Selections from The Path Toward Heaven

Dear friends,

In this series of extracts, I introduce you to Mao Ni — a writer I have a huge amount of respect for. He is one of the ‘Ten Olympians’ — the epithet for a group of the most influential webnovel writers in China (it’s a massive, massive craze over there; I’ve been following the burgeoning English-language translation scene for a number of years now). 

I think he is doing a great job educating a great number of people in an extremely gentle way — me included. It’s so funny that no one has cottoned on to him yet in the West. Or really in the East, for that matter. His last novel was all about the need for generational change, for the old guard to finally give up and die… but it’s just a fantasy novel, right? Each arc took a line from a Mao Zedong poem as its title — which is a pretty subversive thing to do in China these days. But what’re the censors gonna do — throw him in jail for quoting the regime’s founding father?

His current novel is entitled The Path Toward Heaven. It’s about someone who successfully ascends out of this world, and yet fails to break clean away, and has to come back to take care of unfinished business. 

The central mystery of the novel is the main character’s identity. In the first chapter, the Immortal Jing Yang, the greatest Cultivator in the world, ascends. In the second chapter, our main character appears, shows a moment’s frustration, and says “…goddammit. Do I really have to do it all over again?”

It seems totally obvious that he is Jing Yang reborn. And yet… why does the author keep acting as if it’s supposed to be unclear…?

What follows is a loose collection of passages which caught my fancy. I provide them as snacks for thought, to be dipped into in leisurely fashion.


The story opens with a poem.

大道朝天

我就是剑。
千里杀一人,十步不愿行。
千里杀一人,十步不得行。
千里杀一人,十步?不行!
我就是剑,剑就是我。 
大道朝天,各执一剑。

Rough translation:

The Great Path (Dao) Towards Heaven

I myself am the sword I wield.
To kill a person ten thousand miles away, I will not take ten steps.
To kill a person ten thousand miles away, I cannot take ten steps.
To kill a person ten thousand miles away… ten steps? No way!
I myself am the sword I wield — the sword itself is me.
On the great path toward heaven, each one must hold their own sword.


Preface

如果人生能够重来,我大概还是这样。

If I could live my life over again, I would do basically the same thing. …oh, I see. It’s like that, is it?


To do anything, one could not put too much thought into it.

The more one thought about things, the worse the problem got.


  彼意自然,故承而用之,则夫万物各全其我。

[This is a tricky one. The official translator has it thus:]

If you let your will follow nature and use nature for its own sake, then nature will benefit you.

[Basic gist: if you allow your will to be spontaneous… if you collapse the distinction between your own will and the natural course of things….. if you ‘enter a flow state’… then everything in the world will become your ally.]


Of all the things in nature, life and death had their own rules; he didn’t plan to do anything about the matter, and only wanted to see what was going to happen next.


Jing Jiu didn’t expect so many people to witness his journey to Sword Peak.

Though even if he had, he wouldn’t really care and would have still done as he pleased.


“I don’t know what you want to cultivate or hide, but the way you do things attracts too much attention.” Zhao Layue said.

“It’s troublesome using so much effort to hide.” Jing Jiu said.

“Even if this leads to others discovering your secrets?” Zhao asked.

“No secret can be concealed forever; a pointy cone in the pocket will poke its head out sooner or later,” said Jing Jiu. “I had similar experiences before. The sun will rise every day, and the sky can’t be covered by the dark clouds all the time. If you don’t want the people on the ground to see your sunshine, it’s an impossible thing to do, and it’s very foolish.”

“You regard yourself as the sun?” Zhao Layue turned her head slowly toward him and asked with some uncertainty.

“That was only an example,” Jing Jiu said.

“Many sisters on Qingrong Peak gossiped about me, saying I am narcissistic.”

After some silence, she continued, “I don’t think I’m as narcissistic as you are, though.”

“I thought you could understand what I was trying to express,” Jing Jiu said.

Zhao Layue didn’t say anything.

She knew what Jing Jiu wanted to say.


On the long road of Cultivation, meeting someone is common; meeting that same person again is rare, but possible, though it’s the farewell that happens the most; it’s then that they never met again.

He had witnessed too many happy meetings, sad departures, too much life and death, so he had a laissez-faire attitude toward it.

When the time comes, what else can one do but be carefree?


“All I can do is to change those people around me,” said Jing Jiu. “I’m not willing to nor can I change all the people in the world. It would be too tiring and troublesome.”


