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 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.
Nevertheless, to give just one example of the force of apparent continuity, the very real achievements during the Yenan period, and the real admiration bestowed on the Mao of that period by Western observers and later Western scholars, put many of Mao’s later actions beyond criticism. When we link to this the fact that the bitter hostility toward the People’s Republic by many Americans in the 1950s was seen by most later scholars as intimately connected to internal American political developments rather than to innate Chinese shortcomings, the result was the kind of giving-the-benefit-of-the-doubt attitude to the People’s Republic that marked the 1960s and the early Seventies.
Yet now, clearly, after twenty-seven years of Communist Party control in China, the record is beginning to come under scrutiny, and Simon Leys’s book, and the interest it has aroused, is a part of this new trend. Leys himself was not concerned with Chinese politics, as he tells us in “A Note From the Author”; as a young man he fell in love with China and Chinese art and simply “extended to the Maoist regime the same sympathy I felt for all things Chinese.” Yet despite this political detachment one is constantly reminded, as one ponders his shifts of attitude, of that other shift in attitudes toward the Soviet Union of which one minor but enduring offshoot was The God That Failed, edited in 1949 by Richard Crossman. In the case of the People’s Republic of China there have been no major disillusioning catalysts, such as the Stalin purge trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact, or the postwar occupations of Eastern Europe; and even if there had been, as Koestler and others show in The God That Failed, there is no reason to believe that such appalling events necessarily lead to loss of faith in the regime perpetrating them. Indeed, the very opposite may be the case, an even stronger marshaling of defenses in the face of the inescapably outrageous.
What many sensitive Western observers share, in their attitudes toward both the Russian and Chinese revolutions, is the terrible sense of trying, to evaluate the weight of a grim pre-revolutionary past in the context of a striving revolutionary present. In The God That Failed André Gide summarized the attitudes he had held in 1935, using the sinking of La Bourgogne as his catalyst:
The men in safety on board, armed with jack-knives and hatchets, had hacked off the hands of those who, clinging to the sides of the boat, were endeavoring to scramble in out of the sea. The knowledge of being one of those in the lifeboat, of being safe, whilst others round me are drowning, that feeling became intolerable to me.
And this feeling led him into his brief but deep flirtation with the Soviet Union.
Gide’s essay is a remarkable illustration of a fact of political life as true in a 1930s position toward the Soviet Union as for a 1960s position toward China: the tendency of bourgeois intellectuals to praise violent revolutions as long as they occur in other countries. We are drawn by the promise of a new dawn, and ask only that its beauty remain on the far horizon. If we do get a chance to visit the revolution we are torn by the predictable range of emotions that “visiting” a revolution must entail: a terrible sense of our own irrelevance, primarily, which we can compensate for either by irritable hostility or by enthusiasm for everything presented to us. Usually, too, timidity combines with our sense of visitors’ courtesy to prevent us from asking hostile questions, so that we ourselves become part of a cycle of deception.
There is nothing new in this. As Wordsworth, with engaging honesty, phrased his actual feelings toward the French Revolution (as opposed to his earlier emotional involvement, so deep while afar):
Where silent zephyrs sported with the dust
Of the Bastille, I sate in the open sun,
And from the rubbish gathered up a stone,
And pocketed the relic, in the guise
Of an enthusiast; yet, in honest truth,
I looked for something that I could not find,
Affecting more emotion than I felt….
Prelude, Book 9
His true emotions remained fixed on the art produced by those elements of society that the revolution had been designed to overthrow, for example the
…painted Magdalene of Le Brun,
A beauty exquisitely wrought, with hair
Dishevelled, gleaming eyes, and rueful cheek
Pale and bedropped with everflow- ing tears.
Simon Leys’s original feelings are roughly similar, of bourgeois sensitivity disillusioned when confronted with harsh realities. But Leys not only makes it clear from the start that he prefers the Chinese Le Bruns to the revolutionary relics; he is also intensely angry at the China he visited (in 1972) for the destruction it has wrought on those very works he most admired. Among these, to Leys, the destruction of Peking’s lovely towered gates is both the epitome and the symbol, for he sees it as being both aesthetically idiotic and without true practical purpose, and in a central passage of Chinese Shadows he tries to justify and explain his anger:
One should not be led astray by this “archaeological nostalgia” which seems to appear now and again in my impressions of the People’s Republic. If the destruction of the entire legacy of China’s traditional culture was the price to pay to insure the success of the revolution, I would forgive all the iconoclasms, I would support them with enthusiasm! What makes the Maoist vandalism so odious and so pathetic is not that it is irreparably mutilating an ancient civilization but rather that by doing so it gives itself an alibi for not grappling with the true revolutionary tasks.
This passage can stand for a dozen others in this book, in which Leys’s anger pours out against the country he revisited for six months in 1972, as the Cultural Revolution ran down, Lin Piao was destroyed, and Mao and Nixon developed the beginnings of a new Sino-American diplomacy. “Odious and pathetic” says Leys, and he does not let us forget it: China is both odious and pathetic because it is an inefficient totalitarian dictatorship, smothered in lies and cant; it is a land where one sees everywhere
the ugliness and sadness of the Maoist cancer that is gnawing away at the face of China, that imposes everywhere the indiscretion of its slogans, the obscenity of its loud-speakers, informing against the people, denouncing and tracking down beauty, grace, and poetry wherever they may be found.
