'You demonstrated the importance of simple but powerful acts of kindness'Author's own

Dear Granddad,

March 12th, 2022. An emotional day, marking ten years of your physical departure. I often find it hard to express my thoughts in writing when, even from above, you have guided me as often as I make decisions. I just hope that you do not mind how this letter is as much an undertaking to process my own emotions as it is to acknowledge your enormous influence.

“You demonstrated the importance of simple but powerful acts of kindness”

March 12th, 2022. A hopeful day. An underdog, I desired that my heartfelt vision, unusual record, and tireless campaigning efforts for President of the Cambridge Union would pay off. Fuelled by the inner strengths you provided me with over these years to champion worthwhile causes against all odds, I was on a mission to regularise school visits for thousands of children to access our world-class resources. Amongst other pledges, this seemed so fitting on your day of commemoration.

As a child, though, I comprehended neither the scale of your achievements nor the day-to-day challenges that occupied your attention. But your transformative contributions — not least enabling tens of thousands of otherwise neglected students to access higher education — did inspire my community service endeavours throughout my formative years. I loved your metaphor about how struggling young people are like water at 70–80 degrees. So, with a little more firewood, extra support, they too can ‘boil’ and flourish. Empathetic, hopeful messages like these shaped my outlook and decisions — such as choosing to study Education at Cambridge.

David and his familyAuthor's own

Having founded Xi’an Fanyi University (西安翻译学院), you breathed your noble mission of establishing the ‘Oriental Harvard’ till that ardent breath became air. Despite the growth of the University, you continued a lifestyle of discipline in your humble 15-square-metre office. There, you also invested tens of millions of yuan to enhance students’ experiences. You once swore in 1957 — after family background made you ‘politically unqualified’ for admission into the top-ranked Tsinghua University, despite your top marks in the National College examinations — that you would eventually teach in higher education. In your lifetime, you fulfilled and surpassed what once seemed like a naïve assertion from a dejected young man. How did you resiliently channel those unpleasant emotions into productive aspirations for the service of others?

“Mum...encouraged me to embrace how we are a part of a larger family”

A quick Baidu search of ‘Professor Ding Zuyi’ (丁祖诒教授) shows your range of talents, from mastering four foreign languages to as many musical instruments. Anecdotes of your hands-on, relationship-focused style of leadership were also plentiful. People respected how you actively immersed yourself throughout the University, caring for others, even when illnesses tried to slow you down. You demonstrated the importance of simple but powerful acts of kindness: remembering people’s names, writing handwritten cards, or just listening. So, despite my shortcomings, I have always tried to model your holistic approach to leadership with those selfless spirits of availability, care, and giving.

"Despite the growth of the University, you continued a lifestyle of discipline in your humble 15-square-metre office"Xi’an Fanyi University

I admired Mum for similar reasons, even if her contributions were more behind-the-scenes. Forgive me that I was bothered by all your students who, like me, so intimately referred to you as ‘丁爷爷’ (Grandpa), which in retrospect showed the love that you had earned from your genuine commitment to charitable endeavours. But Mum helped me grow out of my childish jealousies to see the bigger picture: She encouraged me to embrace how we are a part of a larger family. She cried tears of support when, immediately upon awakening from life-threatening heart surgery in 2007, you murmured about your students. When we listened to your affectionate speeches on education, our hearts were filled with warmth and pride. But even though she was your child by blood and law, and that you loved each other dearly, Mum was an unsung hero for her compassionate sacrifices and considerate support. In that world above, then, I hope you are enjoying the extra father-daughter time together.

"I visualise the iconic snapshot of you carrying the flour bag for students in summer."Xi’an Fanyi University

If only we could sit together again, face-to-face. Unlike a decade ago, I would put down my Nintendo DS to engage in a more productive dialogue. I want to share everything about the individuals who have shaped my life and communities around the world, how they have supported me to work towards ambitious goals. I want to share my mistakes and insecurities too, as uncomfortable as they may be, so you could offer guidance and perspective. And I want to challenge you and learn from your peaks and troughs: Who believed in you (or did not) when you resigned from your stable job at age 48? When were you most vulnerable, mischaracterised, or misunderstood? How did you so wholeheartedly and resiliently pursue those ambitious service-oriented goals, day-in-and-day-out? Reading my favourite speech ‘The Man in the Arena’, I visualise the iconic snapshot of you carrying the flour bag for students in summer.

March 12th, 2012. A poignant day, indeed. Even as an 11-year-old, I felt a sense of sadness and gratitude uniting me with the tens of thousands of individuals whose lives you impacted. Over 30 years, you spent every festival and alike not with your ‘small’ but ‘big’ family. How the many commemorators had had to congest the streets, and how the wreaths had sold out across Xi’an (a city of 12 million people), should not have been unexpected, then. I did not personally know the thousands in attendance, but we all mourned the same grandfather.


Mountain View

Me, nana, and my terrible Bangla

March 12th has and will always be a day of nostalgia; for me, this year was particularly filled with reflections. Choosing to stand for President of The Cambridge Union on a platform of inclusivity and accessibility, challenging unfavourable odds as you had done throughout your life, is one of my proudest and most courageous decisions. But even though I am no stranger to falling short despite giving my best efforts, the feelings of exhaustion and the sense of disappointment do not become easier to bear. In these character-shaping times, I feel fortunate to be able to lean on you and Mum as role models. Your lives of giving show that the road for personal development and towards the highest moral callings will have bumps, be arduous, or require renavigation. May I be able to endure the highs and lows ahead as you and her had admirably modelled — with gratitude and in service of others.


Dingwen (David) Quan 权丁文