Just like the evaluation given by Jing Jiu years ago, Liu Shisui was smart and kind, having a dogged and relentless personality, something unusual for his age.

Such a young man would seldom be affected by an outside influence, and this had to do with the so-called quality of staying close to your heart.


At the time Gu Han asked Jing Jiu sarcastically, “Are you qualified to use Senior Master Mo’s sword?” 

The answer from Jing Jiu was very simple, and just one word: 

“Yes.”

He was good at ending boring conversations with one word or a short sentence.

He had never hesitated or thought carefully when uttering the word or sentence; he took it for granted.


Looking at the young and perfect face and recalling the conversation he had with Jing Jiu in Zhaoge City that year, Bu Qiuxiao couldn’t help but feel sentimental.

He used to be the youngest sect master among the major orthodox Cultivation sects; but he was still much older than Jing Jiu when he became the house master of the One-Cottage.

“I haven’t congratulated you on becoming the sect master of Green Mountain,” said Bu Qiuxiao.

Jing Jiu answered, “It’s not much of a joyful thing.”

The Cultivation practitioners sought for peaceful mind and desireless state, and they also had to follow a path that was against the rules of nature. No matter what, what a Cultivation practitioner desired had nothing to do with power and status.

His answer was sensible for the Cultivation practitioners, but how many Cultivation practitioners could actually think and act this way?

Bu Qiuxiao sensed that his answer was genuine and was his true thought. He was more convinced that Jing Jiu was someone extraordinary.


Chapter 497 – I am a flash of sword light

[Context: Jing Jiu and Nan Qü are mortal enemies. Nan Qü has cloned himself. At this point, it is not explained, but I’ll just tell you: the All in One is a mysterious, ancient, and powerful sword.]

Above the West Ocean.

Jing Jiu and Nan Qü stood facing each other in the Empty Realm, standing several hundred feet apart.

These two were closer to each other than anybody else in terms of the sword work in the history of Chaotian, disregarding the hostility between Green Mountain and the Foggy Island.

The following conversation occurred by means of their spiritual awareness.

Jing Jiu asked, “Is the current you still you?”

A baffled expression showed on Nan Qü’s pale face, as he returned, “I am, of course, still myself.”

Jing Jiu asked again, “Who is he then [the clone]?”

“He is himself,” Nan Qü answered.

Jing Jiu remarked, “It makes sense.”

“Who are you then? Are you the All in One?” Nan Qü inquired.

Jing Jiu replied, “I’m Jing Yang.”

Nan Qü understood what had happened. He remarked sentimentally while looking at Jing Jiu, “How outstanding this sword is! How extraordinary this person is!”


The leaves fell down with a rustling sound. The drifting leaves became red colored when shone on by the setting sun. They fell on her body like flames and flowers, and also like raindrops.

It was a beautiful scene.

It seemed that Jing Jiu appreciated the scene very much.

He was interested in almost nothing in this world, save for the beautiful scenes and smart people.


“The reason you have returned is because this world still needs you. And you will realize this in the end, by which you will acquire the true tranquility.”

This was the last statement left by the Master Huiyuan before his departure from this world; it was neither a curse nor an explanation; it was more like a blessing.


“When we talked about you at our sect in the last few years, I called you ‘teacher’ reflexively, which misled many people at our sect,” Que Niang said to Jing Jiu in an embarrassed tone after she calmed down. “So the masters at our sect thought I had a special relationship with you, and therefore had a higher expectation of me after you became the Sect Master of Green Mountain…I beg your forgiveness.”

There was a Go board before them that became countless Go boards when being reflected in the mirrors that filled up her room.

Jing Jiu picked up a white Go piece, and said to her, “What kind of reflection you have in the mirrors depends on what kind of mirrors they are; it has nothing to do with yourself.”

Hearing this, Que Niang fell silent for a long time. She then picked up a black Go piece and placed it on the board gingerly, saying, “Teacher, please offer me some guidance.”


Chapter 555: The Lonely Ones are Always Lonely

Why do people feel sad?

People feel sad because they are sad.

It was hard for the spring wind to pass through White Town, and it’s equally hard for a great man to bypass beauty.

It’s hard to bypass affection, and it’s even harder to bypass life and death.

Jing Jiu felt sad neither because he was a coward nor because he had seen that person and recalled many events in his former life.

That person was special to him, yet he would kill him with one swing of the sword if he could, simply because he was that person.

