The rise and fall (and rise again) of vernacular happiness.
At the beginning of Carma Hinton's classic documentary (1984) about gender relations in Chinese society, a male voice explains, over the image of a pair of ruddy-cheeked little boy and girl munching on snacks and loitering along a low brick wall, that the birth of a boy is "a big happiness" and that of a girl is "a small happiness." The next shot reveals the source of the voice: a jovial middle-aged farmer sitting on a low stool in a courtyard. The word he uses for "happiness" is xi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] The reason he gives for the distinction between big and small is familiar: sons stay in the family to carry on the family name (and often the family enterprise as well) and provide old-age care; daughters marry out and owe little moral or economic obligations to their natal families. The patrilineal character of the kinship system was the structural determinant of women's debased status in traditional China.
Consider another anecdote. In Su Qjng's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1996) autobiographical novel Ten Years of Marriage [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] published in the 1940s, a baby girl's full month celebration party gives the female narrator's affluent marital family an occasion for conspicuous displays. Her widowed mother, who resides in another town, obligingly sends in lavish gifts. Among them are a set of vermillion plates holding four objects representing, by dint of homonymic, morphological, or metaphorical associations, longevity [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], fate [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], wealth [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and status [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: noodles [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], sweets [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], wheat gluten [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and longan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The narrator informs us that these objects are conventionally decorated with velvet flowers and images of fu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], shou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or gods of happiness (from having a large family), prosperity (from high official ranks and ample remuneration), and longevity. But with a girl as the recipient, the grandmother has dispensed with fu and lu, leaving only two images of shou: "I thought: probably mother had figured that since Cucu was a girl, happiness and prosperity were beside the point, so she redoubled her prayers for good health and a long life. It was an inglorious thing for her to have given birth to a daughter; now the daughter was extending that odium by giving birth to a granddaughter. I couldn't help take pity on mother and her life of unremitting misery" (Su 1996, 52-53).
I bring up these two anecdotes to illustrate two points. One, in traditional China, the idea of happiness hinged primarily on siring male heirs (fu) and secondarily on prosperity (lu) and good health (shou). Happy affairs [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] were typically associated with the birth of a (male) child, examination success, promotion, the milestones of old age, and a good death. Second, because lu was foreclosed to all women, happiness was deeply cleaved by a gender gap. Upwardly mobile men were able to avail themselves of both the public and private sources of happiness. "Whether pursuing the more prestigious civil service career route or engaging in trade and commerce, men had access to economic independence and social recognition and enjoyed the pleasures of friendship, travel, and leisure. The successful among them were likely to have come from large prosperous families and able, in their turns, to rear a good number of children while being shielded from the exigencies of life besetting the indigent. The bohemian among them were also fond of consorting with artistically accomplished courtesans in the pleasure quarters with whom they were able to forge a kind of emotional bond not possible in the domestic context when marriages were rarely contracted to fulfill a romantic courtship (Lee 2014, 117-57).
For women, the situation was much starker. As the grandmother in the second anecdote knew well, the ingredients of happiness for women boiled down to longevity, if only so that they could in their old age reap the reward for a lifetime's toil and pain, from footbinding and childbirth to the daily drudgery of domestic work. The only way they could partake of the blessings of the gods of fu and lu was by proxy through their menfolk. Needless to say, their happiness was entirely confined to the private sphere. Except for a small number of elite women who commanded a circle of devotees to their poetry or painting (or more rarely martial valor), or renowned courtesans with a steady, appreciative clientele, women could not count public recognition or financial independence as their blessings. Few still could taste the pleasures of travel or the dynamics of voluntary associational life. Indeed, to see and to be seen by strangers--what Hannah Arendt deems the essence of human flourishing--irrevocably marred a woman's reputation and moral worth. In sum, whereas men enjoyed a degree of self-determination when it came to happiness, women were to surrender to the dictates of "fate" far more thoroughly.
The gender gap in the conception of happiness intersected the gap between elites and commoners. For the latter, fu was more a blessing than a pursuit and is more aptly translated as "good fortune" or, as Richard Madsen suggests, "blessed happiness." While individuals might strive and pray for fu, its bestowal was left to impersonal, external factors--fate, luck, deities, cosmic alignments, mandarinal goodwill, and so on. Its opposite was huo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], misfortune, or calamity. In the Chinese correlative thinking, fu and huo were believed to be mutually constitutive and one never strayed too far from the other: "Good fortune," pronounces the Daoist classic Daodejing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "is the lair of ill fortune." This logic is perhaps best illustrated by the parable of Saiweng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a wise old man of the northern frontier. When his horse ran away, he declined his neighbors' commiseration. When the wayward horse reappeared with a companion, he demurred at the neighbors' congratulations. When his son broke a leg riding the new horse, he waved away their condolences and subsequently felt fortunate when his son was exempted from the draft during a barbarian invasion. Saiweng's serenely philosophic attitude towards the braiding of fortune and misfortune took the individual will and agency out of the picture in the contemplation of the workings of fate. No doubt Saiweng was assailed alternately by sorrow and joy with each successive incident, but happiness, it seems, did not hinge on his feelings but rather on his ability to reconcile himself with shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or the "propensity of things"; in so doing, he takes leave of happiness per se and simply goes with the flow (Jullien 1995; 2007).
