Francis Liu finally reached the summit of a hill, and the vastness of everything green and blue was just everywhere. It was summer, but the breeze sweeping across the Inner Mongolian highlands was so biting that it felt like it was autumn already. As Francis closed his eyes, he entered a state where he merged with the sky and the ground. There, he traveled down a stream together with the mosquitoes clinging on his left arm.
He laid down on the grass and looked at his zenith, where specks of light slowly punctured the dimming sky. Then he realized those stars were moving away from us.
“All of a sudden, I fell into an inevitable pessimism - that the world is so big that my life wouldn't matter at all,” Francis wrote in an essay. “But behind this pessimism, there is an attitude towards life. Because of this pessimism, we needed to strive, as the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. Because of this pessimism, we need to rise above ourselves, and turn this tragedy into a personal triumph, a celebration of life. And because of this tragic optimism, I needed to be happy and free.”
Francis has a habit of taking notes of strange encounters or writing his reflections on the mundane—a romantic undertaking he says. In that essay about his trip to Inner Mongolia, he remembers how the experience brought him to an open space that made him feel free, small, and insignificant. Those recordings have fueled many of his discussions and writings and allowed him to explore the extent of what he knows, what he does not know, and what he wants to know.
“You Are Always Yourself”
Francis’s smartphone is ready whenever he gets “whimsical thoughts,” often occurring at nights or whenever he stays up late. He has a particular liking for evenings—a time when “he lives in the present moment.”
On a frigid winter midnight in 2018, for example, Francis found himself engrossed in an article about the American singer Frank Ocean, of whom he is a stan (“obsessed fan”), until reaching a point when he questioned himself about his obsession.
“Put the phone away and go to sleep, and you’d better wake up early next morning so that you could go and find something of your own,” he wrote to himself.
The then-fifteen-year-old student soon launched an inquiry and resorted to philosophy in the hopes of finding an answer to the subject of self-exploration. Among the many schools of thought, it was Kant’s revolution in epistemology—that “objects must conform to our a priori knowledge” as opposed to prior assumptions that “knowledge must conform to objects”—that resonated the most with the teenager.
Francis presented his wintry dilemma and his findings and arguments in a rousing speech during a Talkeystone address in 2019, when he was in the eleventh grade. His speech went through several rounds of review and revision, with the help of former English teacher Audrey Moh.
Francis delivered his arguments about self-exploration in his Talkeystone address in early 2019.
“So how is this philosophy related to the subject of self-exploration?” Francis asked the audience in reference to Kant’s revolution, with full conviction but shaking hands. “By asking ‘Who am I?’ you’re implying you need to put in this amount of effort to achieve ‘yourself’ or to ‘find yourself.’ We are saying that ‘ourselves’ are somehow detached from our ‘current self.’ This idea is simply ridiculous. What do we mean by finding ourselves? We are always ourselves, in the past, in the present, and in the future. You are always yourself.”
Francis thought he sounded like a crying baby at the start of his speech. But the audience heard otherwise: a confident young man with ideas so powerful and bright that the most apt response was thundering applause. Teachers from the floor even gave him a standing ovation. One of them also commented that Francis’s delivery was as excellent as a real TED Talk. When everything settled down, Francis felt the joy of having the public hear about his discovery for the first time, something he considered a significant leap towards philosophical exploration.
The first inklings of Francis’s interest in philosophy appeared when he encountered Albert Camus’s The Outsider, sometime in his ninth grade. The novel proved to be a challenging read for Francis, but the reviews online helped him get a grasp of its subtexts.
He spent part of his tenth-grade summer vacation reading The Consolation of Philosophy. Here, he learned that humans have only two ways to learn and grow: either without pain, letting others teach or impart knowledge to you; or with pain, going through and reflecting on hardship.
His fascination with philosophy blossomed in the next three years. By the beginning of the IBDP (Diploma Programme), Francis felt sufficiently confident that he could do well in philosophy to choose it to replace Chemistry for his standard level DP courses, studying it alongside Chinese and English. Meanwhile, he had Mathematics, Physics, and Economics in the higher level DP courses. This is a powerful and unusual combination.
For Chinese Civilization Yuanching Huang, Francis is her most persistent student who explores the meaning of life
Keystone teacher Yuanching Huang has witnessed the progression of Francis since first meeting him in 2017. She views Francis as a “peer” whose mission “stems from his pursuit of the truth of life.” In her tenth-grade Chinese Civilization class, Ms. Huang recalled how Francis created a lot of surprises, especially in his Keystone Capstone Project, the culminating product of the China and the World course in the Middle Years Programme (MYP). In his outstanding 4,500-word Chinese research paper, Francis endeavored to explain interdependent functions and limitations of the ancient Chinese economic system and the development of Chinese science and technology from the perspective of mathematics. Such a detailed paper impressed Ms. Huang, who herself holds a doctorate in Ancient and Modern Chinese History from Peking University.
Ms. Huang continued her intellectual exchange with Francis in the next two years, this time in the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class. In a discussion on the relationship between technology and ethics, Ms. Huang said she was struck by the speed of thinking demonstrated by Francis and how he remained resolute in his views despite facing counterarguments from his equally perceptive classmates.
