Recently, I read the article “Making Athens Great Again”. Though it’s been a long time since I’ve immersed myself in Ancient Greek literature, it is consistent with what I remember.
Meanwhile, I’ve taken up the study of Classical Chinese lately, which means I’ve been spending quite a bit of time lately pouring over Chinese texts written over two thousand years ago (though, because I am not proficient in Classical Chinese yet, I read it slowly, and thus have not read a large volume yet). I can tell, based on what I have read so far, that the writers of the late Zhou dynasty through the Han dynasty were concerned with a lot of the same issues as the people of ancient Athens – the brevity of human life, how to make human life matter in spite of its brevity, the possibility of doing something that matters so much one is known even after death. The ancient Chinese did not always have the same answers as their Greek contemporaries, but they were grappling with some of the same philosophical issues.
Reading all of this stuff thousands of years after these people wrote down their thoughts adds a whole other dimension to this discussion of whether people can do something which matters so much that their names will be known long after their death, and whether this does any good. The fact that Socrates is still so well known thousands of years after his death is a statement in itself.
It also has a humbling effect on the way I think about my own times. On the time scale of thousands of years, the United States of America does not seem as significant as it does in my usual modes of thought (which is on the scale of minutes-thru-decades).
So, in the context of all that, where does Barbara Yung fit in?
A few of the people reading this blog recognize the name Barbara Yung (or recognize her Chinese name, 翁美玲). However, I am guessing that most of the people reading this do not have the foggiest idea who Barbara Yung was.
So who was Barbara Yung? She was a very popular Hong Kong actress – to this date, she has a large fanbase. Barbara Yung is so famous that it was reported in (Chinese-language) news when her mother died in January, 2017. Barbara Yung rose to fame due to being cast as Huang Rong in the 1983 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes, and even though she continued to star in other TV shows, she is still most strongly associated with the character Huang Rong, just as Emma Watson is most strongly associated with the character Hermione Granger. To this day, there are still many Barbara Yung fans out there, people who felt that she touched their lives in a good way (here is an example of a fan tribute music video). She is more famous than most people will ever be, and she has arguably had a positive impact on more people than most people ever will.
I’ve seen some episodes of the 1983 adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes. Overall, I think it’s overrated, but Barbara Yung is one of the best things about the show. If I ever go back and watch more episodes, it will be mainly for her. She captured how vibrant and spontaneous Huang Rong is.
Though I am not attached to any of the TV adaptations of Legend of the Condor Heroes, I do have a personal attachment to the Condor Trilogy (which is obvious to anyone who has followed this blog for a long time). I remember that reading about Huang Rong’s death in third book in the trilogy made my tears come out – and most fictional character deaths do not bring out tears in me. In the novels, if my calculations are correct, Huang Rong is about 70 years old when she dies.
Barbara Yung died when she was twenty-six years old.
If we measure how ‘good’ a life was by its length, then Barbara Yung clearly got a short end of the stick. But if we measure how ‘good’ a life was by fame and positive impacts on others, then Barbara Yung did really well. She is known to hundreds of millions of people.
But there are still billions of people who have no idea who she is. And she is best known among people who have watched 1980s Hong Kong television, which is less popular among younger generations than among generations which were alive during the 1980s. Two hundred years from now, Barbara Yung may be so obscure that she will be hardly more famous than the average person who lived in the 20th century.
There are also many people who are more famous and/or had a much greater impact on the world than Barbara Yung: Yu Gwansun, Jeanne d’Arc, Anne Frank, Malalai of Maiwand, and Princess Zhao of Pingyang, among others. You know what all of those names I just mentioned have in common (aside from the fact that they are all female, which was actually unintentional on my part, and that they are all from Eurasia)? They all died before their 26th birthdays – i.e. their lives were even shorter than Barbara Yung’s. I think all of those people will be remembered even after Barbara Yung is forgotten, but for how much longer? I do not know.
Thinking in terms of millennia – and if we are bringing Socrates-era Athens and Han dynasty China into this, then we are talking in terms of millennia – how much do any of these people matter? I think it’s safe to say that, even on the timescale of millennia, Princess Zhao of Pingyang matters because she’s already been dead for over a thousand years and she is still a famous person. Jeanne d’Arc will probably still be famous a thousand years after her death. For the others, it’s harder to predict.
What about in terms of tens of thousands of years? From the perspective of someone ten thousand years from now (assuming humanity is still around – I think there will probably still be humans ten thousand years from now, but extinction within the next ten thousand years is possible), I might as well have lived at the same time as Barbara Yung, even though there is no overlap between our chronological lifespans! Also, from the perspective of people ten thousand years from now, the difference between Barbara Yung’s level of fame and impact on the world and my level of fame and impact on the world will not matter at all.
Also, when we are talking in terms of tens of thousands of years, the difference between a lifespan of 26 years and, say, 91 years (the lifespan of Barbara Yung’s mother) does not seem like much. It happens to matter to me personally a great deal whether my own lifespan will be, say, thirty years or a hundred years, but that is because I am living in terms of years and decades, not tens of thousands of years. I certainly do not feel, emotionally, that there is much difference between a human dying at the age of three weeks old and a human dying at the age of ten weeks old.
On a time scale of a million years, we (that is, myself and everyone who reads this blog) are all practically indistinguishable from Barbara Yung.
What conclusions can we draw from this? Well, the conclusion I draw is that trying to have one’s name known long after one’s death is a futile goal – no matter what I do, I will eventually be forgotten, and I do not particularly care whether I am forgotten just years after my death, or whether I am forgotten tens of thousands of years after my death. I do care about having a good impact on people, but one can have a good impact and still be totally anonymous. Furthermore, I think doing my best is a much better goal than trying to be extraordinary (I might end up being extraordinary anyway, but that’s not the point).
I sometimes do get caught up in and upset by petty bullshit, because that’s how my psychology is set up. However, when I’m collected enough that I can pull out of that, reminding myself of the vastness of time helps me understand that petty bullshit ultimately does not matter.
I do not know how long I will live, though I probably will not live to be a hundred years old. However long or short my life ends up being, I’ll try to make the most of it.
Clearly, I have been recently reading parts of the Zhuangzi (one of the most influential works of ancient Chinese philosophy), since its logic seems to be slipping into my thoughts. To quote the Zhuangzi, 莫壽乎殤子，而彭祖為夭 – (Mandarin pronunciation) “Mò shòu hū shāng zǐ, ér Péng Zǔ wéi yāo” – “There is no one more long-lived than a child which dies prematurely, and Peng Zu [who supposedly had a lifespan of 800 years] did not live out his time.”