A familiar sight during the Chinese New Year Festival is the upside down calligraphic rendition of fu pasted on doors, windows, and walls, punning on the homonymous dao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], upside down, and dao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], to arrive. It is surely the most visually succinct way of capturing the folk conception of happiness. Significantly, when fu came--courtesy of ancestors or gods--it brought blessings to the household or kin group as a corporate entity; there was no room for aseparatepeace. Career success, for example, became truly meaningful only when one could "return to the hometown attired in brocades" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and thereby bring glory to one's ancestors and lineage group [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Siring male heirs, likewise, was the foremost filial duty a son owed to parents and the patriline. This quasi-religious popular cult of happiness, however, was viewed with a mixture of condescension and disdain by the elites, especially those drawn to Buddhism and Daoism and those with bohemian inclinations. For them, fu-lu-shou were crude, philistine desires that stood in the way of the cultivation of inner virtue, de [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and the striving for more transcendent goals, such as enlightenment, immortality, serving the Way or Dao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and bestowing benevolence on the multitudes under Heaven [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]- Confucianism might be known for its avowedly worldly orientation, but a true Confucian gentleman did not set personal happiness as the touchstone of all values. Instead, he lived by the motto, "To worry ahead of the whole world and to rejoice only after the whole world is happy" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].
The high-minded literati might seek le [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (joy) and qu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (pleasure, pastime) in such elegant activities as composing poetry and essay, painting, practicing calligraphy, playing a musical instrument, playing chess, banqueting, clubbing, and sightseeing. The more solitary among these activities were believed to purify the heart-mind, instill tranquility, and align oneself closer to the Way of Heaven than did the crass pursuit of worldly goods. When necessary the true gentlemen willingly forewent the desiderata of fu-lu-shou in order to pursue these more spiritual and individualistic lequ. In troubled times, especially, they might well retreat from civic or even family life in order to preserve their inner peace and moral integrity. Eremitism was thus a quietist expression of the elites' reluctance to bow to the sway of fate and luck and desire for agency in grasping their destiny.
In traditional Chinese literature, the convention of wrapping up a tale, long or short, simple or convoluted, with a "grand reunion" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a broken mirror restored, in the case of a conjugal couple) of family members separated by turmoil, intrigue, or accident predominated until the mid-18th century, when the high Qing masterpiece Dream of the Red Chamber [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] resolutely broke with it. The obligatory happy ending betrayed an abiding faith in the justness of the cosmic order and was very much of apiece with the literary convention of rewarding industry and virtue with the blessings of fu in the form of numerous descendants and generations of successful examination candidates-turned-officials. Significantly, the central motif of the entire repertoire of premodern literature (including both fiction and drama) was not romantic love as in the case of modern literature, but filial piety. To the extent to which tales of filial heroism were spun or embellished by the educated for popular consumption, the elite and the plebeian worldviews converged. With the exception of the countercultural type, the elite did not pit their visions of the good life radically against the folk conception of happiness centered on family solidarity, prosperity, and continuity. Instead, there was a good deal of overlap and traffic between the two social strata in that both subscribed to an objective set of criteria for evaluating the good life. Those who sought a more subjectively meaningful existence found themselves at odds with both the elite and the plebeian visions.
Shen Fu's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] memoir Six Records of a Floating Life (1) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] can help us flesh out the tension between a dominant, objective understanding of happiness and a countercultural, subjective understanding. Composed at the turn of the 19th century, Six Records (of which only four are extant) is a lyrical account of the author's loving marriage, his network of friends, his beloved leisure pursuits, his travels, and his liaisons with courtesans. A well-educated scholar who failed repeatedly at the civil service examinations, Shen Fu tried to eke out a living working in government yamen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as a private secretary. It was an unstable occupation with a meager pay and little prestige. Shen frequently found himself unemployed and had to rely on family and friends to tide him over. He also tried petty commerce but did not have much talent or enthusiasm for it. He did manage, intermittently, to earn small sums from painting and seal carving, though not as much as his wife Chen Yun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] was able to with her needlework. "While they never quite starved, life was precarious and his wife died young from a protracted illness that they could ill afford to treat properly.
The memoir has been a perennial favorite of generations of readers drawn to its tender depictions of conjugal bliss, convivial gatherings of friends, and the small pleasures of everyday life. For all the hardships and miseries that he frankly laid bare, Shen Fu looked back on his life with gratitude and contentment and apparently wanted us to think that he had a good life. Particularly memorable were passages recording the playful and ingenious ways in which he and his wife made the most of their simple life: cultivating bonsai, entertaining friends, going to temple fairs together with her in male disguise, and so on. Children were mentioned as an afterthought and poverty never stood in the way of their zestful enjoyment of a way of life that was aloof from the goals of vernacular happiness.
