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I Don’t Like the Word “Human”

Nikita Lin speaks of home in its subtle relation to finitude and mortality

Heavily fogged views of Huangpu River and the bridge that connects Puxi and Pudong areas, Shanghai. January 21, 2020

Photography by Nikita Lin

February 19, 2016. In the middle of the night, forty-year-old JIANG Xulin, a full-time teaching fellow in political philosophy at East China Normal University, committed suicide. With one last update on his Weibo account, he wrote, “Forgive me, forgive me, Lord. Please keep open the door of hope; oh, justice… I accept…” The Weibo text message was accompanied by a black-and-white photo of the author himself, facing the camera, eyes lowered as if looking inside for something. His last words, written in the form of a to-do-list, were later found on his office desk.  They gave directions regarding what should be taken care of after his death (No.1–4), imbued by lines of apologies and repentances (No.5–9):

1. The 106,893 Yuan in one debit card (in the wallet) shall be administered by my sister xxx (I remember I also have a younger sister).

2. The 11,273 Yuan on another debit card shall be administered by my sister xxx. (Passwords for both cards are the same: xxxxxx.)

3. The 10,000 Hong Kong dollars and 600 US dollars kept in the drawer in my bedroom, as well as the 4,400 Yuan in the wallet, shall be used for cleaning. This might not be enough to pay the services though.  

4. Half of the books I left in the office shall belong to my student xxx (please also give some of them to the undergraduate students xxx whom I was supervising). The other half are to be disposed of by Mr. xxx. Thank you! 

5. Apologies for not being able to continue the four courses that I’m supposed to teach this semester. Perhaps this could actually minimize the harm being done. 

6. Nothing to be missed. Is it strange that my heart is filled with heaviness and fears. Oh, Lord, pardon me. I thought that there was always something worthy of my curiosity, but my curiosity has been apparently suppressed. Oh, Lord, I broke the toys. Please do not punish me. Even if I am to be punished, please give me the courage to face the unknown moment. Alas, here comes the moment of truth. I am an average man, morally deficient, nothing to be proud of. Lock’s epitaph reads, “Let his vices be buried together.” What else could I do apart from begging for your pardon? Please forgive my sins and errs. 

7. The elegant composition of music would never come out of my hands, likewise the expectations (of engaging the world) have failed me. What is the embrace of love? I have no idea. I couldn’t perceive nor experience. How shall I kiss you and bless you and bid you farewell? 

8. Oh, Lord, please keep open the door of hope. 

9. I have fears. I want some liquor. 

Earlier on the day of his suicide, Jiang posted a few times on his Weibo account, expressing his frustrations and disillusionment over the increasingly depressing socio-political reality of contemporary China. He felt an enormous presence of nihilism that had engulfed his life and soul. He was thinking about death, while in between the lines was soul-searching with questions, hesitations, and struggles. In particular, he mentioned one anecdote between him and the university’s guesthouse management office. It just happened that he purchased a small closet from IKEA and was prevented from moving it into his dorm. That’s the institutional regulations, he added, “Every year they attempt to drive me out of the guesthouse, and they have sufficient reason to do so.” Single and unmarried, Jiang had been living in the university’s guesthouse for all the years that he was teaching there. The humble payment offered by his teaching position might not have enabled him to entertain the thought of buying an apartment out in the city of Shanghai. The university thus became both where he worked and where his home was. 

A sanitation worker crossing a newly constructed bridge which was part of the urban regeneration facilities in the HuangPu River waterfront area. Photos captured during a tour through the discrete exhibition venues of Shanghai Urban Space Art Season 2019 themed ‘Encounter’. September 18, 2019

Photography by Nikita Lin

But there was a problem with the guesthouse. In Chinese universities there are usually guesthouses used to host “official guests” or visitors on trips for academic exchange. They are like hotels, just less fancy. The rooms or dorms are relatively cheap and sometimes free for accommodation. These days, young fellows who freshly join the faculty might still get a single cell in one of those minimally furnished apartment buildings. But the dorms are never to be taken as permanent homes. They are properties that belong to state-owned universities. The institutional rules determine who has the right to enter and stay, for how long, and under what circumstances. The institution was what Jiang Xulin wanted to free himself from. He wanted to be disconnected from the world he inhabited. Unlike Kafka’s fictional character who metamorphosed, Jiang Xulin had to kill himself.

