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The Chinese Dream Machine

China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese Cultural History

by Wolfgang Bauer, translated by Michael Shaw
Seabury Press, 502 pp., $22.50

Chinese Socialism to 1907

by Martin Bernal
Cornell University Press, 259 pp., $15.00

Chinese Shadows

by Simon Leys
Viking, 220 pp., $10.00

Simple-looking questions make good starting points for books; for simple questions are usually very hard to answer, and if the author is skillful enough he elaborates the simple question until it is overlaid with hovering qualifications, doubts, and complications, and the reader gets caught up with him as he ducks around new corners and comes on new vistas. “Are the Chinese happy?” “How have they sought to express or bring about happiness?” These questions look simple enough. But as elaborated in the three books by Bauer, Bernal, and Leys they lead us into some difficult terrain. Cumulatively, despite their utterly different forms, approaches, and coverage, the three books end up elaborating and illuminating one another.

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.

Martin Bernal, in Chinese Socialism to 1907, gives intense detail to a phase of this story, and has many new things to say about it. We learn, for example, that K’ang Yu-wei had almost certainly read Edward Bellamy in translation, while Liu Shih-p’ei was exemplifying the complex shift away from Marxist socialism and toward anarchism that became definitive by 1907. Bernal’s valuable study ends abruptly, and we are told it is the first part of a trilogy on Chinese socialism that will eventually run to 1915.

Bernal is concerned to show the importance of this early stage of Chinese socialism, and thus the positive part that one facet of the European experience did play in the unfolding of China’s revolution. Though Marx was mentioned little during the decade following 1907, Bernal is convinced that the earlier exposure “speeded the Chinese response to Marxism after the May 4 Movement” (of 1919). And early knowledge of socialism was definitively spread between the 1870s and 1890s through Western mission-sponsored periodicals in China, such as the Globe Magazine and The Review of the Times, even when socialist notions came accompanied by riders advocating Bismarckian social reforms as the major alternative to the dangers of revolt.

Bauer has given a rich context for Bernal’s acute perception that

The ease with which these ideas were translated into classical Chinese shows how congenial they were to Mencian Confucianists. For them it was both morally right and politically expedient for the ruler to satisfy the material needs of the people. For most Confucians, state socialism was far easier to comprehend and support than the ruthless selfishness of laissez-faire and Social Darwinism.

Sun Yat-sen got his earlier socialist ideas from these same magazines but, Bernal argues in an interesting aside, he tried to insist that his ideas came from political experience in the West, and were not generally available in China. Sun’s motive in doing this was to give “him and the handful of Chinese who had been to Europe and America a monopoly over Western knowledge.” (This is an interesting echo of Bernal’s earlier remark in his introduction that “in order to maintain professional status, Western historians of China tend to stress the importance of documents made esoteric by being in Chinese, over anything more easily accessible.” I can hear Simon Leys’s snort of derision, and am pretty skeptical about this alleged motivation myself.) In an intriguing view of Sun’s earlier meeting with European socialists in Brussels in 1905 Bernal shows him already aware of the possibility of skipping historical stages to speed the Chinese revolution. As recorded in Le Peuple for May 20, 1905, Sun stated that “Chinese Socialists…want to introduce European modes of production and to use machines, but without the disadvantages. They want to build a new society in the future without any transition. They accept the advantages of our civilization but they refuse to become its victims.”

With such a vision of the “leap” from harsh past to revolutionary future Bauer’s long vistas and Simon Leys’s current anguish flow together, and the central paradoxes of China’s modern history are illuminated. If I focus now on Leys it is because his book is the most provocative and the hardest to evaluate. He wants to know if the Chinese are happy now, what plans are being realized to achieve that happiness now, and his words are intemperate and urgent.

Before tackling Leys, I should like to give a few reflections. Indeed, in part these reflections come from reading Leys and trying to decide what to make of him. I think we can now see clearly that the longevity of Mao Tse-tung gave a sense of continuity to the long Chinese revolution; it has taken his death to make us see that much of that continuity may in fact have been spurious. The fact that Mao was in the forefront of events during 1927, 1939, 1958, and 1966 does not mean, I increasingly believe, that there was any necessarily coherent sequence between the Autumn Harvest risings and the anti-Japanese resistance in Yenan, or between the world of Yenan and the worlds of the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

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