Shen Fu was writing in the wake of the intellectual and literary effervescence of the late Ming (16th and 17th centuries) known as the "cult of qing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (sentiment)" (Lee 2007). Given impetus by Wang Yangming's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] philosophy of innate moral knowledge, liangzhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the movement sought to inject an element of the personal and the subjective into the Confucian ritual order by extolling the supreme power of sentiment and love. Despite the resurgence of Confucian orthodoxy after the Manchu conquest, the movement reached its apogee in the 18th-century classic Dream of the Red Chamber. In his low-keyed manner, Shen Fu was living out the legacy of this sentimental turn, to the extent that he was able to marry the woman he was actually in love with, thus winning institutional concession, if not endorsement, of a subjective existence dedicated to emotional intimacy and aesthetic and sensual pleasures. That he should have begun his memoir with "the joys of the wedding chamber" bespeaks the importance he attached to the life of the heart in defiance of orthodox opprobrium of conjugal intimacy as unfilial egoisme a deux. His deep and enduring devotion to his wife put considerable distance between the young couple and the extended family. Acting contrary to the codes of filial piety, he stood by his wife when his father ordered her expulsion; years later, he failed to arrive home in time to bid farewell to his dying father. He tells us that when he finally reached home, he beat his head on the ground until it bled in grief and remorse: "Alas! My father had a hard life, always working away from home, and giving birth to an unfilial son like me who seldom gave him happiness and who failed to care for him on his deathbed. How can I avoid punishment for my unfilial crimes?" (92).
The remorse stemming from the recognition that their pursuit of happiness had brought pain to their family was also shared by his wife. On her deathbed, she gave the following summation of her life:
I have been happy as your wife these twenty-three years. You have loved me and sympathized with me in everything, and never rejected me despite my faults. Having had for my husband an intimate friend like you, I have no regrets over this life. I have had warm cotton clothes, enough to eat, and a pleasant home. I have strolled among streams and rocks, at places like the Pavilion of the Waves and the Villa of Serenity. In the midst of life, I have been just like an immortal. But a true Immortal must go through many incarnations before reaching enlightenment. Who could I dare hope to become an Immortal in only one lifetime? In our eagerness for immortality, we have only incurred the wrath of the Creator, and brought on our troubles with our passion. Because you have loved me too much, I have had a short life! (87-88)
Although the conventional indices of fu/happiness had largely eluded her--rank and riches, a large family with many offspring, and good health--she deemed her life a happy one by more subjective criteria: a loving and companionate husband, several opportunities to travel and see "the world," and a home that afforded her a measure of autonomy and a space for her creativity. All this she deemed worthy of the price of a foreshortened life. And yet, this intensely subjective, bohemian definition of happiness seemed beclouded by anxiety and foreboding--about the hubris to dare be like gods in their carefree perfection and immortality. If society at large saw happiness as something that came to one as fate saw fit, then the couple's pursuit of happiness may indeed have violated some cosmic law for which they must pay a price--she with her life and he with bereavement at middle-age. In her last will and testament, she told Shen Fu to make amends with his family and find a good woman to look after their two children. In so doing he might atone for their offense by reintegrating himself into the ritual order of the family as a filial son and dutiful father, thereby putting behind his bohemian experiment as a uxorious husband and a lumpen-literatus.
Six Chapters appeals to the modern sensibility with its uncommon affirmation of the personal and the subjective and is readily appropriated by modern romantics for whom happiness is inconceivable in any other terms. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that the dominant understanding of happiness before the 20th century made scant reference to either love or freedom. As Prasenjit Duara (2014) has shown, traditional China was a horizontally stratified society with the elite and plebeian classes inhabiting separate albeit overlapping moral and spiritual worlds. For the Confucian gentleman, the cultivation of virtue required an ascetic lifestyle and dedication to the defense of the Way against the abuse of temporal powers, even when it entailed terrible costs: loss of rank, property, and life (and sometimes also the liquidation of one's entire clan). Still, "there is no thought of paradise or hell. Virtue is its own reward and the inner satisfaction of being in accord with Heaven's will" (130). In folk culture, by contrast, ideas and images of paradise and hell abounded and were a critical component in the cult of happiness. Duara points out that while the elites did not themselves subscribe to such beliefs, at least not overtly, they were generally tolerant of the commoners' yearnings for human flourishing and indeed were apt to take it upon themselves to facilitate such a desire, enacting a Confucian activist ideal known as zaofu yu min [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. An early articulation can be found in the History of Han [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: "May the king bestow xing upon all under Heaven." An exegete explains: "All matters of human flourishing are called xzwg/happiness" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Cihai 1999,1908).
The best elaboration of this ideal comes from a retired official named Huang Liuhong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] who published an instructional and reference manual on local administration that drew on his double stint as a district magistrate in the early Qing (1670s). Giving it the title of A Complete Book Concerning Happiness and Benevolence [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1984), Huang explains the appearance of "happiness" and "benevolence" in a book dealing with matters of government and administration:
"Happiness" is mentioned here in connection with the magistrate's intention of bringing happiness to the people, while "benevolence" refers to the actions he takes to bestow benevolence upon them. ... The ancient sage Mencius said, "All men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others. The ancient kings had this commiserating mind, and likewise, as a matter of course, they had a commiserating government." This is, in essence, what this book is all about. (53)
Given the propensity in classical Chinese prose for parallelisms, the alignment of happiness with intent [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and benevolence with action [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in the English translation seem overly rigid. The Mencius quotation makes it clear that intent and action were both required to bring happiness and benevolence to the people. Of interest to us is the assumption that happiness was a governmental affair and dependent on the moral charisma, goodwill, and knowhow of mandarins. Huang Liuhong (1974) took it for granted that it was in the power of the monarch and his deputies to make happiness a reality for their subject people-children [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In fact, they could not help but strive to "make happiness" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and "bestow benevolence" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] because they could not bear [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] the unhappiness of the common people (3).