The Chinese phrase 安身立命 which reads ‘ān shēn lì mìng’ in Pinyin has a twofold meaning.  安身 is to find a dwelling place or a location where one could contain and sustain his/her bodily needs. Besides, one has to also find life meaningful and worth living, in answer to which a sense of spiritual belonging must be established. And that’s what 立命 refers to. In fact, I’ve been searching hard for a long time in my Chinese vocabulary, and wonder what “home” is in the Chinese context. From ancient political theory, economics, science and engineering, to modern urban design programs, there’s no such thing as a theory of home. There are of course tempting formulations such as “generic home” in the fashion of Rem Koolhaas’s “generic city” and “generic village,” or the technocratic vision and profitable business model of “smart homes” which promise to ensure human beings a secured future life on an aging, lonely planet populated by sensing devices and computing machines. Home is not reducible to a material and technical object inside which “a Vitruvian actor at some phenomenological core” is housed. Evolved as part of cultural techniques, it functions at the convergence of political, social, economic, and all other forces. Above all, it might as well just be seen as a totality of human existence, the threshold between life and death, and the foothold of one’s being-in-the-world. Home is what 安身立命 is. 

Views of Huangpu river and the bridge from the waterfront, Shanghai. September 18, 2019

Photography by Nikita Lin

The last words of Jiang Xulin explained what “home” is better than any theory of home—if there is one as such—could have done. Debit cards, cash, family, friends, colleagues, books, faith, God, fears, forgiveness, liquor, and so on—it’s the totality of connections—material, spiritual, biological, social, cultural, political, aesthetic—that we bear to the world. It’s the last and the first thing that connects us to this world. For Yukio Mishima’s protagonist in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, home is an aesthetic, or rather it is that one single fragile connection sustained through beauty or through seeing beauty in worldly things. With an evil aim to destroy the beautiful, everything had to be carefully planned and every step executed with awe and respect. 

“I put my hand into the water and the lukewarm duckweed clung to my fingers. First I let the mosquito-net rod slip into the water from my moist fingers. Then I entrusted my ash tray to the pond, as though I were rinsing it out. In the same way I dropped my cup and my ink bottle. That took care of all the things that had to be thrown into the water. All that remained beside me was the cushion and the cloth in which I had wrapped these objects. Nothing was left for me now but to take these two things in front of Yoshimitsu's statue and then finally to fire the temple.”

East Nanjing Road (Shanghai) and Hankou Road (Shanghai). August 8, 2019

Photography by Nikita Lin

Mizoguchi’s attempt at burning down the temple, which was conceived as part of his suicide plan, turned out unsuccessful as he chose to live in the end—he was originally planning to die in the golden chamber. The fire was not extinguishable, neither was the beauty of the temple. That’s what we read in the fiction, at least. 

We tend to look at suicide as something that is personal and private much as we conceive home as a private sphere. Not entirely so. What connects us as individuals to the world and how—these questions must be examined under the light of collective processes as well as individual ones. According to Bernard Stiegler, the condition of human life is characterized by technical systems “that are produced by man insofar as he is an exosomatic being” and 

“our psychic, intimate and singular retentions and protentions are founded on and supported by collective, shared retentions and protentions, beginning with the words we speak and listen to, and which were coined before us. All knowledge and all works are …projecting a common future that is always indeterminate, inaccessible and improbable, but which insists and remains open through works.” 

In March 2018, the French philosopher was delivering a lecture in Beijing titled “The Power and Knowledge of Art in the Twenty-First Century,” in which he began with these questions: “What can art do today—that is, in the Anthropocene? How is an art education still possible in 2018, particularly in China?” In the middle of the lecture, he turned to the audiences, “What I would like to persuade you of now is that what the art of this emptiness can and must do, what it must know how to do and want to do, is participate in the accomplishing of what Heidegger called the Ereignis.”

Photos taken during a trip to Fuchun Mountain known historically for the renowned Chinese landscape painting Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (富春山居圖), one of the few surviving works by Huang Gongwang (1269–1354) and considered to be among his greatest works. November 22, 2019

Photography by Nikita Lin

On August 8, 2020, 8:25 AM Shanghai time in the subway, I scrolled down my WeChat Moments as usual and read the news about the death of the author of Technics and Time. Many of the people in the circle who are acquainted with his works simply wouldn’t believe that he committed suicide*. But he did just leave. The act of suicide is a form of home-making, or art-making, indeed a participation “in the accomplishing of what Heidegger called the Ereignis,” some assumed. From the beginning to the end, home is something designed for the mortal. “I don't like the word ‘human,’ so perhaps we could say ‘mortal’.”

 * According to Le Berry Républicain, “The Bourges prosecutor's office indicates that the usual verifications were requested to confirm the suicide hypothesis.” At the time of publication, the cause of death hasn't been confirmed.

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Nikita Lin
Writer, curator, researcher, producer in the fields of contemporary art, architecture, design, media theory, science and technology studies. She graduated in 2014 from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Currently lives and works in Shanghai.