Scene from a Chinese movie

There is a scene in the Chinese movie, “To Live” (1994) which I have never been able to get out of my mind.

The movie begins with a wealthy young Chinese man, who likes to go out in the evening and gamble.  His young wife and aged father ask him not to, but he says that he works hard all day, and is entitled to some relaxation.

In the scene, the young man has sat down with a professional gambler, when his wife comes in to ask him to go home.

The gambler says, Maybe you’d better go home tonight. The young man answers, No, my wife doesn’t tell me what to do; I decide for myself.

They play their game of chance, and each time the young man loses, he makes puts his chop (signature stamp) in a book.

After a few rounds, the gambler quietly says, The game is over.

The young man says, What do you mean? It’s early yet.

The gambler says, “No, the game is over.  Here is the total of your debt.  Here is a list of all your assets. You owe me everything you have.  The bailiffs will come around tomorrow and sequester your property.

The young man says, At least give me a chance to win my property back?

The gambler says, What are you going to bet with? No, the game is over.

In the movie, this proves to be a blessing in disguise, because when the Communists take over, the gambler is taken out and executed and the penniless young man and his wife are spared.  The rest of the movie is about the couple’s struggle to survive the ups and downs of Communist rule.  During the Great Leap Forward, their little boy is killed in an accident after working himself into a state of total exhaustion in a backyard steel mill project.  During the Cultural Revolution, their grown married daughter dies in childbirth because all the doctors in the hospital have been sent to labor camps.

But it is the opening scene that sticks in my mind. How many times does it happen in the life of an individual, or a nation, that you tell yourself that a habit is harmless because it hasn’t had any bad consequences, and then one day you wake up and see you have passed a point of no return.

I think about this when I think about the path the United States is on – our declining manufacturing industry, our foreign trade deficit, our gridlocked political system. Will we wake up some morning and realize it is too late to do anything?

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