Chinese Writer Liao Yiwu and “The Whole World is a Narrow Bridge”

In an online passage “The Whole World is a Narrow Bridge”  from Liao Yiwu’s book of Tiananmen June 4th interviews Bullets and Opium (in Chinese online and published in German but not yet in English),   Liao Yiwu mentions how in July 2011 while crossing a bridge on the China – Vietnam border on his way to exile in Germany he thought of a song that an Israeli fisherman had taught him, a song the Israeli told him was sung by Jews in the death camps.

The song, about living with fear but not being overcome by it, must have resonated with Liao Yiwu who had been jailed and then harassed by the police “inviting him to drink tea with them for a talk”, forbidden to go abroad, and subject to all kinds of intimidation.

The song he quotes had been taken the works of a Jewish rabbi and put to music: Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tsar m’od v’haikar lo l’fached klal: The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the essence, (really… the crux of the matter), is not to be afraid.

— Rabbi Chaim Nachim of Breslav

There are many discussions and sermons online taking that song/quotation as their topic.

For example, from the webpage of Congregation Shimei Torah of Santa Rosa, California:

The Whole World is a Narrow Bridge

Sermon by Rabbi George Gittleman
Rosh Hashanah 5770

Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tsar m’od v’haikar lo l’fached klal: The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the essence, (really… the crux of the matter), is not to be afraid

(Rabbi Chaim Nachim of Breslav)

These days, this saying is best known as a Jewish camp song, but it is actually a very serious and deep teaching. Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tsar m’od v’haikar lo l’fached klal: The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid. Fear. Rabbi Nachman teaches that the essential thing in life is not to be afraid. The focus of my thoughts this evening is fear because we are plagued by fear. In Hebrew the Holy Days are called the yamim noraim, which is often translated as the “Days of Awe.” But it turns out that in Hebrew the word for “awe” and the word for “fear” are the same. Traditionally the Holy Days were in fact a fearful time for our ancestors, and maybe it is so for some of us as well. …..

Another Jewish scholar argues that the song doesn’t reflect accurately the thought of the author of the original text.   The argument is that the difficult bridge that one has to pass is a crisis in one’s own life rather than the whole wide world itself. I suppose though, that for people caught up in the Holocaust, one view was about the same as the other.


The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the important​​ thing is not to fear at all
[Orig​inal context in the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Braslav:
“Unde​rstand: that when a person must cross a very, very narrow bridge, the most important​​ and essential​ thing is that he not have any fear at all.”]
(User​-contribu​ted translati​on)
While the first, briefer version of the song presented above is that which is popular, it is both a misquotation and a misrepresentation of its source, section 48 of the second part of the seminal oeuvre of Breslov chassidus, לקוטי מוהר”ן.
The distinction resides in the characterization of existential reality (in English: is the universe a bleak “very narrow bridge” OR is the metaphor reserved for a person’s perception of his or her situational reality). A careful consideration of Breslov chassidus as presented by Rebbe Nachman and his student Reb Noson may reveal that the popular version of the song is in substantial conflict with its proported source.
The conditional tone of the passage (“that *when* a person must cross…”) is evident from a simple reading of the entire passage:
כְּשֶׁיֵּשׁ חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, אֵיזֶה דּחַק וְעֵת צָרָה, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם וְדַע, שֶׁהָאָדָם צָרִיך לַעֲבר עַל גֶּשֶׁר צַר מְאד מְאד וְהַכְּלָל וְהָעִקָּר שֶׁלּא יִתְפַּחֵד כְּלָל
The textually faithful version is covered by Rav Yosef Karduner in his double album: Simanim Baderech-Road Marks & Kol Haolam (2000), track 11.

My own draft translation of the brief passage (followed by the Chinese text) in which the song appears goes  like this.

“The World is a Narrow Bridge

On July 2, 2011 at 10 PM as I crossed crossed the international border from Hekou in Yunnan Province, when I arrived as if in a dream in the old streets of Vietnam and looked back at the my own native land, a poem came to my mind:

This world is like a narrow bridge
Don’t be afraid

You can cross it

 That is an old poem that popular along the shores of the Mediterranean. A few years ago I met by chance and a European fisherman who visited Lijaing, Yunnan on a trip. We felt like old friends on our first meeting and he taught me how to sing that song in Hebrew. People say that many Jewish people sang that song during the Second World War as they walked calmly into the Nazi crematoriums.

I didn’t walk into a crematorium. What I did was to pass the border to steaming hot Vietnam, change planes in Warsaw and then land at the Berlin airport. I stuck out my tongue to taste the fresh air. It tasted sweet. The air of freedom is sweet. Peter, a tall man from the S. Fischer Verlag, stretched out his hand to me. How can I describe what I have gone through and the people that I have met now that I am in a foreign land where I do not speak the language?”


About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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