A Tribute to Jin Yong (1924-2018)

Imagine that J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, the founding editor-in-chief of one of the most important English-language newspapers, and George Lucas all died on the same day, at the same second, and how people in the English-speaking world would react. Because the equivalent of that happened in the Chinese-speaking world on October 30, 2018, when Louis Cha Leung-yung, known by the pen name ‘Jin Yong’, died.

One of the many illustrations which comes with Jin Yong’s stories.

But I’m not going to make this about Jin Yong’s impact on the culture of the Chinese-speaking world (and the cultures of much of Southeast Asia) because, if you are familiar with Chinese-speaking cultures or Southeast-Asian cultures, you already know, and if you aren’t familiar, you’ll think I’m exaggerating. Even the New York Times understates just how huge his cultural influence was (a couple of quibbles with the NYT article: I would actually credit Wang Dulu with raising wuxia to a literary level, and the new wave of wuxia stories which got started in the 1950s was launched by Liang Yusheng; both of these writers led the way for Jin Yong; however, I think Jin Yong was an excellent example of ‘qīng​ chū ​yú ​lán’). Instead, I’m going to talk about Jin Yong’s influence on me.

This pictures evoke a lot of nostalgia for me. They remind me of the experience of reading Jin Yong’s novels.

Most native Chinese speakers encounter the stories of Jin Yong at a young age, and, if they like reading, they start reading the novels as adolescents (or younger – I’ve seen 10-year-olds reading his novels). I was not exposed to his work until I was 22 years old, which feels really late. Furthermore, during that initial encounter, my Chinese was really, really bad, certainly not enough to follow the plot. And yet, even through that haze of bad Chinese (it was ~my~ Chinese which was bad, Jin Yong wrote better Chinese than the vast majority of educated native speakers), I could sense that there was a great story if only I could understand it.

There were two illustrators who made the in-book pictures for the official editions of the novels, but for some reason, only the work of this illustrator really stays with me and evokes the feelings of Jin Yong’s stories, the other illustrator’s pictures do nothing for me.

The very first book of solid prose I read in Chinese was Jin Yong’s Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn (Legend of the Eagle-Shooting Heroes), though it usually referred to in English as Legend of the Condor Heroes (yes, I wrote about the new English translation). I was living in a second-tier city in Taiwan which, aside from the sex trade, Hollywood movies, and Southeast Asian movies, offered very few entertainment options for people who were not fluent in Chinese, so I found lots of time to study. I first read the comic book adaptation (it is so much easier to figure out what the heck is going on when there are pictures), and then, once I knew the story, I dared to read the actual novel. Reading my first book in Chinese was like opening a door – before, I could not read Chinese, or I could only ‘read’ Chinese in a limited sense, but after I finished that book, I really felt like I could read Chinese.

Imaging staring at this picture ehn taking a break from plodding through dense Chinese prose you barely understand.

The first book of solid prose I read in Chinese *without* knowing what was going to happen was the sequel, Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ, i.e. that novel I keep on mentioning in this blog. If Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn is where I opened the door, then Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ is where I walked through the door.

And wow, what a door. I figured there would be a big reward for learning Chinese (otherwise I would not have put so much effort into studying), but I was not sure what that reward would actually be. I had no idea, before I started studying Chinese, that novels like the novels of Jin Yong existed. It was mind-blowing.

Actually, the illustrations were a useful preview for what might happen in the following chapter as I was improving my Chinese.

One could even say that, in a sense, Jin Yong was my Chinese teacher. I learned a lot of Chinese by reading his stories. For example, I probably learned the phrase ‘qīng​ chū ​yú ​lán’ from his books. They also taught me a lot about Chinese culture.

His novels have occupied more of my headspace than any other writer – than any other artist – during my 20s. I never expected that any single storyteller would so capture my fancy. Thru Jin Yong, I discovered the wuxia genre, and yes, I came to love the works of other wuxia novelists, but it all started with Jin Yong.

When I wrote a fanfic novel a couple of years ago, even though it was based on something which was totally not Jin Yong, I felt a lot of Jin Yong coming through in my writing. In fact, I felt such a strong Jin Yong influence in my fanfic novel, that I sometimes had to pinch myself, and ask myself whether I was actually writing a Jin Yong fanfic in disguise. I suspect that, if I ever write another novel, fanfic or original, in any genre, there is going to be a heavy Jin Yong influence.

Even when I was confident in my Chinese reading skills, I would still look ahead at the illustrations of future chapters for a taste of what lay ahead. For example, I was wondering quite a few chapters in advance what role a blond European woman was going to play in the story (she’s Princess Sophia Alekseyevna, the half-sister of Peter the Great of Russia).

