the boys.
No one dared say anything, but after a while I started to have the courage to challenge the others, asking why they beat him. Immediately I was subjected to mass ridicule.
When I enrolled for the high school entrance exam, my teacher accidentally switched my name from Wei “玮” (precious, rare) to Wei “伟” (big, large), which affected my eligibility to take the exam.
The fault was obviously in the teacher’s hands, but he made me bring in my father. My father visited the teacher, who said that he had no rice and oil at home. (The teacher implied some kind of bribe should be given.) When my father returned home, he harshly scolded innocent me and then went to buy rice and oil. The teacher responded to the gift by making the necessary changes to the enrollment form.
These experiences of the dark side of humanity influenced my understanding of the world and tainted my overall response patterns. I saw how people became weak in the face of power, and how at heart each person is really selfish.
If I had never trusted in God, I would have simply gone on in blind rebellion. I would have maintained the spirit of a once-innocent child who had been damaged by the adults and societal standards around her. In retrospect, I can see the complexity of human nature as well as my own ignorance as I was caught in the vortex of sin.
For example, when I was little I was the queen of my grandparents’ neighborhood. Whoever I didn’t like, the others would refuse to play with. I remember once during primary school there was a cadre selection. I was only chosen as a middle level captain, but I really wanted to be the top captain. I was jealous of the girl who was selected to be the top captain and I spread nasty rumors about her behind her back.
When God created each one of us he gave us unique value and specific gifts. Unfortunately, the standard we often encounter at home or school is very singular, and we are hurt in this Chinese-style of education that lacks what faith brings to the table. Yet these gifts God has entrusted us with can be destroyed by our own pride and jealousy, preventing us from experiencing true peace.
After Yezi shared the gospel with me, I started reading the Bible and came to the place in Matthew where Jesus said,
A farmer went out to plant some seeds.
As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them.
Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died.
Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!
Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.
This analogy rocked me to the core. Just a few, short lines said so much, and did so with no logical errors. It really impressed me.
Do I have ears? If I have ears, then I should listen.
I realized that Jesus really wasn’t an ordinary person. He really is God. He is the perfection I have been searching for; the eternity that I have been seeking. Only he can give the answers to all of my confusion.
At that time I said to Jesus: “Jesus, I want to believe in you. Please give me a heart with good soil, so that I can produce fruit to a hundredfold.”
To be continued . . .
Original article: 成功是我们这一代人最大的心灵灾难 —— 80后司玮的蜕变 (Territory)
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