Civilizations and Enlightenments

I have recently finished Dr. Wu Jun’s Civilizations and Enlightenments (文明之光). Graduating from Tsinghua University and Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Wu Jun is a computer scientist specializing in natural language processing, and that’s exactly one of the reasons why this book becomes so incredibly unique and intriguing — it is a depiction of human history from the perspective of a computer scientist, one that wouldn’t commonly be associated with history and the social sciences.

Of course, it’s impossible to detail the entire human history with 900k Chinese characters. Therefore, the author carefully chose 23 fragments within history, each having its own unique significance. Throughout the book, several core ideals do emerge, and from my reading experience, the two most important ideals would be people-driven history and progression over regression.

People have always shared a liking for history told through the lens of the winners — the kings and queens, the emperors and lords. However, we often overlook the fact that civilization would not march forward without the power of its people. The idea of history driven by the people is seen across the book, and is best seen in the early chapters detailing the advancements of ancient civilizations. As the final paragraphs of Chapter 2 would put it,

Their names may to be buried in time and space where no one knows, but they truly did exist and created history.

Though it became progressively more difficult in later chapters to remain true to the idea, presumably because it became more difficult for typical people to take part in significant historical progress, Dr. Wu Jun still continued to place the scientists, the artists, the researchers — the people that actually progress civilization before the rulers and the power holders, in a demonstration of the book’s second ideal: progression over regression. Throughout the book, the author did not detail the wars launched by rulers out of their personal desires, but rather only chose to detail the events that were truly progressive to humanity itself. An entire chapter was dedicated to the beginning of science, a part of history that is often overlooked in works of general history, simply because of its significance to humanity. Thus, progression over regression.

The amazing thing about reading books about history is that it allows you to stand on higher ground — to see how small you are. Only after that do you realize that your day to day worries are no more than a piece of dust. Through reading the history, I find it truly possible to reflect upon myself and be more undisturbed. For a unique perspective on history, I’d definitely recommend Civilizations and Enlightenments. (March 23, 2024)