Jeffery Heitmann, Francis’s Extended Essay (EE) supervisor in Philosophy and ninth-grade teacher, has also seen that determination in him. For Mr. Heitmann, Francis is “quiet but intense,” and an “old friend” with whom you share ideas and good time talking about whatever comes up. Many times, Mr. Heitmann said, their conversations have gone in directions unrelated to why they meet in the first place, but have still ended up being interesting and enriching.
Humanities teacher Jeffery Heitmann considers Francis an "old friend" with whom he always has a good time conversing
In 2019, Francis was among the Keystone students who joined an elite group of high schoolers around the world to work with Pioneer Academics. It allowed him to be supervised by Professor Niki Kasumi Clements of the William Marsh Rice University in his comparative study, Justice to Ren: The Self and Society in Ancient Greece and China. In this 7,000-word thesis, Francis painstakingly compared the philosophies behind the concept of “justice” in Plato’s Republic and the Confucian virtue of rén (benevolence) in Confucius’s Analects and analyzed their roles in the development of western and Chinese societies.
Professor Clements highly commended the study and ranked Francis as one of the top 5% students she has ever encountered for undergraduate-level academic work.
"He has the intellect, the empathy, and the foresight to see not only how the past informs the present, but how we need to change the present with a responsible orientation towards the future,” she wrote about Francis. “He will make an exemplary university student—and the more rigorous the university setting, the more I wager he will thrive.” Francis will continue his pursuit of philosophical studies at the university level in the United Kingdom. He has received admission offers from the University of St Andrews and University College London, among others.
“A student with a cross-cultural understanding is an indispensable member of a global society,” Ms. Huang said, adding that when it comes to exploring the meaning of life, Francis has been her most persistent student. “I believe that his passion for life and intercultural academic abilities will enable him to make a more dynamic contribution to everyone in the classroom of any university.”
“Philosophy will be a fantastic match for his personality and who he is becoming,” Mr. Heitmann said. “Professors and peers will be lucky to have Francis in their class and he will have a great time as he loves to discuss ideas and their implications.”
Keep Calm and Remain Fó Xì
The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro was barely 100 meters away—just a stone’s throw from Francis. He had been hiking for more than a day, so he should reach the peak in an hour. But he passed out.
Francis traveled to Tanzania in May 2018 and hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro
When I woke up, I found it difficult to control my body. In one moment, I could stand. Then I could not. Instantly paralyzed. Everyone tried to give me oxygen, but I thought I was fine. So, I kept on refusing.
And then they tried to let me sip juice and hot water. They just tortured me like this. My feet were numb. They carried me as they went back and forth—there was a campsite nearby, but they never got there.
I thought they were game characters in the virtual world, and then grabbed me to take revenge on humans, because humans created them and gave me freedom.
He journaled that vivid “dream state” shortly after he was brought to a base camp to recover from altitude sickness. Despite the incident, Francis felt the entire trek to the highest mountain in Africa was a pilgrimage that had connected him with nature.
He drew from these existential reflections for many a discussion in his essays, most recently in a college application supplement where he tried to interpret that hallucination in Kilimanjaro. In this piece, Francis wrote the freedom he relished in the dream state made him “shut the Apollonian glory away, I was Dionysiac,” referencing Friedrich Nietzsche’s description of intellectual dichotomy in The Birth of Tragedy. Francis also suggested that “dreams create a world that exempts us from morality,” and that “in dreams, we are more real than we are in reality.”
Francis thinks his reflective writing is influenced by the philosophical books he has devoured and by being fó xì—or “being like Buddha” as Chinese millennials will say. In English, this buzzword can mean someone who is levelheaded—steadfast and not likely to be swayed by emotional outbursts.
There are other books not necessarily on philosophy that have left a considerable impact on Francis. His classmate and good friend Cady Feng recalled their great discussions of the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, both recommended by Francis before the holiday season. During the previous summer vacation, meanwhile, Cady gave him James Hilton’s The Lost Horizon, a novel about the origins of the fictional utopia of Shangri-La.
That book came to Francis’s mind when he reflected on his trips to Inner Mongolia and East Africa and how they made him feel free, small, and insignificant. He remembered the part when its protagonist Conway responded to the accusation of his English friend, that the eastern civilization was “incapable of getting any work done quickly.” Conway, as Francis recalled, suggested that “it could be the western world that is pushing the modern world at a pace too fast.”
Cady said that when she and Francis would hang out and dine together, they would usually talk about reasoning and religion. “And together, it sounds so heavy,” she joked. More than this, the two friends have shared memories outside of academics. Cady revealed that Francis could do more than just write, because he could also sing the songs from Frozen and Hamilton, at least on a bus ride during their eleventh-grade trip to Inner Mongolia. She also commended Francis for his painting and calligraphy skills.
The two students also worked together to begin various school initiatives during their tenure at Keystone. They formed a quartet with Aurora Yu and Doris Li to launch the school’s inaugural Science Fair in 2019 and a trio with Jimmy Chen to establish the Mathematics KAP (Keystone Activities Program) to support students in the middle school. Francis also set up the Philosophy KAP with East Li to popularize philosophical concepts to students from lower grades.
