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The Unknown Thing

For Xi Jinping

Our life falls like the dew and vanishes like the dew; even great Osaka Castle is but a dream within a dream.

— death poem of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–98), unifier of Japan


Do you remember the turnips and radishes that you once grew, eaten long ago? Do you remember the mornings when you rose before dawn to work and study? Do you remember your parents, their suffering, their love? Do you remember that strange, unknown thing you once sought so hard to find, only to find you had lost it?

Now you have gained all, yet still are unhappy, your mouth twisted at great events into a wry smile, meeting world leaders, shaking their hands, waving to the crowd, issuing decrees to subordinates— your wish is their command, as once was the Chairman’s and the emperors’ before him, all is no more now than fallen dew, just as it was for Hideyoshi, whose son would soon lose everything he had won.

The cycle of the years is brief, all changes again. Who should know that better than you? The world spins on its axis, and we spin with it, fleas sheltering in the pelt of our mother, Earth, a coat our greed has left thin and threadbare, water and air polluted, poisoned, only fire left pure, the flame in which we must, perhaps, seek salvation —for, they say, only a catastrophe can save us now.

Do you remember what you thought of when you woke at three in the morning, lying wide awake in the dark recalling: I am the one, I have the power, no one else has it, and all is lost if, stricken with perplexities like a young fool, I do not attend with a docile ear to the clear bidding of Heaven, heed the boundaries of right, as I should myself desire, and lose again, forever now, that strange, unknown thing?


--Peter Dreyer

For the official story of Xi’s childhood see:


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