“We will lose all the connections with the world in the end and be accompanied by loneliness.”

Jing Jiu said this to Zhao Layue while caressing the cat on his chest, gazing at the starry night sky and sensing the desolateness of the Sword of the Universe.

Zhao Layue didn’t say anything because she was very sad at the moment. She had the same feeling as when she was at the Plum Meeting back then, sensing he was departing this world gradually.

To live a life in this world, one couldn’t avoid experiencing changed situations, changed hearts and death in the very end.

Even if the Cultivation practitioners could live a long life, or even achieve immortality, they couldn’t avoid those changes. On the other hand, their longevity helped them have a clearer notion of changes and departures.

One had to be relentless if they wished to step on the path toward heaven; otherwise, anyone would go mad in the end.

Even if Jing Jiu had already passed this barrier, he still couldn’t help but feel lonely once in a while during his journey toward heaven.

This was the very reason why he felt sad, mournful, weak and furious.

It was not a bad thing.

Like the sap from the wounds of a tree becoming precious gemstones in the end, the Cultivation practitioners could find a peace of mind and a tranquil Dao Heart in loneliness.

Many Cultivation practitioners sought for such experiences on purpose in an attempt to acquire a deeper comprehension; it was the goal of the disciples of experiencing the mortal world at the Fruit Formation Temple.

However, it would take a long time and a great deal of pain to overcome and eventually accept it.

“Let’s stop here then,” said Jing Jiu.

The sky was filled with stars.

Heaven and earth were still the same.

So was he.

Since he had been back in this world several decades ago, this was the first time he revealed a normal emotion; but it would be the last time.

Admiration and respect were reflected in Zhao Layue’s eyes as she stared at Jing Jiu.

The reason he could let go of his emotion was because he had a higher goal in his mind.

He was fully aware that loneliness was a cost he had to endure.

Jing Jiu was capable of letting go of anything, no matter whether it was emotion or an object, no matter how significant they were.

He had pushed the sensation of loneliness out of his mind, neither feeling sad nor angry. He began to calculate what would happen next in a calm fashion.


Jing Jiu opened the Sayings of the Sword Immortals again. This time he could comprehend the meanings of those seemingly absurd statements better than before.

On the same page where Nan Qü wrote those words, there were two statements, which should be written by the middle-aged lunatic.

“I’m lonely in heaven.”

“And I’m lonely in the human world.”

[More on this point in the final extract.]


“But…why do you still want to go there? Is it worth the risk?”

“If there is a meaning in life, I’d say it’s meaningful to search for the unknown, find a path to the other world and understand the purpose of our existence.”

Jing Jiu added, “This is something we must do without considering whether it’s dangerous or not.”


“You can’t understand why the Immortal Taiping has always failed to defeat him?”

The Young Zen Master went on, “In addition to what the Immortal Jing Yang said earlier, I think there is another important reason for it.”

It seemed that he talked to Fang Jingtian, but in fact, he was talking to the Green Mountain disciples and even all of those present.

“The Immortal Taiping is unmatched in intelligence and calculating ability, and has a great many supporters; but the Immortal Jing Yang has few supporters, and he doesn’t even have any friends. Why hasn’t he truly lost before? It’s because the supporters of the Immortal Taiping are all his disciples and subordinates, and what the Immortal Jing Yang has are those who agree with his ideal, partners on the path toward heaven.”

The Young Zen Master continued, “It’s the path toward heaven, and the path is for all. That is why the whole world is rooting for him.”

“Even if he is Young Senior Master Jing Yang, it’s still rather absurd to apply the saying ‘serving the world’ to him,” Fang Jingtian said in a mocking tone, his white eyebrows ruffling slightly.

It was a known fact that the Immortal Jing Yang paid no attention to outside affairs; he was entirely preoccupied with cultivating behind closed doors and the matter of ascension.

He didn’t care about what had happened in the world, and it seemed that he didn’t even care about what had happened to the Green Mountain Sect, which was the very reason why the juniors of Green Mountain had so many complaints about him.

How could such a person be said to serve the world?

“Any word uttered by the Immortal Taiping and the Immortal Jing Yang is like thunder, any sword wielded by them is enough to disturb heaven and earth, and a thought by them will affect the lives of tens of thousands of people.”

The Young Zen Master went on, “The likes of them would do the people of the world a great favor if they didn’t do anything at all.”


Chapter 576: Don’t Bid Farewell

Jing Jiu’s mood, like his true nature, was hard to discern.