If you’ve read my blog for a long time (of have gone on a binge-read of the archives), you can find plenty of evidence of how much my headspace the stories of Jin Yong have occupied. I even have tried to explain what makes his stories so wonderful, though that is, at best, a very incomplete explanation. When I started this blog, I did not think I would end up writing so many posts about his works, especially not 5+ years after I read them for the first time. In fact, before Jin Yong died, I had already been planning to write yet another blog post about one of his novels (that post will be posted in less than a week).

I don’t like all of Jin Yong’s stories, but his better novels are amazing.

I actually did not upload any of these illustrations specifically for this post, I simply looked through which of the illustrations I had already posted on this blog for other posts.

If you are not familiar with any of Jin Yong’s stories, but are interested in experiencing them, here are my suggestions. If you prefer reading, I will point you to the new English translation of Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn. If you prefer to watch TV shows, I will point you to the Sword Stained with Royal Blood 2007. It’s not one of Jin Yong’s better stories, but it’s one of the best TV adaptations available with English subtitles (you can get it on DVD with English subs; it’s also easy to find online versions with English subs).

I’m actually envious of the people who get to experience the works of Jin Yong for the first time. I benefited from not growing up in a culture where Jin Yong’s stories were super-popular because that meant the plot twists were not spoiled for me, I got to have my first encounter with the plots when I was reading the original novels directly.

I love to watch music videos of Jin Yong songs (no, he was not a song composer, but his works have inspired many, many, many songs). They are an easy and quick way to give me the feels of reading his stories without sitting down and re-reading them. Even when I see MVs based on TV adaptations I have not seen, I can usually recognize most of the scenes because his stories stick out so vividly in the mind. I’ve even written an entire blog post about one of these songsObviously, these songs/videos aren’t going to evoke that type of nostalgia in people who don’t know the stories, but maybe something comes across anyways. Thus, I will end this post with links to a bunch of songs inspired by Jin Yong stories that I like.

“Jianghu Xiao” (The Jianghu Laughs) (Return of the Condor Heroes 2006) – One of the best Jin Yong songs, and with English subs!

“Up and Down a Challenging Road” (Demi-gods and Semi-devils 1982) (content note: depiction of suicide in video) – as I have said before, I feel this is one of the songs which best captures the spirit of Jin Yong’s stories.

“Cold Feelings, Hot Feelings” (Sword Stained with Royal Blood 1985) – I think this is an underrated Jin Yong theme song.

“A Laugh from the Blue Sea” (Swordsman 1990) – In The Smiling Proud Wanderer, there is a song called “The Smiling Proud Wanderer” which a) plays a pivotal role in the plot (which is why the novel takes its title from the song) and b) is the most beautiful song the characters have ever heard. This puts no pressure at all on the composers who have to write music for the many movie and TV adaptations of novwl (I also find it amusing to watch TV actors proclaim whatever the composer came up with to be the most beautiful music ever). This is generally considered to be the best attempt to compose the “Smiling Proud Wanderer” song (which is why it was recycled as the opening theme for the 2017 adaptation). I also like State of Divinity 1996’s version of the “Smiling Proud Wanderer” song.

“Ode to Gallantry” (Ode to Gallantry 2016). I really like this song, and of the recent Jin Yong TV shows, this is the one I like best.

“On What Day Shall We Meet Again” (Return of the Condor Heroes 1983). Even though “Jianghu Xiao” is a better song, I feel this is the song which best captures the spirit of the story.

AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST….

“The Thousand Sorrows of Remembering Old Love” (song originally from Legend of the Condor Heroes 1983) – since this is a mourning song, it is the obvious choice for a tribute to the late Jin Yong (just as it is often used in tributes to Roman Tam and Barbara Yung). Indeed, this link goes to a video which was released days after Jin Yong’s death.

Though Jin Yong has died, this is not over. I am sure I will have many thoughts, and thus many things to say, about his stories for years to come.

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There Is a Big Problem with How We Talk about Othello

content note: murder, specifically murder related to sexual jealousy

This summer, I saw a performance of Othello. It was the first time I had seen or read the play in over ten years. And I was a bit shocked, because even though I knew the story of the play perfectly well, when I had seen or read the play before, I had never consciously thought about the fact that Othello thinks it is okay to kill his own wife because of infidelity. And everyone else in the play, except Emilia, seems to agree with him. The characters treats the murder of Desdemona as a tragedy because she was chaste, if she really had been engaging in an extra-marital affair, they would have been fine with Othello murdering her.

