Between heaven and earth, the flakes of snow are fluttering and dancing, as if writing a letter . . . Oh! How big a letter! How big a book! 

When I was teaching foreigners Chinese at the university, I was often amazed by the questions from the foreign students. Take the Chinese word “Xin.” It is so simple a Chinese character, but still, it once almost proved too much for me.

It was after a lecture. An American student asked me, “Teacher, what does ‘Xin’ mean?”

I shot a look at “Xin,” and answered with a easy smile:

“It’s just your word ‘letter’ in English. The left side is a person, and the right side is the character ‘speak,’ so combined it means ‘a person speaks.’ Writing a letter, of course, is speaking with a pen on paper.”

“Have you ever written a letter?” I added as a joke, making a gesture of writing.

 The foreign student blinked and pulled out a letter, “Like this?”

 “Yes, exactly!”

 “Is there another meaning?”

“Certainly: it’s the verb ‘believe.’ For instance, I don’ t believe that. This ‘Xin’ has the sense of be convinced, trust. But if a Beijing native says, ‘yeah, I really Xin you!’ it’s probably irony. Don’t listen to what he says, because in his heart he probably means, ‘There’s no way I believe what you’re saying!’”

I was feeling very self-satisfied, and was just about to go home.

 “Any more meanings?” asked the foreign student, not giving up the chase.

“There are also . . . . ” My throat constricted a little. I wanted to scratch my head, but felt that might harm the dignity of a teacher. I wanted to say that we would chat another day. But I braced myself, hesitating for a while.

“There are also . . . well, of course, ‘belief’ and ‘faith.’ For instance, you may ‘Xin’ Jesus, or Allah, or Buddha. You can also ‘Xin’ a kind of theory or proposition. You can ‘Xin’ Marx’s communism, or Sutter’s existentialism, though in that sense it would be better translated ‘conviction.’ And then there’s ‘Xin Xin,’ which means a person has the confidence to accomplish something. For instance, you have ‘Xin Xin’ to learn Chinese.

”I do! Look . . . . “

The foreign student pulled out that letter again. It was similar to a Chinese person’s “written pledge,” put down stroke by stroke in six characters: “I . . . can . . . learn . . . Chinese . . . well.”

 Well! That was his interpretation of “Xin.” He really was self-confident! Wonderful! I was just about to encourage him with a few words and say goodbye. I didn’t expect he’d open his mouth again:

 “Are there more?”

 “Of course there are more!” His “Xin” acted on me like a stimulant. I grew enthusiastic and said:

 “There are at least four more. One is in the sense of ‘signal’ and ‘information;’ another is in the sense of a creed; the third trustworthiness, credit – both of course related to trust; and last, as it’s used in the phrases ‘wag one’s tongue too freely,’ ‘pick up something easily and casually,’ ‘walk aimlessly,’ ‘write at will’ – all of which mean roughly ‘do as you like.’ ”

The foreign student was delighted. ”I knew there was something to this ‘Xin!’ ”

Recalling this little scene, I remember the student’s loveliness and my awkwardness. It reminds me that the ocean of knowledge is so vast, and the unknown world is a book that requires careful reading. Even for the character ‘Xin,’ there are actually still many more meanings to explore.

Sitting in my cell contemplating ‘Xin,’ I fell into a dream. Many many students mailed me many many letters from all over the world, and they poured in on me like snowflakes. I hurried to open them but couldn’t see any characters, either Chinese or foreign, on any of them. I turned the letters over and over, but nothing. I woke with a start, and went to the window.

It’s snowing heavily. Between the heaven and earth, the flakes of snow are fluttering and dancing, as if writing a letter …. Oh! How big a letter! How big a book!