Last evening I read 父親的日記 by 李歐梵，which is an essay about his father’s wartime diaries. Both of his parents were teachers in Shandong province when the war of resistance against the Japanese broke out in the nineteen thirties, and at that time the author himself was a toddler himself carried along by his parents as they fled the violence.
At that time in China, after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1911, there was a power vacuum that multiple factions attempted to fill. The official government was led by the Nationalists and their history has been been told of one of corruption and ineptitude, though I’m sure that the histories I’ve learned living in mainland China ruled by the Chinese communists are not unbiased. The Japanese, following the European and American examples, sent their army to cut deep into China and, with their superior technology and military prowess, the Nationalists were overwhelmed and were unable to counteract the brutality of the Japanese and protect the Chinese. At the same time, Chinese warlords fought other Chinese warlords, and the Communists fought the nationalists. All in all, it’s been estimated that around 25 million people were causalities over the 12 year period from 1933-45.
As Li Oufan emphasizes in his essay, his family’s story was just their individual telling of the epic of everyday people’s search for safety and refuge in this era. What struck me most about their story is its demonstration of how ordinary, good people can be swept away from their lives by circumstances utterly out of their control. This is not an exceptional event in history, with an even cursory reading of history you’ll find this is a common theme of life, both at the societal and individual levels. In fact, while history demonstrates that this is a pattern, it would be incorrect to assume that this pattern is a thing of the past. Look at the lives of ordinary people now in Syria or Iraq. A doctor, for example, who worked hard in her youth to excel in her education, spent nearly a decade fighting through higher education, starting as a junior doctor in another doctor’s clinic and finally, after ten years of experience, opened her own practice in Mosul would have long-since fled, leaving her accumulated savings, networks, and certifications behind. Likely the only things she’d preserve would be her knowledge and experience of medicine.
On the individual level, we make optimistic assumptions about the future that justify for a sacrifice in the present for future reward. Every dollar you earn that is excess of the base amount required to survive is a testament to this gamble. The problem is, of course, that individual futures are subject to the same caprice and unexpected events as societies. We all know someone who has made this bet and lost, worked hard and sacrificed only to get cancer and die an early death. On the other hand, we are also familiar with stories of people who have not taken this path and found substantial reward nonetheless. While a large part of what you accomplish can be linked directly to the effort you put into it, some part of that is exterior to your efforts. And it’s that external part that is often a very large factor in outcomes.
What is the correct way to think about this reality? One thing’s for certain, bad luck is something that everyone wants to avoid. As the first buffer against individual misfortune, societal organizations, such as government and insurance collectives, can minimize the damage. Against tidal waves crashing against entire societies, such as war, a general education seems to be the surest way to prevent human-caused calamities.
Li Oufan’s family did eventually find refuge by escaping to Taiwan, where both his parents became professors at a University outside of Taipei. Millions weren’t as lucky, and there’s no saying that those unfortunate wouldn’t have included me and my family, or you and yours, if we had lived in similar circumstances.