Othello’s final line came across as especially creepy, the one where he describes himself as being “one that loved not wisely, but too well.” Wanting to kill one’s wife because of jealousy counts as ‘loving too well’? Really? And if that is not what Othello means, then what does he mean? (note: I hope that people who consider killing their own wives because of jealousy to be an expression ‘love’ will never, ever love me)

In an English class in high school, we studied Othello. We analyzed the play extensively, from various different angles. We had in depth discussions of Othello’s feelings. Yet amid all of that analysis and discussion, I don’t recall anyone asking the question ‘if Desdemona was really having an affair with Cassio, would it be okay for Othello to kill her? Is the problem that Iago tricked Othello into thinking she was unchaste, or is the problem that Othello wanted to kill Desdemona ~at all~?’ And in retrospect, I am shocked that I have no memory of any discussion like that happening in my high school English class. If my memory is accurate, and we did not talk about that, then what does that imply about our values?

The most memorable part of studying Othello in that high school English class was hearing the teacher describe her Real Life Soap Opera. She shared with us the story of how a woman had an affair with one of her brothers, causing him to divorce his wife, then she had an affair with another one of her brothers, causing him to also divorce his wife, and then this woman had an affair with my teacher’s husband, which ruined their marriage, leading my teacher to legally separate from her husband and stop cohabiting with him. In addition to doing everything short of divorce to break up with her husband, my teacher played some mean-spirited pranks on the woman who had the extra marital affairs with her brothers and husband. My teacher was very proud of her pranking skills, and that she made the woman break down in tears. I got the impression that our English teacher really sympathized with Othello.

Legal separation and ending cohabitation are ethical and reasonable responses to infidelity. Mean-spirited pranks are not necessarily ethical or reasonable, but at least my English teacher (as far as I know) never threatened that woman with violence.

When Othello came to the conclusion that Desdemona was unfaithful, why did he immediately decide to murder her? Why not divorce, or legal separation? Or even mean-spirited pranks?

Maybe you’re thinking that we do not discuss whether it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona even if she had been unfaithful because the answer is obviously ‘no, of course it would not be okay’. Sadly, I can tell you that it was NOT obvious to all of my high school classmates.

This is a true story. I don’t want to reveal these people’s real names, so I am going to use the following names: Sara’s Classmate, Girlfriend, Friend, and Victim. Sara’s Classmate became convinced that his Girlfriend had some kind of sexual flirting with Victim. Therefore, with the help of Friend, he kidnapped Victim. Sara’s Classmate said that he wanted to kill Victim, and had a loaded gun. Though Friend was willing to participate in the kidnapping, Friend did not want to be an accomplice to murder, so he came up with a scheme to deceive Sara’s Classmate into thinking that Victim is already dead. I would like to think that my classmate would have come to his senses in time, and not actually carry out his murder threat, but I think it is very possible that, without Friend’s deception, Sara’s Classmate would have killed Victim.

The obvious parallels between this true story and Othello are Sara’s Classmate = Othello, Girlfriend = Desdemona, Friend = Iago, and Victim = Cassio. However, whereas Iago deceived Othello so that Desdemona and Cassio would die, Friend deceived Sara’s Classmate in order to save Victim’s life.

Though my classmate and I were not in the same English class, I know he also studied Othello in his English class because all of the 10th grade English classes at my high school studied Othello. I suppose it’s possible that in his English class they discussed whether or not it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona if she had been unfaithful, but … I doubt it.

We were classmates in theater class, and I definitely know that he studied Othello in our theater class because he performed a monologue from the play. Specifically, this monologue:

OTHELLO:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
[Kissing her]
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.

Yes, it’s the monologue shortly before Othello kills Desdemona. When I was in that theater class, and saw my classmate perform this monologue multiple times, I had no idea that in a few years he was going to try to do something like this in real life. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that it is a coincidence that he chose this monologue, and then later attempted to murder someone because of jealousy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Othello inspired him to perform kidnapping and attempted murder – if anything, I think the reverse is more likely, that he chose this monologue because he already had fantasies of doing something like this in real life. However, in English class, and even in theater class, there were opportunities to discuss whether Othello’s conduct would have been okay even if Desdemona were guilty, and those discussions, as far as I know, did not happen. And maybe, if that discussion did happen, my classmate may not have tried to imitate Othello.

The last time I had seen or read Othello was before my former classmate committed his crimes. This year, when I watched the play on stage, I was thinking of my former classmate quite a bit.

And my former classmate is not an isolated anomaly. At least one third of all women murdered in the United States are murdered by a male initmate partner, and that is not counting people like Cassio or Victim, who were suspected of being the women’s lovers, or attempted murders which did not result in death. I could not find statistics indicating how many of those murders were related to sexual jealousy, but I suspect it is a high percentage.