How, one finds oneself continually asking, does Leys know this to be so, even given his earlier experiences in China, his six months in 1972, and a brief subsequent visit in 1974? How can he, who mocks Ross Terrill for calling his book The Real China, who spoofs the fellow-travelers re-parroting the Chinese line, sneers at Chinese émigrés who return from comfortable campuses to extoll the communes, and condemns the Western “lyrical illiterates” of Sinology who praised Chinese socialism in Yenan, how can he have learned so much? By seeing so little, is Leys’s original and provocative answer, by living a shadow life among shadow people, in which experience of reality is so consistently denied that “it is impossible to write anything but frivolities,” and one can only glean glimpses of reality through chance meetings with a cook, a waiter, a railway attendant.
I wonder if there is not a basic inconsistency behind Leys’s attitudes, because at the same time he seeks (demands even) that he be taken seriously as the carrier of a serious message; he juxtaposes himself repeatedly with George Orwell, and feels that his time in China justifies him in making mordant observations and flights of sarcastic abuse: the Party bureaucracy of China, for instance, is guilty of “cretinizing the most intelligent people on earth” while current Western attitudes to China are those of people who “praise an amputee because his feet aren’t dirty.”
Yet just as one grows dubious, something Leys has written hits home. I recall one small episode from Chinese Shadows that sticks in my mind. Leys writes of the unwillingness of the Chinese to allow the groups of eager tourists to spend any time with their own ambassadorial staffs in Peking, fearing that the hostility so many staff members felt for the People’s Republic might rub off on the visitors. As I read this a forgotten incident resurfaced in my mind. A member of the group I traveled with to China in 1974 had a close friend in one of the embassies. The group was in Peking, a cocktail party was arranged. Then the bus driver got completely lost in the few hundred yards between our hotel and the diplomat’s apartment. Consternation. We roared down side streets, up boulevards, stopped to consult passers-by and policemen. Just as the party was to end, we arrived. Reflecting on similar experiences in the Soviet Union Koestler wrote sardonically that one “would have to be a masochist with a touch of persecution mania to assume that they have been specially briefed for the occasion.” I still find the idea of that baffled, apologetic driver having been briefed hard to accept. But never, on any other occasion, did a guide or driver miss the way.
It is a pity in a way that Leys chose to write under a pseudonym, especially since he tells us that his “cover” has been blown anyway by “the Maoist faithful.” One might as well respect his desire not to use his real name, but by depriving the reader of any sense of a living context for Leys’s experiences in China he makes it doubly hard for us to assess the worth of his observations. Sometimes he comes across like any bitter and frustrated missionary or merchant in the closing years of the Ch’ing dynasty, excoriating the entire society for refusing to take him as one of its own; at other times he is the spokesman for a truly democratic dream which, he passionately feels, the Chinese leadership have long lost sight of.
Since I must attempt a judgment, I would say that Leys’s book fails to be an important contribution to our conceptions of China because it divorces the present so sharply from the past, and thus ducks the hardest questions, despite its appearance of no-holdsbarred honesty. The peculiar complexity of the Chinese revolution lies in the immensity of the population, and the terrible dislocations of civil life and economic collapse that spurred the revolution. The incredible poverty that any visitor still witnesses in China must be evaluated in the light of past Chinese famine rather than current affluences elsewhere, if our judgments are not to be totally skewed; and we need not like the regime’s jargon at all, may indeed find it absurd, yet must still strive, as Silone put it, to “separate the fatuous from the essential.” To put it another way, Leys would be happy to apply to contemporary China Koestler’s sardonic view that “to survive, we all had to become virtuosos of Wonderland croquet,” yet he lacks Koestler’s sense of the true difficulties of extricating the noble from the base in revolutionary contexts: “The passions of that time seem transformed into perversions, its inner certainties into the closed universe of the drug addict; the shadow of barbed wire lies across the condemned playground of memory.”
What really was that playground? “A refusal to admit the existence of destiny,” adds Silone contrapuntally to Koestler, “an extension of the ethical impulse from the restricted individual and family sphere to the whole domain of human activity, a need for effective brotherhood, an affirmation of the superiority of the human person over all the economic and social mechanisms which oppress him.” This is a timeless vision, which Silone and Koestler saw snatched from the Soviet Union, as Leys sees it snatched from the Chinese people: “People. The leaders of China manipulate the people cynically, but the people are still the country’s only capital. If, despite all the stupid cruelties of politics, China still remains faithful to itself—subtle, human, so supremely civilized—it is due to them…. They have buried twenty dynasties, they will also bury this one. They have not changed. As usual, they are patient; they are not in a hurry: they know so much more than those who rule over them!”
Oh, the patience of the ageless Chinese, with their eternal values! One grows a little weary, for this is out of Hegel by Bloomsbury, yet as in much of Leys there is force behind the attention-catching poses, a force found in the continuity of visions for a happier life, with different options that lead to deeper dignities.
The Condemned Playground,” wrote Cyril Connolly in his book of the same name published in 1945, “refers to Art itself; for Art is man’s noblest attempt to preserve Imagination from Time, to make unbreakable toys of the mind, mudpies which endure; and yet even the masterpieces whose permanence grants them a mystical authority over us are doomed to decay: a word slithers into oblivion, then a phrase, then an idea.” The creation of utopias of the mind is indeed Art, in Connolly’s sense; it is both inspirational and defensive. Bernal, Bauer, and Leys too in his wiser moments, show how the dreams of escape from oppression have been constantly present, if constantly deflected, and this persistence within the Chinese tradition leads us to hope that Connolly may have been too pessimistic: for the toys are unbreakable, and the adults can still remember them when they have grown up and left the playground for the bleak world outside.