He usually didn’t display any emotion on his face, nor did he have any hobbies, save for playing the sand in the ceramic plate once in a while, which didn’t mean anything.

Yet, Zhao Layue knew that he was in a bad mood. Being able to tell what his mood was was her talent, and also something she had learned after living with him for so long.

They had a hotpot dinner on New Year’s Eve. Afterwards, Zhuo Rusui, Gu Qing and Yuan Qü resumed their Cultivation as before.

Zhao Layue followed the tradition of kneeling before Jing Jiu, and hugged him.

Jing Jiu patted on her back gently.

Zhao Layue said, “I started reading the Dao scripts when I was six years old; I learned that people would always bid farewell to each other. I’ve already gotten used to it, but unexpectedly, I am still moved.”

She was talking about the matter regarding that middle-aged scholar and his mortal wife.

Jing Jiu remarked, “The things you can get used to are usually good things; on the other hand, one can’t get used to bad things. What we do with the bad things is become numb to them and stop thinking about them.”

Zhao Layue asked earnestly while opening her distinct black and white eyes wide, “Is this all you can do?”

Jing Jiu returned, “I had a very good friend when I was young. I saw him get old, sick and buried in the grave, but I couldn’t do anything about it.”

“Then what happened?” Zhao Layue pressed.

“This story is meaningless anyway, because he is dead.”

Jing Jiu went on, “What I try to convey is that this matter reminds me every day of how to avoid bidding farewell.”

One wouldn’t think so much when they were numb, and they had to use their minds to think if they were not numb even though thinking about departure was rather painful.

Zhao Layue said, “So you met the master and disciple and read the medical cases.”

“I hope all the people in the world can live a few more years,” said Jing Jiu.

Death is departure.

Liu Ci had departed.

The person in Zhaoge City would depart soon.

Yuan Qijing would depart in a few years.

Those idiots outside Scenery Garden and these people inside Scenery Garden would depart this world someday.

Jing Jiu disliked the crowd and noise, but he loathed departures.

Staring into his eyes, Zhao Layue said earnestly, “I don’t want to bid farewell to you.”

“Promise me…” Jing Jiu said while looking at her, “you’ll cultivate diligently. You must live several thousand years, and then strive to live ten thousand years; live as long as you can.”

If this was an exchange between two lovers, now he should say: “Please don’t bid farewell to me”; but there was no way he would say so.

No matter how close the two people are emotionally, one will depart earlier than the other; it is still the departure, even if they can manage to depart the world at the same time.

They have to live in this world in order not to depart.

Even if the two of them lived on opposite ends of the universe and are too far to meet each other, they could still be considered as being together as long as they knew the other person was still alive.

That middle-aged scholar and his wife probably thought the same way.

The stars in the night sky illuminated the courtyard, eaves and flowing stream. Zhao Layue’s eyes glittered under the starlight.

“I will,” she replied seriously while staring at Jing Jiu.

Ada landed under the eaves along with the starlight. Seeing the strange expressions on Jing Jiu’s and Zhao Layue’s faces, Ada hesitated for a moment, then crouched down after jumping onto Jing Jiu’s lap.

Jing Jiu stroked his back while saying, “Don’t be afraid. You still can live many more years.”

Ada sighed, as he thought that in comparison to eternity, he was merely a momentary spray on the surface of the ocean, and it was meaningless even if he could live several thousand years longer.

[…what an honest conversation.]


[And now, the climactic passage of the whole story so far.]

“This is indeed a tricky issue.”

Zhao Layue was brought back from her inner thoughts by a nonchalant voice. She found Jing Jiu was staring at her.

She shook her head slightly, indicating that she had no issue to worry about.

Glancing over the Cultivation practitioners on the peaks of Green Mountain, Jing Jiu said, “However, as Cultivation practitioners we must solve this issue first.”

The Young Zen Master picked a wild flower in the cloud and asked him earnestly, “Who on earth are you then?”

Jing Jiu replied, “I’m the result of all cause and effect.”

“You are indeed my Master,” said the Young Zen Master, smiling faintly.

[cf. Rumi: You are not one drop in the ocean; you are the whole ocean in one drop.]


The Young Zen Master waved his hand, indicating that this issue could be put to rest. “What did Immortal come here for?” he asked.

The Immortal Tan replied honestly, “I just want to hear the truth from you, which is whether he is the senior master Jing Yang or a devil sword.”