I am not opposed to reading or studying or performing Othello. On the contrary, I think it can be useful for provoking discussion. But, in my observation, the discussion of whether murder due to jealousy is ever justified usually does not happen. I certainly noticed no traces of that discussion around the production of the play I saw this summer.

Compare that to The Merchant of Venice. I studied the play in a college class, and my college class did not ignore the anti-semitism. On the contrary, the anti-semitism was one of the most discussed aspects of the play. And whenever there is a production or adaptation of The Merchant of Venice in the contemporary United States, the way the anti-semitism is addressed tends to be the focal point of the producer’s, the performers’, and the audience’s attention. I disagree with some of the common ways the anti-semitism is addressed, but at least it IS acknowledged and addressed, people aren’t silent about it. To a lesser extent, this is also true of the way readers, directors, actors, audiences, etc. treat the misogyny in Taming of the Shrew.

I do not think the play Othello itself is dangerous. I think ignoring the way the play tacitly supports murdering unfaithful wives (conditional on the wives being truly unfaithful, unlike Desdemona) is dangerous.

Mortality on the Pacific Crest Trail

The trail register at the California / Oregon border on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I looked through the trail register at the California/Oregon border on the Pacific Crest Trail. I found a place where hikers listed all of the ways they have died on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was started by Mike [from Canada] and the first eight entries are in his handwriting. However, other hikers saw it and decided to add the ways they ‘died’ on the Pacific Crest Trail, which is why every additional entry is written with different handwriting. Here is my transcription:

7/27/16 Mike [From Canada], You guys, we’ve been through so much together, and I can’t thank you enough for supporting me through all the times I’ve died on the trail. Here’s to all the fearmongers who have pushed me this far!

1. Carried 20 L out of Campo. Died from water overdose
2. Froze Solid at Mt. Laguna
3. Lost in snow on San Jacinto
4. Run over by Ziggy & bear shuttle
5. Slipped off Baden Powell
6. Sunk in quicksand @ walker pass
7. Spent too much money @ kennedy
8. Slipped down ice chute @ forester pass
9. SMOKED POODLE-DOG BUSH, DIED
10. Drunk Piss, lived then tried to seduce a bear – Dead
11. Left Seiad w/ 0 liters of water – Heat Stroke
12. Spent 2 nights in Hikertown – died of exposure
13. Fed chipmunk; was eaten in the night by chipmunks
14. Went to drop a deuce in KM; drowned in PortaJohn
15. Stayed in Etna for two nights – died of boredom
16. Tried to walk under Mount Shasta
17. Kidnapped by “that guy” in Sierra City
18. Too much EVERYTHING @ Casa de Luna
19. Lost too much weight – dead.
20. Shot by a hunter
21. GOT LOST FOR 2dAYS in The SieRRA’s.
22. Narrowly escaped the Lemurians
23. spent too long @border, died of starvation
24. GOT ATTACKED by MARMOTS! Don’t trust them. R& H.
25. Fell down a switchback looking for copper ore
26. Got a blister or two… or a hundred
27. Ate 5 lbs of pancakes @ Seiad… exploded
28. Fall in love
29. Twisted ankle taking photo, hit a rock, fell off cliff
30. Went for water @ lost Creek – fell, died
31. Fell down ice chute @ Sonora Pass
32. ^ so did I!!
33. Breathed in too many of husband’s farts
34. Farted too much (or not enough)
35. Died in the fire before Kennedy Meadows
36. Spent too much time reading the Facebook page -> Heartattack
37. BEARS
38. Asschafe
39. Almost dyha dihadrated before Casa de Luna
40. Lightling storm at Mt. Whitney

I think most people, when they first contemplate hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, ponder on the potential of dying on the trail (rattlesnakes! dehydration! mountain lions! falling off cliffs! etc.). I know I did when I first contemplated it, and a lot people who I talk to about it are also concerned about the potential of death. I think the hikers who put together the list above were responding both to all of the ‘fearmongers’ who expressed their concern about dangers on the trail as well as responding to their own fears. I also appreciate this post by Mac at Halfway Anywhere.

***

Several hikers (they just look like specks in this photo) cross what is reportedly the most dangerous stream crossing on the PCT in Washington. It was not that bad when I was there – I even managed to cross with dry feet – but I can see how this crossing would be a lot more risky in early summer or after a few days of heavy rain.

I know that I am going to die. That knowledge motivates me to do things like hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The knowledge that the trail itself is impermanent (climate change, maintenance failures, erosion, fire closures, etc.) increases the urgency of hiking it while I am still alive to hike it and it is still there.