Thus in the orthodox formulation, fu was a largess that the ruling class, on the basis of their superior access to Heaven's will [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] through learning and cultivation, helped deliver to those who, by dint of their ignorance, could only pray for good fortune and were indebted to both Heaven and their father-and-mother officials [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] when happiness did come their way. In this manner the imperial bureaucracy arrogated almost godly powers to itself, yet it still upheld the fundamental belief in fu as pertaining to the cosmic, amenable to human intervention but ultimately unknowable to mere mortals. For this reason, imperial Confucianism largely tolerated the spread of Buddhism and Daoism, permitting their practitioners the niche of ministering to the popular desire for fu-lu-shou through temple worship, divination, and ritual service, so long as they did not foment sectarian cults or millenarian movements that challenged the ruling class's monopoly of access to the Way and interpretation of Heaven's will. Commoners might pray to a panoply of gods, spirits, and ancestors, beseeching them for fertility [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], clement weather [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], good harvest [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], safe journey [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], long life [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], wealth [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], social mobility [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and so on, but must steer clear of worshipping Heaven itself (Duara 2014, 164). In other words, the cult of happiness must remain a vernacular, depoliticized affair, and unhappiness and discontent must not become the rallying point for insurrectional politics, though not all rulers were able to prevent the latter from materializing.
Rebels and Revolutionaries (and the West)
All this would change in the 20th century. Radical May Fourth intellectuals pushed the internal gender and class fissures of the Confucian conception of the good life and good society to the foreground in their agitations for a total social revolution. Liberty [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] was consecrated as the fount of all goals and values. The path to liberation began invariably with the repudiation of the institution of arranged marriage as the epitome of unfreedom. As is well known, the ideological arsenal of the May Fourth rebels was stocked with ideas borrowed from the European Enlightenment, mostly via Japan.
In Europe prior to the age of Enlightenment, according to Darrin McMahon (2006), happiness was also regarded as a matter of good fortune. The Greek word eudaimonia literally yokes the good (eu) to what the gods (daimon) bring. In English, "happiness" derives from the Middle English and Old Norse word happ (chance, fortune) and refers to what befalls us by happenstance. Indeed, in most Indo-European languages, the elements of luck and fate are preserved in their respective terms for happiness, most notably bonheur in French, felicita in Spanish, and Gluck in German (11). It is a creed shared across the premodern world that only those who have the good gods on their side and meet their ends peacefully can be deemed fortunate, blessed, and happy. In other words, no one is truly happy until he or she is dead: "It is the end--death--that [ensures] in its finality that one's good fortune, one's blessedness, can no longer be taken away" (6). Instead of a psychological or emotional state, "happiness, rather, is a characterization of an entire life that can be reckoned only at death" (7). As Shen Fu's wife intuited, it marks human perfection, the state of approaching divine transcendence, and a precious reward for the humble and the virtuous. McMahon demonstrates that the modern understanding of happiness as a right, an entitlement, even a moral obligation is a legacy of the Enlightenment. It is only since the 17th and 18th centuries that humanity has come to believe that happiness is its due and that every man, woman, and child can, and should, be happy. Chance and fortune are increasingly shunted to the obscure corner of freak accidents, and pain and suffering are the targets of humanitarian crusades.
Once the Enlightenment understanding of happiness as an individual right and as a subjective experience was introduced to China along with European literature, philosophy, social thought, and political institutions, two problems cried out for redress: First, the folk definition of happiness as fu was premised on a gender gap that denied women access to economic independence and moral autonomy. It pitted men's happiness against that of women and, to a lesser extent, the older generation's happiness against that of the younger generation. Women and youth, in the lingo of the era, had no renge, a composite of rights, dignity, and autonomy. The social imaginary of happiness rarely took their point of view, and when it did it merely lamented their mean fate or hard luck. Secondly, the Confucian ideal of zaofu yu min and patronage of the cult of fu-lushou masked an iniquitous social order in which the elites had the wherewithal to pursue both lofty goals and aesthetic pleasures while the commoners had to resort to projecting their hope for a good life onto gods and spirits and the next life.
The most unflinching indictment of the Confucian social order issued from Lu Xun's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "Diary of a Madman," [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] the founding text of modern Chinese literature. Its hallucinating protagonist discovers to his horror that the pages of the venerated classics are filled with the word chiren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (eat people) in between sanctimonious lines about benevolence and virtue. In "The New Year's Sacrifice" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Zhufu, literally, prayers for blessings), a twice-widowed woman is cast out of her home by marital relatives who covet her late husband's paltry estate, and then out of her employer's house on account of her accursed fate. Shortly before her death on the eve of the Chinese New Year as a destitute beggar, she tries to seek solace in the possibility of meetingloved ones in the underworld (Lee 2014, ch.1). The story ends on a pseudo-joyful note registering the jubilant atmosphere of a small town basking in the gods' blessings. The message cannot be clearer: the townsfolk erect their happiness directly on the dead body of a wretched woman. This message was echoed and reinforced in countless May Fourth stories aiming at exposing the injustice, duplicity, and hypocrisy of a social order that preyed on the weak and helpless in the name of benevolence and harmony.