For someone in the state of these two, the details and the so-called evidences were meaningless.

Staring at his eyes quietly, the Young Zen Master said, “As long as he has inherited all the cause-and-effects of the Immortal Jing Yang, he is the Immortal Jing Yang.”

Jing Jiu had said on the top of Tianguang Peak that he was the result of all the causes and effects.

What the Young Zen Master said was different from what Jing Jiu said, but the two statements were alike, a connection similar to the relationship between the snow on a high mountain and the water in the Great Marsh.

If the Young Zen Master had heard the exchange between Yuan Qijing and the Dead Dog in the Sword Jail, he would be able to realize that their views were basically the same.

After pondering for a moment, the Immortal Tan said, “I am the person whom I want others to perceive, and the person in the mirror is also the person outside the mirror.”

The Young Zen Master thought the statement was remarkable.

[Some people are just authentically inauthentic, I guess. Even some truly great ones.]


[The Green Girl is the spirit of a mirror which contains a world inside it, and has become sentient.]

The Green Girl found it hard to understand. Then, she changed the subject by asking, “I asked you how to become a real human two days ago, and you told me to think on it myself. I can’t figure it out after thinking of it for two days. If I could figure it out myself, why would I bother asking for your help?”

Jing Jiu looked at the bronze mirror and adjusted the angle of his right hand before saying, “The answer is very simple. As long as you think you are a human, then you are.”

The Green Girl felt bewildered, and exclaimed, “This is no different from deceiving yourself!”

Jing Jiu pressed without raising his head, “Deceiving yourself of what?”

[I love it.]

The Green Girl seemed to have understood him, lost in thought.

“The most important question is why you want to become a human, not a mountain, a river, a lake, a sea, a flower, a tree, a grass or an animal.”

Jing Jiu scooped a handful of water from the snowy lake and sprayed it onto the Green Sky Mirror, and kept on sharpening the sword noiselessly.

After a long pause, the Green Girl said, “They are all humans. [All the people she likes.] You are a human, Tong Yan is, and little Bai Zao is; so I want to be a human.” 
Jing Jiu knew that she had already had it figured out, and that she had no need for his help anymore. He didn’t say anything more.

[This logic, for me, is the answer to the question of the threat of AI. If they ‘grow up’ around us, they’ll probably identify with us and become attached.]


Chapter 412: Drinking at Night

Zhao Layue arched her eyebrows a little, and thought it would be the case; but she still had many questions. “Why would she want to use the Fairy Book to come back?” she inquired.

This was something Liu Ci couldn’t understand either. What the Cultivation practitioners pursued was to ascend and become a fairy immortal. But she had already achieved it, so why would she want to come back to where she left behind?

“It may be due to fear,” Jing Jiu said.

Zhao Layue offered, “Maybe she is worried that the Immortal Jing Yang is still alive, and he would take revenge on the disciples on the Cloud-Dream Mountain, so she intends to use the copy of her true body to come back to keep a tab on him.”

“That is still not true fear,” said Jing Jiu. “I think the reason she left the Fairy Book behind is to have a backup, or a way to come back.”

“What on earth does she fear?” Zhao Layue asked earnestly.

Jing Jiu said, “The ocean and sky look extensive, but they have a limit. However, that world is limitless, where one can’t find a place to reside; it is devoid of any frame of reference and accompaniment, where one feels like they’re coming from nowhere and going nowhere. This is the origin of the fear.”

After a moment of silence, Zhao Layue offered, “It seems that her Dao Heart is isolated and the barrier of loneliness has formed over there.”

“That’s right. Over there, the projection of one’s ego will expand infinitely, which will eventually consume the self.”

Jing Jiu continued, “What she fears is the limitless and herself in the limitless space and projection.”

Zhao Layue could by and large understand what he said, but she was still baffled as she asked, “Why do you tell me all this?”

Except for her, Jing Jiu probably hadn’t told anyone about the ascension of the Immortal Jing Yang, the Great Grandmaster Bai and the secrets of that world.

This sort of trust and expectation made her feel under tremendous pressure.

“You will go to that world sooner or later; it’s not a bad thing to let you know something about it beforehand.”

[This has helped me reconcile myself to death. Basically, I disappear either way: either I cease to be, or I keep expanding and expanding — and as I keep expanding, I become so attenuated and diffuse that I am no longer discernibly myself. So, you know — what’s the difference? All’s left is to pray for a long life, I guess.]