I can die at home too. Thus, staying at home is not a good strategy for avoiding death.

One of the top causes of death on the Pacific Crest Trail is … being hit by a motor vehicle while crossing a road. Most people do not expect that to be the top causes of death, especially because one rarely has to cross a road with much traffic on the Pacific Crest Trail. However, motor vehicles are so dangerous that even occasional crossings of roads with traffic greatly increase the danger of death on the PCT. However, I think that most people underestimate the risk of being hit by a motor vehicle on the PCT because it is a risk that most people in the United States live with every day. We have been trained to tune it out so that we are not in a constant state of panic as we cross streets.

***

The Dinsmores’ Hiker Haven, Baring, Washington.

I spent two nights at the Dinsmores. The Dinsmores are some of the most famous trail angels on the Pacific Crest Trail – you can learn more about them by reading this recent blog post.

This might be the last year that Andrea Dinsmore hosts hikers (and bikers – they host bikers too). I only saw her a couple times when I was at the Dinsmores, and only for short periods of time, but I felt privileged that I was able to meet such a legend of the PCT. This might be her last year – and she has spent less time with hikers than usual this year – because she has pancreatic cancer.

When I was on the train returning home, I met a couple of hikers who had stayed at the Dinsmores last year. They were shocked when I told them about Andrea’s condition. There was one point when I was sitting at the Dinsmores and I was shedding tears for Andrea.

I know some hikers say that they avoided the Dinsmores because they knew Andrea was sick and they did not want to be a burden. However, one of Andrea’s friends told me that they still wanted hikers to come. The hiking season is Andrea’s favorite time of year, and they do not want to be socially isolated at this time in their lives – they want to continue to participate in the Pacific Crest Trail community.

***

Blooming manzanita bush on Mount Laguna. This is where I met the Chinese hiker. She was probably Chaocui Wang.

This was an especially dangerous summer in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Many thru-hikers skipped the Sierra Nevada for that reason, or did a flip so they hiked in the Sierra Nevada at a safer time. At the Dinsmores’ Hiker Haven, a hiker who hiked through the Sierras told me that, though she did get through the Sierra Nevada unharmed, if she had understood how dangerous it was, she would have skipped it too.

I heard a few hikers went through the Sierra Nevada very early (by ‘very early’ I mean ‘May’). Even though they had to deal with lower temperatures and more snow/ice, I heard it was safer to go very early than to go in June/July, which in most years is when most northbound thru-hikers go through the Sierra Nevada. That is because, if a hiker entered the Sierra Nevada early enough, they could cross the streams on ice bridges. Stream crossings are the most dangerous part of hiking in the Sierra Nevada in early summer.

There is the story of Marcus Mazzaferri, who lost his pack during a dangerous stream crossing, lost all of his gear (including sleeping bag, shelter, and anything he could have used to start a fire), his food, and his glasses (he is near-sighted), and was all alone in the Sierra Nevada while it was still mostly covered with snow, with no way to contact another human being. He was lucky to survive. You can read his story here.

Two thru-hikers drowned in the Sierra Nevada this year – Rika Morita and Chaocui Wang. I first heard about their deaths while I was hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail from other hikers.

I talked to a hiker who had hiked with Chaocui Wang for a while in the Sierra Nevada, though he had split from her before her death. He said that she had told him that she had lied to her family in China – she told them that she had come to the USA for a job, not to hike the PCT. He hoped that she had told her family the truth before she died.

I never met Rika Morita. However, I did meet one Chinese hiker as I was approaching Mount Laguna during my section hike on the San Diego PCT this year. I recall that we were surrounded by manzanita bushes in full bloom, and I think we talked about how many bees were buzzing around us. The face I see in the photos of Chaocui Wang looks familiar, and the personality of the Chinese hiker I met matches the descriptions of Chaocui Wang. I am not completely sure, but I think it was her.

She died around the time I was crossing the California/Oregon border on the Pacific Crest Trail, where I saw the trail register with the list I transcribed in the opening of this post.

I have a weird feeling when I think back on my encounter with the Chinese hiker, now that I know it was probably about three months before her death and that she was not going to finish her thru-hike or return home, though I will never know for sure if it *was* her. I know that hikers who hiked with her and got to know her rather than just crossed paths with her as I (probably) did must have stronger feelings. The trail community misses and will remember her.

In the Western Land of Disaster

A wildfire blasted through the city of Santa Rosa faster than most people can believe. We can smell the smoke here in San Francisco, where the air quality has often become unhealthy in the past week and a half (note: air pollution this bad is very rare for San Francisco). My in-laws in Santa Rosa are safe and their homes are intact, but many are not so lucky.

