Studying history

 

The first time history peaked my interest was when I was still a kid in elementary school. My dad, as he always would every Saturday, took me on a trip to the book store. My grand father, being a teacher who moved from the countryside of Beijing to the city, always lectured my dad on the importance of reading. Just as his father had taught him, my dad carried on the tradition of piling books at our home. 

At the store, we bought a big, encyclopedia sized book called the "Thirty-Six Stratagems". Without repeating the description from Wikipedia, it's a Chinese book from the old days that spoke of strategies that could applied to war, politics, and every day social affairs.

Despite the complexity of its content, the book was filled with traditional Chinese illustrations, and 36 stories drawn from Imperial China history to exemplify the strategies and tactics. One summer night, I moved onto reading the last story, about the death of a famous Chinese military advisor in the Three Kingdoms period, named ZhuGe Liang. The man is one of the most well known character throughout Chinese history, as one of the greatest military strategist who could always outwit his opponents in battle, and out plan his enemies in strategy.

 
 An artist depiction of what ZhuGe Liang could've looked like, based on descriptions from history books

An artist depiction of what ZhuGe Liang could've looked like, based on descriptions from history books

 

I still remember to this day, that night i stayed up late thinking about the story I've just read. "No way he was dead", I said to myself inside my head. How could someone so clever, and so legendary, simply pass away like any mortals?

After that night, I was dying to learn more about ZhuGe Liang. What happened to his state after his death? What happened to his enemies?  What were some of his other famous doings? Endless questions started popping up in my head.

I scoured my home for more books about Zhu, and dived into reading the traditional Chinese literature based on the history of the Three Kingdoms, Romance of the Three Kingdoms; which eventually became my favorite book of all time.

After that, I started learning about Chinese history, after that, European history. In college, I studied the world wars, and took Chinese history again as one my electives. To this day, I'm still reading everything I can find on Chinese history, and treats historical documentaries on Netflix as one of my favorite pastimes.

As human beings, the amount of different experiences and memories we can have in a life time is limited by, well, our life time. We can only experience of many things no matter how fulfilling your life might be, or how many places you visit. Yet, it is through the invention of language and printing that we can read and learn about things outside of our own experiences, experiences of different people from a different time.

It is through history, that many of these experiences froze in time, turned into timeless stories for future generations, long after the characters of these stories have passed. 

By studying history, we can experience the experiences of many life times. We can answer questions like what came before and what came after. We can draw logical explanations of why things are the way they are today, and perhaps make intelligent guesses of what's to come.

By studying history, we can learn from our past mistakes. As the famous saying goes, "history tends to repeat itself". Despite our modern advancements in technology and culture, inside, we are still the very same the same hunters and gatherers who lived on the plains of Africa tens of thousands years ago. The same kings and warlords who fought each other for hundreds of years. The same specie of animal who have create mass genocides against our own kinds, and nearly brought our only home in this lonely universe to a quick end.

Most importantly, by studying history, we can get a better sense of the scale of time, and be humbled by the insignificance of our very own lives. The internet was popularized in the past 20 years. The computer was only invented 60 years ago. United States of American was founded about 200 years ago. The average length of a Chinese dynasty in imperial China was 300 years. We only have recorded human history for the past 5000 years...

And yet here we are, at this brief moment in time. Thinking about all of those who have came before, and imagining all those who will come after... I get depressed thinking about how little time I have left on this planet, or how invisible i will be in this ever advancing story of mankind. Then I look at the chart below, and think to myself, dang, what a great time to be alive, lets make some history together :)

 
 A graph from the book - Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.

A graph from the book - Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.