A story that arguably rivals "The New Year's Sacrifice" in bleakness is Rou Shi's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "A Slave Mother" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Lau, Hsia, and Lee 1981), in which an impoverished and desperate husband pawns out his wife to a wealthy gentry family on a three-year contract as a concubine. The temporary husband/employer is an elderly gentleman who yearns for a son but whose barren wife is unwilling to put up with secondary wives. Leaving her own infant son behind, the "slave mother" in due course gives birth to a baby boy on whom she pours all her pent-up maternal affections, only to be torn away again when the contract period is up. "When she reaches home physically exhausted and emotionally depleted, the husband greets her with two bloodless words: "Make dinner" (219). Once again, the quest for fu on the part of the gentry family comes at the direct expense of the downtrodden, cannibalizing an underclass woman's womb, milk, and maternal love. Happiness seems sheer extravagance for this penurious couple and for countless others like them with little hope of rising above subsistence living and women's subjection, a condition likened to "the long night, silent and cold as death, [that] seemed to drag on endlessly" (219).
It was this long, funereal night that the revolution of the 20th century aimed to upend. The revolution was to take place on two fronts. On the one hand was the liberation of women from the patriarchal institutions of arranged marriage and virilocal residence. In their place was the new ideal of the conjugal family founded on free love, companionship, and women's right to work and right to divorce. On the other hand was the liberation of the laboring masses from the yoke of class oppression and ideological subjugation enabled by religious illusions or "superstitions." The Chinese Enlightenment, as the May Fourth/New Culture movement is often characterized, was first and foremost an iconoclastic assault on the "old family system" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and "feudal superstitions" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. The heroine of this twin revolution was the New Woman [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] who, having received an enlightened education, dared to enter into romantic relationships in the absence of parental supervision or in the teeth of parental objection. Should the courtship or marriage prove unviable, she was at liberty to seek annulment or divorce. The ideal abode of the conjugal family was in urban centers where the couple could earn their livelihood in the new commercial economy.
With the familial umbilical cord cut off, it was often necessary for the wife also to seek gainful employment. In the process emerged many a woman writer, educator, actor, artist, nurse, athlete, secretary, and shop clerk, who proudly distanced themselves from the maid, midwife, herbalist, and prostitute. An autonomous renge grounded in economic independence gradually became a hypergood for women, even when it led to insecurity, deracination, and loneliness. In their bittersweet choice, we hear echoes of Shen Fu and his wife's courageous flight from the pervading cult of happiness, ardent adventure in the countercultural cult of qing, and soulful gesture to repair the emotional collateral damage. Unlike Shen Fu, few May Fourth rebels were willing to return to the embrace of the patriarchal family, though some did try to make symbolic compromises with the kinship ritual order. In Lu Xun's story "In the Wineshop" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], for example, a young man, who in his radical youth dared to yank off the beards of the tutelary gods in the local temple, yields to his mother's wish to rescue his little brother's grave from an encroaching river. Taking a replacement coffin to the burial ground with four workmen, he feels oddly elated about the prospect of "seeing" his long departed brother: "this was a new sensation for me" (1977, 148). After much digging, however, they come up empty-handed, the grave apparently having already been washed away. Nonetheless, he goes through the motion of reburial by depositing a handful of dirt from the original gravesite in the new coffin. For this gesture of honoring the kinship ritual order, he reproaches himself for betraying his youthful ideals and yet is glad to have brought some consolations, even happiness, to the less fortunate and less enlightened such as his illiterate mother.
The May Fourth inaugurated a melancholy genre of romantic fiction in which the heroes and heroines ruminated on the promise of happiness in free love and companionate marriage and the wide arena of free sociability and professional development. They rarely spoke of fu, xi, le, qu and preferred instead xingfu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], coined by Meiji-era Japanese translators of European texts to render the distinctly Enlightenment notion of "happiness. "Xingfu was part and parcel of the modern vocabulary that, along with minzhu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]., kexue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], shehui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], geren [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and renge [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], heralded a whole new way of being Chinese. With the overthrown of Confucian cosmology, life's meaning and purpose was dislodged from such external sources as Heaven and patrilineal continuity, and internalized as pertaining to a psychologized "human nature" or the "heart." Xingfu was now eminently an affair of the heart, a subjective state knowable only to the individual, which the ancient Greeks called hedone. The transition from the quasi-religious cult of ful eudaimonia to the secular pursuit of xingfu/hedone underlined the growing importance of subjective feeling and the exaltation of romantic passion in early 20th-century urban culture. The new salience of emotion thus indexed the rise of the individual. The contemplative fiction of Lu Xun and his contemporaries chronicled this inward journey in which the individual confronted his or her heart with little more than a few foreign novels and treatises as guides.