(I have yet to hear about my in-laws in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, though we would probably know by now if they were dead or seriously injured. I know they are patriotic, pro-independence Puerto Ricans, but I wonder if life has become so rough in Puerto Rico that they will decide to leave).

One of the most shocking aspects of this fire is that it has devastated a city, not just some rural area in the hills (of course, the rural people in the hills feel like the rest of California does not get a shit about them when they lose their homes – or at least, my cousin who lost a home to a wildfire about ten years ago feels that way). About a hundred years ago, large fires in USA cities were common – just about every major USA city which has been a major city for at least a hundred years has been destroyed by fire at some point. However, we have begun to feel that we are ‘safe’ in cities, and the Santa Rosa fire shows us that we are not.

Climate change is most likely increased the odds of a disaster like this, but it could have happened even without climate change. There was the 1964 Henley Fire which was smaller, but one of the reasons it did less damage to homes (and killed no people) was that the population of the Santa Rosa area was much smaller in 1964 than today. My mother is of the opinion that homes should not be rebuilt in wildfire zones, but that raises the question of where the people who live in wildfire zones should go, especially considering the high cost of housing in California.

However, there are people who say that, due to climate change, it is the individual’s best interests to leave the west coast of North America because the American West is going to burn. Indeed, when my mother talks about why some particular place is not a good place to live, she becomes defensive about her choice to set her roots in San Francisco. Since I already have roots here, I feel it makes sense for me to stay, but if I did not have any existing ties to San Francisco, I probably would not choose it as my residence. Everywhere is going to have problems because of climate change, but if I was thinking about moving to a place which would have the least bad impact from climate change in North America, I would probably look to the Great Lakes region.

As I am writing this post, the air quality is still unhealthy. It reminds me of how the wildfires were messing with the air quality in the Pacific Northwest this summer. As I was in smoky Vancouver, I was thinking about how the air would be clean in San Francisco, and how odd it was that Washington and Oregon were having much more severe wildfire problems than California. I guessed I called that one too early.

Transcendence at the Summit of Pintianshan

This is the summit of Pintianshan, with the south side of Dabajianshan in the background. Most people see only the north side of Dabajianshan (which is also the face shown in most photos of Dabajianshan), so seeing the south side of Dabajianshan felt special to me.

I recently read A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism by Rabbi Mike Comins. In chapter four, “Finding God in Nature”, he says:

It’s so difficult to talk about the who and what of God. Often the same words mean different things to different people, and our conversations get bogged down in contradictions and misunderstandings. But when I say that I have “God-moments” in wilderness, people know exactly what I mean.

I’m an atheist, and I knew exactly what he meant, even though I would not use the word ‘God’ to describe it.

Specifically, what came to mind when I read that was my memory of being at the summit of Pintianshan in Taiwan. It’s called ‘Pintianshan’ because the boxy shapes of the rocks look like the Chinese characters 品 (pǐn​) and 田 (tián​).

Here is a picture of Pintianshan. Imagine trying to hike to the top (hint, even the safest approach requires scrambling up/down nearly vertical rock right over a very long drop).

Pintianshan is, without a doubt, the most difficult mountain I have ever successfully summited. I have met hikers who are much more experienced than I am who, when they saw what they would have to do to reach the summit, decided to turn around and give up. I almost gave up too. It’s dangerous and scary (I did not take a photo of the scary part because I did not want my parents to see how scary it was). And of course, once I pressed on to the summit, I committed myself to going through the scary section a second time during the return hike.

But it was worth it! The view from the summit of Pintianshan is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. Pintianshan is right in the middle of the ‘Holy Ridge’ (聖陵線), which was named by a Japanese mountaineer who was completely convinced that he was in a sacred place. The indigenous people also believe that these mountains are sacred – Dabajianshan is possibly the most sacred of all mountains in traditional Atayal culture. Furthermore, one section of the Holy Ridge is known as ‘the four beauties of Wuling’ (武陵四秀). Pintianshan is one of those four beauties (the other three beauties are Chiyoushan, Taoshan, and Kelayeshan).

One of the things I thought to myself while I was at the summit of Pintianshan was ‘I can die now because I have seen this.’ This was not a suicidal thought – I had no intention of dying. Instead, I felt that there was no such thing as intention. I was so overwhelmed with the magnificence of the world that I felt myself completely submit to it, including submission to my inevitable death.

Snow Mountain, as seen from the summit of Pintianshan. Yes, Taiwan, a tropical island, has a place called ‘Snow Mountain’ (it snows on Pintianshan in winter too). Snow Mountain is the highest point of the Holy Ridge, and the second highest mountain in all of Taiwan. It is higher than Mt. Fuji in Japan.

