China’s search for Happiness

Anyone interested in the politics of wellbeing in Asia might want to read a book I read about this morning. The book is called China and the Search for Happiness, and was written by German sinologist Wolfgang Bauer in 1971.


The New York Review of Books reviewed it when the English translation came out in 1977.
They wrote:
One way to pursue a people’s sense of happiness is through its utopias, but despite the richness of this theme in traditional, esoteric, and heterodox Chinese sources there was no systematic study of the theme until Hou Wai-lû’s compendium of 1959 (in Chinese); and as far as I know, the first Western scholar to broach the subject was the Munich Sinologist Wolfgang Bauer, in his China und die Hoffnung auf Glück in 1971, now finely translated by Michael Shaw as China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese Cultural History.
In this enormous work, in essence a compendium of sources with prolonged commentary, Bauer pictures the Chinese visions of escape into happiness from a large number of sources: the key ones are Taoist, especially the second century AD Lieh-tzu, though he also examines the middle periods of China’s history, considers the Westernized syntheses of the early twentieth century, and ends with Mao Tse-tung and his critics.

With considerable subtlety and great erudition Bauer traces a number of themes across this great span: the ecstatic shamanic journeys out of the human sphere, the local village structure of much Chinese utopian vision, the side-tracking by the elite of the utopian vision into a vision of extreme social and moral order, the struggle against this as the physical expansion of the state led to a Chinese universe in which islands of wilderness came to replace islands of civilization, giving new urgency to the flight into realms of the imagination. In the Lieh-tzu one can find a lost land of eternal and diseaseless affluence and gentleness, where the people “follow their nature without disputes or quarrels…are neither proud nor afraid…have equal rights…are of great fertility, know only joys and delights…hold each other by their hands, and take turns singing all day long until evening.”

Yet the dominant focus for China is a median one, between the eternal gray sleep of “Ku-mang” and the unremitting glare of the lights of “Fu-lo” where sleep is banished: “In the southernmost corner of the western pole lies a land that extends no one knows how far. It is called the Ku-mang land. There the forces of Yin and Yang do not meet, and therefore the contrast between cold and warm does not exist. Sun and moon do not shine, and thus there is no difference between night and day. The people do not eat; and do not wear garments, but sleep almost all the time. They wake up only once every fifty days. They think that what goes on in dreams is real, and take for appearance what they see when awake.”

“The Middle Kingdom lies amidst the Four Oceans, to the north and south of the Yellow River and to the east and west of the Great Mountain (t’ai-shan) in an area far greater than a thousand square miles. Dark and light are clearly separated, and thus day follows night. Among the people, some are clever, others stupid. Nature thrives, the arts and the crafts are highly developed. The prince and the people face each other, morality and righteousness support each other. It is impossible to enumerate all that people do and talk about there. Waking and sleeping alternate. What is done while awake is considered real, what is seen in dreams, appearance.”

“In the northernmost corner of the east pole lies a land called Fu-lo. It is always hot there, sun and moon shine [constantly] with a glaring light. The earth does not produce good grain so that the people have to nourish themselves with roots and fruits from the trees. They do not know cooked food. They are hard and cruel by nature. The strong oppress the weak, only the victor is honored, and justice is disregarded. Most of the time, the people run around doing things; they rest little. They are always awake, and never sleep.”

Bauer sees the Chinese quest as a sad one, haunted by the knowledge that “the discovery of human freedom almost becomes the discovery of the dissolution of the self.” Thus the vision of happiness is muted and, again and again across the centuries, the central vision of escape from care turns out to be accidental and unrecoverable. The schematized descriptions of the Buddhist paradises brought no lasting freshness here, and the very idea of the journey was finally emptied of its excitement. Bauer’s conclusion in his beautifully executed last section, “The Knot That Cannot Be Untied,” is sorrowful, and he does not except Mao, whose symbolism of swimming and the sun, his invocations of “the poor and the blank,” are seen as part of this melancholy tradition. Though some thinkers seem to break away, for example the late nineteenth-century reformer and philosopher K’ang Yu-wei (with his re-examination of the Great Unity and his renewed vision of the journey), Wu Chih-hui, the early twentieth-century anarchist with his dream of “Great Equality by Machines,” or Liu Shih-p’ei with his assault on national boundaries and the specializations of labor, they are all touched by the same poignancy: Utopia and the ideal are not the same as happiness; they are too easily contaminated by lies. For those who claim to have brought utopia into existence are as far from the truth as those who maintain that it can never become reality. A life without hope for happiness is no life. But the life which is a succession of too many vain hopes is equally unbearable. With only a minor shift in perspective, the history of uncounted expectations which unrolls before the eye as one studies the development of utopias, paradises and conceptions of the ideal among a people such as the Chinese also reveals itself with a terrible clarity as a history of incessant disappointments from whose oppressive sadness the individual, having only one life to live, could hardly hope to recover. Happiness neither lies entirely where anxiety to preserve an unflawed world eternally arrests all movement, nor where the pursuit of a new world takes on an unremitting urgency. Its nature, and the nature of utopia, hold a paradoxical secret.

The consideration of how the politics of wellbeing went wrong under Maoist China is relevant, in fact, to the western politics of wellbeing, because critics of it will occasionally criticise it as a form of Maoist mass engineering and even brain-washing – see this article by psychoanalyst Darian Leader, for example. Leader declares, somewhat hysterically:

CBT-style therapies were last used on a mass scale in China in the cultural revolution. Separated from loved ones – having perhaps witnessed their murder – people were taught to deny the legitimacy of their symptoms: depression was just the outcome of false beliefs.

So…anyone with depression should save up all their money and see a psychoanalyst for years and years, who will assure them that their depression is real, that the world is awful and their parents in particular were awful, and if you’re not depressed, you’re in denial. Until you accept the orthodox Freudian dogma regarding your psyche, you’re in denial. When you finally accept orthodox Freudian dogma, you’re cured. Who’s really the Maoist here?

Still, it’s worth remembering, when one considers state support for self-help programmes, that Stoicism, from where CBT draws its self-help techniques, was always pretty wary of government-imposed programmes for spiritual liberation.

If anyone could have imposed such a programme, it was Marcus Aurelius – the philosopher-emperor, who was finally in a position to bring about Plato’s dream of a society governed according to philosophical principles with the aim of the spiritual liberation of its citizens. But Aurelius wisely understood that you cannot force people to be free, and that even freeing yourself from a single mental habit takes a huge amount of work and effort.
Whenever he started getting Utopian aspirations, he told himself:


do not expect Plato’s ideal commonwealth; be satisfied if even a trifling endeavour comes off well, and count the result as no mean success. For who can hope to alter men’s convictions; and without change of conviction what can there be but grudging subjection and feigned assent?


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