The transition was much less obvious in the rural areas, where fu and xi remained the keywords of the cult of happiness well into the reform era. "When anthropologist Sulamith Potter undertook field research in a Chinese village in the early 1980s, she walked into a world where happiness apparently had little to do with feeling or mood and everything to do with proper conduct and hard striving for prosperity. The cultural shock forced her to turn her gaze back on her own society and cultural habitus. Her reflections on the centrality of emotion in the West and the extent to which the social order is validated at the level of individual feeling can help us appreciate the dramatic transformation in early 20th-century urban China. In some ways, the May Fourth and post-May Fourth urban generations were already coping with some of the angst and predicament that would manifest with greater urgency in late 20th-century Western societies. Their experience of alienation from the rural world from which many of them hailed also mirrored the cultural gap that Potter observed in her fieldwork
As Potter explains, emotion in modern Western societies is the legitimizing basis of all social relationships, including not only contractual ones such as marriage but also ascriptive parent-child relations. It is an article of modern faith that marriage should be grounded in love as its culmination and institutional sanctification, and that it should be dissolved once love is no longer, otherwise it amounts to legalized prostitution. Between parents and children, too, love takes precedence over duty and obligation, so that generational estrangement or abuse-induced enmity is often enough to undermine the claims of blood ties. Moreover, within the domestic sphere, intimate gestures of affection are considered essential in sustaining and legitimizing familial relationships. Kisses, hugs, cards, gifts, and constant protestations of love create the illusion that it is affect, not blood or contract, that holds the family unit together and fortifies it into an emotional refuge from the cruel, cold world beyond. These gestures also serve to democratize entrenched hierarchical relations by closing age, generation, and gender gaps, thereby transforming the family from a social and economic institution to a sentimental community. Lastly, the centrality of emotion extends even to the workplace, the canonical space of social contract and disinterestedness. Potter cites Arlie Hochschild's classic work, The Managed Heart, about the aviation industry's effort to train its employees to work the subtle arts of affect in order to provide an experience of sincere, personalized service to passengers (at least in the pre-deregulation era).
By contrast, Chinese village life in its most traditional state was a ritualistic order in which emotion was not granted any formal social role and therefore had no formal social consequences. In other words, emotional experiences, however intense or devastating, could not create, maintain, injure, or destroy social relationships (Potter 1988, 185-86). Emotional outbursts might be unpleasant or unwelcome, but they were rarely consequential, nor were they accorded truth status. For this reason emotion was often allowed a wide latitude. Childhood tantrums, for example, were routinely ignored instead of raising alarm or being met with solicitous efforts at mollification (187-88). Adults too were permitted to vent their anger or grief openly until the fit of passion ran its course. Instead, "attention [was] directed away from the psychological processes of individuals, especially their feelings, and toward the appropriate expression of shared intersubjective agreement about moral values and the social world" (190-91). The exception that proves the rule was the amorous feeling of love. Because of its implications for marriage and family, love was permissible only when it was expressed in a ritualistic, non-individual-directed manner. A young man wishing to woo a young woman would do well to put in a day's hard work hoeing her family plot, fetching water for their kitchen tank, and then some. (3) Happiness, it follows, was not indexed to the individual or the heart, but to the corporate kinship group whose solidarity was sanctified in the cult of fu-lu-shou.
What this meant was that the social order, at least in the context of village life relatively untouched by modern print culture, was not predicated on individual consent or perceived to be an amalgamation of individual will, as the theory of social contract might have it. Each person was under no obligation to align his or her internal feeling state with external exigencies. Citing Richard Solomon, Potter contextualizes the non-alignment of social action and inner feeling underlying "the Chinese definition of sincerity [which did] not exist in reference to inner feeling, but require[d] only the enactment of civility" (194). Small wonder that, in response to her frequent inquiries about feelings, an informant interjected with a note of vexation, "How I feel doesn't matter."
That the traditional social order did not take account of individual feelings was precisely what was unacceptable to the May Fourth generation. For them, how the widow in "The New Year's Sacrifice" and the nameless wife in "A Slave Mother" felt mattered decisively if not absolutely when it came to judging the legitimacy of a social order. This requirement also lies at the heart of the social contract theory that undergirds liberal democracy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed the social contract to reconcile concentrated power to the ideal of individual sovereignty and authenticity. For him, a social order is legitimate insofar as it is premised on the affirmation and validation from each member of the governed. In a large polity in which direct democracy is not possible, citizens express their consent to the political arrangement in which the majority are governed by a minority by formally selecting representatives who vow to represent their interests and preferences. In so doing they symbolically close the gap between subjective selves and the objective social order. "When they pull the levers in the voting booth, it is as if each of them were teleporting a little piece of their hearts to the political center to be melded into the General Will. The centrality of emotion in Western culture is thus intimately bound up with the primacy of the individual in the liberal political tradition, in contrast to the marginalization of the individual and his or her emotion in the Chinese tradition, as Potter has documented.
