China and the Search for Happiness: Recurring Themes in Four Thousand Years of Chinese Cultural History
Chinese Socialism to 1907
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 …