Looking back, I think the scary experience of reaching the summit of Pintianshan put me in an emotional state which made me especially receptive to being awestruck by the beauty of the landscape. As Rabbi Mike Comins says in A Wild Faith:

Statistically, I am much more likely to die from a car accident than a grizzly attack, but I’m constantly aware of potential hazards when I’m far from a hospital. Outside the human comfort zone called civilization, I am less prone to falling into routine. The risks prod me to greater awareness.

In the city, I employ a different strategy. I avoid anxiety by “forgetting” what I know about accidents. When I drive, I’m rarely thinking about driving. Neither wilderness nor the freeways are forgiving, but in the city, I deceive myself and act otherwise.

In nature, the awareness of mortality is constant. Unlike the sanitized world of the supermarket, birth and death are encountered together in the natural world. Yet most of us see beauty, not terror.

By the way, the #1 cause of death on the Pacific Crest trail is being hit by a motor vehicle while crossing a road. There is no recorded instance of a human being killed by a bear on the Pacific Crest Trail. This implies that motor vehicles are actually much more dangerous than bears.

Nanhudashan and Zhongyangjinashan, as seen from the summit of Pintianshan. Some people say that Nanhudashan is the most beautiful mountain in Taiwan, but sadly I’ve never gotten close to it.

Hopefully, at the time this post is being published, I am hiking through Washington on the PCT and all is going well with me. I’m not expecting experiences like I had on Pintianshan on this backpacking trip because I think it would be a self-defeating prophecy. But I’m sure I’m having other kinds of interesting experiences.

We Are All Barbara Yung

A photo of Barbara Yung.

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.

Barbara Yung in her most famous role as Huang Rong

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 different 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 (maybe 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.”

Reading the 1972 Edition of The Limits to Growth

Last month, I read an Ecology 101 textbook (specifically, Ecology: Concepts and Applications by Manual C. Molles Jr., 2nd edition) as part of this “deindustrial reading list”. I don’t know if I will go through with the whole list, but I did read the 1972 edition of The Limits to Growth this week.

The thesis of the book is pretty simple: exponential growth of both human population and industrial output cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet. Furthermore, they calculate that, without major social/cultural changes, there will be a major economic and human population crash before 2100.

I had heard about this book a long time ago, and a lot of the ideas in this book have circulated widely. Yet I found this book was full of insights which have not circulated widely.

For example, I knew years ago that this book had a standard run model (a.k.a. “business as usual”) which led to a major human population crash before 2100, and that it various models associated with various policies which delayed the crash yet failed to prevent it, and that it also had a model in which the crash was prevented altogether. I had also read that the standard run “business as usual” model predicted remarkably well what has happened since 1972 (according to this and another source I cannot find right now). I had assumed that, because the standard run model predicted the collapse happening soonest, that it was the most dire scenario.

Now that I have read the book, I have found that the “standard run” scenario is not the the scariest scenario.

Yes, the collapse happens sooner under “standard run” than other scenarios. However, in many of the other scenarios, even though the collapse is delayed by decades, it still happens before 2100, and the longer the collapse is put off, the greater it is. Furthermore, the longer the collapse is put off, the greater the overshoot, and the more it will reduce the carrying capacity of the planet to support human beings (Wikipedia explains what overshoot is). “Standard run” does not result in the lowest final carrying capacity. In that sense, it is not the most frightening scenario.

Now, again, the book says that technology alone cannot solve the problem. Nothing I had heard or read about the book had indicated that it had that insight, but it makes a really good case for that point. The book runs the model in which nonrenewable resources are ‘unlimited’ due to amazing technological advances in resource usage efficiency and recycling. The collapse still happens in the 21st century, due to pollution.

The book admits that pollution is the hardest for them to predict because it is the factor for which they have the least good input. One of the pollutants they looked at was carbon dioxide. Their projections for how concentration of how carbon dioxide would increase in the atmosphere in a ‘business as usual’ scenario turned out to be … not far off.

Think of collapse via nonrenewable resource exhaustion vs. collapse via pollution this way (this is my example, not an example from the book). ‘Peak Oil’ is a shorthand for ‘fossil fuels are nonrenewable, and if we keep using them we will run out of economically viable fossil fuel supplies’. Given that nuclear power is only viable with massive economic subsidies, once fossil fuels run out, we will be left with only renewable power. Given that renewable power is nowhere close to being able to replace fossil fuel power right now, that means a sharp reduction in energy supplies, which could trigger a collapse of industrial civilization. However, if fossil fuels continue to be available indefinitely anyway for whatever reason, and they continue to be used, it keeps on increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which triggers collapse by extreme climate change. Collapse by resource depletion, or collapse by pollution? Even now, some people argue that climate change is what will trigger the collapse of civilization, before economically viable fossil fuels run out, and others say that the depletion of economically viable fossil fuels will happen before the more dire climate change scenarios can happen (climate change is already happening, so it’s too late to talk about stopping it completely).