How Happiness Became an Emotion
To the extent to which modernity was a heroic project to release the individual from an impersonal social order, it has always sanctified sentimental emancipation as a revolutionary project. Beginning with Rousseau for whom sincerity and truth were synonymous, radical politics in the liberal West invariably took individual conscience as its touchstone and the heart as its compass: "There is a pervasive stress on what each and every individual feels and experiences as providing the ultimate standards of legitimacy, action, and definition of collective goals" (Seligman et al. 2008, 133). It should come as no surprise that the "pursuit of happiness," enshrined in the founding manifesto of the United States of America as a God-given right, should have also been conceived largely within the parameters of individual emotion and subjective well-being, as hedone that can be measured on a hedonometer, so to speak. However difficult it is to conclusively answer the question "Am I happy?"--no less so than "Am I saved?" or "Am I in love?"--Americans have tirelessly sought out metrics and tests to gauge their affective states and are forever hungry for newfangled recipes of happiness. It seems un-American not to engage in what a British observer characterizes as "the exhausting daily application of the Declaration of Independence" (Whippman 2012). Periodically happiness gurus remind everyone that happiness is an interactive, communal, even spiritual enterprise: "Happiness comes from between: between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself (Haidt 2006). But in the final analysis, such advice still takes the individual "you" as the fundamental unit of accounting when evaluating the legitimacy and efficacy of institutions and practices.
The authors of the sociological classic Habits of the Heart long ago descried this deep-seated proclivity to take the individual as the measure of all things and "to think of commitments--from marriage and work to political and religious involvement--as enhancements of the sense of individual well-being rather than as moral imperatives" (Bellah et al. 1986, 47). In sum, the American discourse of happiness rarely strays far from debating the relative merits of what the same authors call "utilitarian individualism" versus "expressive individualism," or of work and family, money and meaning, head and heart. Out of this seesaw has emerged a distinctive American breed of individualists: the bobos who strive to have both in equal measure (bourgeois bohemians) (Brooks 2000).
For Charles Taylor (1989), the rise of the individual goes hand in hand with the bourgeois affirmation of ordinary life, whereby previously venerated higher pursuits such as religious contemplation and military exploits are held in suspicion, and previously disparaged activities revolving around domestic and occupational life are sanctified as intrinsically worthy and ennobling. As the individual becomes disembedded from the larger social structures and the overarching values and goals institutionalized therein, personal happiness is enshrined as the constitutive good, as the telos of secular life and governmentality. The road to what Deirdre McCloskey (2012) dubs "happyism" is a short one. Happyism elevates hedonomics to a science to be deployed by psychologists and behavioral economists who are all too eager to peer into our interior hedonometers to count the frequency of dopamine surges. Much of this new science is based on self-reporting and laboratory experiments with isolated individuals urged to look within, hence reinforcing the habits of heart cemented in what Christopher Lasch (1978) has branded as the "culture of narcissism."
Having experienced a social world in which personal feeling holds little importance, Potter (1988) is critical of the great expenditure of resources for the sake of continuous and pervasive attention to individual psychological processes and affective states in her own society (183-84). Eva Illouz (2007) too speaks of "an emotional ontology" that is the hypostatizing effect of the compulsive inward gaze and endless verbalization in television talk shows and autobiographical narratives, as if the emotions are both trapped in the "deep self of their bearer" (33) and detachable from the self for public clarification and management (36). In place of a politically active civil society is a therapeutic culture that gives us "micro public spheres, that is, domains of action submitted to a public gaze, regulated by procedures of speech, and by values of equality and fairness" (Illouz 2007, 37). Jackson Lears (2013) invokes Philip Rieff's formulation "the triumph of the therapeutic" to capture the worldview embedded in the happiness industry whereby "all overarching structures of meaning have collapsed, and there is nothing at stake beyond a manipulatable sense of well-being." Nonetheless, the therapeutic culture taps into the modern democratic sensibility that valorizes individual autonomy and agency as well as universal parity, hence proving irresistible to emancipatory causes, most notably feminism.
Because the social order is experienced as having no inherent basis for continuity, it must be continuously reinvented and reaffirmed from within multitudes of individuals. As Potter (1988) points out, "If emotions must be expressed sincerely, and the lack of sincere feeling invalidates relationship, then the individual is required to produce a continuous stream of emotional expression that is simultaneously sincere and appropriate; if this does not occur, the social order is endangered" (183). The happiness imperative works especially to the advantage of capital by imposing an on-going regime of self-monitoring and self-improvement (Davies 2015). To cope with this burden, Americans turn to psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and self-help advice, all instruments of biopower that prey on their happiness anxiety. In her latest book Why Love Hurts, Eva Illouz (2012) argues that psychoanalysis is to love what neoliberalism is to society: whenever things go wrong, it is your own fault. In medieval Europe, love sickness was borne with dignity and pride as a token of one's strength of character: "The aristocratic aestheticization of suffering combined with religious transfiguration to render it an order of experience that lent meaning and even greatness to the self (129). Today, in contrast, it is a pathological condition that must be cured for the sake of happiness. The spread of positive psychology makes it practically inconceivable to include pain and suffering in the definition of the good life (Ehrenreich 2009).
While Americans seem as adept at critiquing, even mocking their obsession with happiness as they are at pursuing it, Illouz (an Israeli sociologist) is among the few who take due notice of happyism's umbilical cord to democracy, that is, its roots in the emergence of the middle class and the sanctification of ordinary life, the humanitarian intolerance of sufferingon the part of disadvantaged groups (slaves, women, ethnic minorities, animals), and the aporia of the liberal democratic polity in which an elite minority governs a heterogeneous majority notwithstanding the noble idea of popular sovereignty. It is not far-fetched to say that happyism and its manifold maladies are the price of democracy and the seeds were sown at the inception of the great American experiment.