The quartet who launched Keystone's first Science Fair: Doris Li, Cady Feng, Aurora Yu, and Francis Liu (from left to right)
Besides these, Francis was a strong contender in math contests at home and abroad, earning accolades at the tournaments organized by the ACAMIS (the Association of China and Mongolia International Schools), the ASDAN (the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network), and the Math League. He has also proven his athleticism and showed his agility in the school’s badminton team.
Francis’s college counselor and previous dorm parent Percy Jiang sees him as a “young philosophical student” who uses his knowledge to uplift others and bring forward inspiring conversations. Francis, he said, acted as a reliable, conscientious, and quiet Dorm Council Head, winning over the support of his peers from the same grade and student boarders from other levels.
Francis’s good friend Selena Zheng admires his courage and the way he openly expresses his touch on literature and the arts to express his ideas. “When a person shows his inner emotions to the outside world, he reveals the most vulnerable part of his heart to others. When Francis expresses his love and his sadness, it is not because he is weak and lonely, but because he has the courage to show himself to the world. He is embracing the whole world," she added.
On a midwinter night in early 2020, the song “Superposition” by Canadian singer Daniel Caesar played randomly in Francis’s music player, instantly transporting him to the humid and sunny streets of New York, when he stayed over in the apartment of his sister Jemma in the summer of 2019. He wrote in a diary entry:
It reminds me of the oil stains on my hands when washing dishes at noon or night. My sister and I made scrambled eggs with tomatoes, shredded potatoes with soy sauce, shredded cabbage, and rice.
It reminds me of the heat waves on the streets of New York. The silver necklace that I just bought was covered in too much sweat that it was slightly rusted…
I went to Beijing Shi Da High School and decided to become a day student in the second half of the year. My mother would wait for me to come out of school at 9.30 pm, regardless of the cold. If I looked up at the clouds in the summer evening, I would wonder how far the sparse stars in the sky are from me. I would lie in the back seat of the car, hold my mother's phone and play Sia's “Chandelier” while reading a web fiction, Jueshi Tangmen. Five years have passed now, and I may not have heard “Chandelier” for a long time, but as soon as my mind remembers it, the scene of the battle between the hero Huo Yuhao and Ditian will emerge. I remembered the teenager lying in the back seat of the car five years ago. The dim streetlights that roared on the highway shone on his face. It was a unique smell of summer nights. Time was interlaced.
Francis tried to cook some dishes for his big sister Jemma during his short visit. Now grown-ups, Jemma appreciates how her dìdi is caring for her more now than when they were children.
Francis's older sister Jemma (left) is among the founding students of Keystone. This photo of the siblings with Director of Faculty Hongwei Gao (center) was taken during Jemma's graduation in 2019.
The siblings have always been tightly knit, and this relationship continued during their tenure at Keystone. Jemma, a soon-to-be sophomore studying architecture at Pratt Institute, was among the first graduates of our school. Francis, meanwhile, entered Keystone in the eighth grade, “as a boy who did not pay attention to what kind of person he was.” Over the years, he has become more aware of himself due in part to the flexibility that the academic schedule at Keystone provided him.
The siblings made full use of their free time at Keystone to discuss philosophical ideas and the universe in general, or to take after-dinner strolls to chew over the books they had finished.
Francis will major in philosophy at the university level, receiving offers from the University of St Andrews and University College London. Jemma is not surprised by her brother’s field of study as “he has always been curious about knowledge and persistent in his beliefs.” She supports his decision even when other relatives and friends are skeptical about his choice because she believes philosophy will bring out the best in Francis.
Now, even as a student in the US, Jemma continues her intellectual exchanges with Francis, talking about “the things we can never explain and the questions we can never answer.”
Learning Day by Day
The audience was all eyes and ears as Francis continued his Talkeystone speech. It was only his voice that resounded throughout the hall.
“Just keep in mind that every action of yours contributes to you as a whole, and there is no dumb decision making. And we should not give narrow definitions to ourselves and place ourselves as some distant but finite figures in the future. We need to take responsibility for our present actions. Kant’s philosophy has taught me to place my current self as the frame of reference before any grand but unrealistic plans for the future. Only the true heroes know what it takes to be free and do what they want despite all the obstacles. So, when you go home this evening, lying on your bed, staring into the ceilings, or cellphone, instead of asking ‘Who am I?’, I want you to say: ‘What can I do?’”
A couple of months after that speech, Francis somehow finds himself “not knowing what I do want, again.” But he takes that easily, as he learns more about who he is, day by day, little by little.
“I’m sure that I will do well in this ever-going process of learning,” he writes. “I want to remind the older Francis that he never regretted anything that he had ever done, and that Francis always was an optimistic person. The younger Francis doesn’t want the older Francis to give any advice, at least for now at the age of 18, because he feels confident with whatever he does, and more importantly, he enjoys the process of learning from failures. The 18-year-old Francis also wishes to remind the older Francis about the precious time he had spent with his friends in Keystone.”
Photos: Courtesy of Francis Liu