As far as collapse happening earlier or sooner … imagine that the planet had been endowed with way less in the way of accessible fossil fuel supplies, and that economically viable fossil fuels had been depleted by, say, 1920. It probably would have caused a collapse of industrial civilization back then, and lots of human suffering, but it would have completely prevented climate change by carbon dioxide, and the crash which would have happened in that scenario would have been much less severe than the crash it looks like we are going towards.

Furthermore, the book has a scenario in which technology magically solves the nonrenewable resource problem and the pollution problem … and it just delays the collapse a little, and then it’s collapse by food shortage and global famines. Basically, any scenario they came up with which had a solution which was technology alone ended with a collapse by resource depletion, pollution, or food shortage, before the year 2100.

The models they had which did *not* lead to a population/civilization crash before 2100 included both technological and social change. Specifically, societies find mechanisms – which would have to be social, not technological – to ensure that the birth rate equalled the death rate, and that investment in industrial capital did not exceed depreciation.

Sara, the reading list says that that you should note whether The Limits to Growth makes more or less sense in the light of the ecological concepts you learned from the ecology textbook.

Well, I don’t have much to say. Yes, the ecology textbook went over population growth of individual species, that population growth tends to be exponential until it reaches the carrying capacity of the environment, and then the population tends to stabilize. The ecology textbook I read does not, however, describe overshoot. The ecology textbook goes into great detail about interactions between different organisms and the environment, which I suppose helped me make a little more sense of the emphasis in The Limits to Growth to studying complex interactions between different factors. However, The Limits to Growth explains its concepts so well that I doubt that reading the ecology textbook did much to influence how I made sense of it.

Is there anything else you want to say about The Limits to Growth?

The book also has some very interesting psychological insights. For example, it points out that so many people insist that technology can solve these problems because, for the past few hundred years, technology has solved problems, which is what has allowed the human population to grow as much as it had. This has established a culture which expects technology to solve society-wide problems. However, it can only do so *before* the hard limits of this planet have been reached. It has some insights into why it is so difficult to get humans to respond to problems such as pollution (there is a great car driving metaphor in the book).

There are also a few bits in the book which, in my opinion, are simply bullshit. But they are in the details, not in the general ideas. I’m not going to discard the value of this book just because they got some minor stuff wrong.

I highly recommend reading this book. Though I have not read the 1992 or 2004 updates, I recommend the 1972 version over those two for these reasons:

1) The 1972 version is the shortest.
2) The 1972 version was the bestseller which sold millions of copies, so it is the best for tracing the origins of various ideas.
3) Seeing what they actually said in 1972 and compare it today.

Sara, this book seems like it’s a real downer! I don’t want to read it!

If you don’t want to read it, then you don’t have to read it. But this is what I have to say about this book being a ‘bummer’.

First, it does not predict the extinction of human beings, even after the collapse. Since a lot of people do predict the near-future extinction of human beings, I consider this book to be more optimistic than those predictions. Also, as I already explained, current data indicates that we are not going into the scariest scenario described in the book.

Second, I don’t know about your life expectancy, but my current life expectancy, according to charts and whatnots, says that I am most likely to die in the early 2070s. I may, of course, live into the 2080s, and I may die a heck of a lot sooner than 2070 as well. That means that, if the Limits to Growth projections continue to predict the future as accurately as they have so far, there is a very high chance I will live long enough to witness the collapse. And if they are right about the death rate sharply rising in the middle of the 21st century, that may very well cut off my life and cause me to die in the 2050s rather than the 2070s. I cannot prevent the crisis, but if I am going to live long enough to get into the thick of it, I would rather have a better understanding of why such awful things are happening than a worse understanding of why such awful things are happening.

I looked up Donella Meadows, the lead writer of the The Limits to Growth. She was not much older than I am now when she did the studies which are the basis of The Limits to Growth. She died in 2001, at the age of 59 years old. That was significantly younger than her projected life expectancy in the early 1970s. It just goes to show that, even in good times, some people still get their lives cut short. On the flipside, even during times of general crisis, some people get really lucky and live long and satisfying lives anyway.

Soon, I plan to read the next book on that reading list, Overshoot. Based on what I know about it, it seems like it will be more of a downer than The Limits to Growth. I’ll see how I will react to that one.