Although the paradox of happiness is most acutely experienced in contemporary America, the challenge of grounding a social order in individual emotion was also keenly felt by the May Fourth and post-May Fourth generations who boldly broke with the patriarchal kinship system and insisted on injecting freedom, autonomy, and equality into the institutions of marriage and family. In Su Qing's autobiographical novel introduced at the beginning, the narrator endured ten years of loveless marriage and finally found the courage to seek a divorce. In the sequel, she chronicles her life as a professional writer and magazinist during and after Shanghai's "lonely island" period (1937-45) in the midst of Japanese occupation of eastern China. After a rocky start, she managed to launch a moderately successful career, acquiring a sizeable readership, enjoying the friendship and patronage of Shanghai's elite circle of literati and politicians, and moving freely in the city and beyond insofar as it was possible to do so under Japanese blockade. Although she was unable to shake off a nagging sense of failure and loneliness as a divorcee, she looked upon her decade of married life with regret and horror.
Early in the novel, she documents in excruciating detail her first pregnancy. Her in-laws, confidently anticipating a man-child, practically hoisted her on a pedestal and forced upon her a regimen of excessively rich foods and zero mobility. The moment her daughter was born, however, she was all but forgotten with only shame to keep her company. The experience permitted her no illusion about having any intrinsic worth (renge) as a person. Her sporadic efforts to start a career in teaching and writing were thwarted by the in-laws and the husband, who told her in no uncertain terms that her sole raison d'etre was to produce the family's heir. Her status deteriorated further with each successive birth of a daughter. After the couple relocated to Shanghai so that the husband could continue his study and pursue a career in law, he took to philandering and refused to discharge his duty to provide for the family. Day in and day out the narrator had to scheme to wring a measly sum out of him for the daily provisions. At one point, no longer able to bear the strain of uncertainty and constant threat of hunger, she implored him for a fixed monthly allowance for household expenditures: "we can't go on like this: a few dimes when you're in a good mood and nary a penny when you're in a foul mood." He retorted: "I myself don't have any fixed income. Where do you get off demanding a fixed allowance? You're on your own. I don't eat at home anyhow. ... Frankly, if you're gonna ask for money, you might as well put on a pleasant face. But you go about it as if I've owed you something since the previous life. If I were to give the money to the taxi dancers, they'd be kissing my feet in gratitude!" (171).
The reference to taxi dancers highlighted, in a viciously stinging way, the lack of renge on the part of the domestic woman. If dignity and autonomy could not be accommodated by marriage, then marriage could no longer be the institutional framework for the pursuit of happiness. The divorce was thus precipitated as much by the husband's infidelity as by his contempt for her. It marked a turning point both exhilarating and frightening. Although her dozen or so (married) male friends and associates were solicitous and occasionally flirtatious with her, she was cognizant of her diminishing prospect of remarriage. At the same time she was far more assured of her self-worth than ever. The fact that she had given birth to three daughters receded into the background as she came to be identified with her writings and addressed respectfully by her readers as "Su Xiansheng" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or Maestro Su. A close friend even reported to her a quarrel between himself and his wife at home. Allegedly, upon hearing him speak of the narrator's plight as a single woman, the wife protested: "So you pity Miss Su. "Why don't you have some sympathy for your own wife too? She may have lost her husband's love, but she must be very happy [xingfu], having the lot of you to comfort her. As for me..." (305). To be sure, happiness for the narrator admitted a large dose of pain (especially that of losing custody of her children), yet she clearly preferred to live by the modern creed that social relationships and institutions must be grounded in emotional authenticity. A marriage without love or mutual respect was not worth saving for the sake of the traditional aspirations for fu-lu-shou. That she took to recording her triumphs and tribulations betrayed a desire to affirm, and to win affirmation from her readers, her fateful decision to seek happiness outside its conventional locus.
In the volatile condition of occupied Shanghai, the narrator found herself perennially buffeted by financial insecurity until she gained the attention of a VIP in Wang Jingwei's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] puppet regime (likely Chen Gongbo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], mayor of Shanghai, 1940-45) whom she met at a party and who at a later point anonymously presented her with a check. It was a sum large enough to take money worries entirely off her mind for several years. The gift's moral taint haunted her, yet in her straitened circumstances she could not afford to turn it away--at this point she was also providing child support as her ex-husband's finances had hit bottom. Surviving as a professional single woman in a troubled time meant that she had to go on making compromising choices like this. The life course she had charted for herself was thus not only rife with loneliness and insecurity but was also a morally and politically compromised affair in her own eyes and a fortiori in the eyes of her detractors who considered her a literary harlot [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] selling moral integrity for bourgeois comforts and vanity. But she drew a line between herself and bona-fide collaborators [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]:
Yes, I made a living with my writings in occupied Shanghai. But the "good" timing was a mere coincidence, not that I deliberately chose to take up scribbling during those "auspicious" years. It's true that I didn't chant "Down with the imperialists!" That's because I was afraid of being dragged into the military police station to be tortured. Even if it wasn't dangerous, I'm not one given to sloganeering anyway. I think the question is not whether I sold my writings, but whether my writings jeopardized the Republic. Consider this: rice merchants also sold rice and rickshaw pullers also pulled any and all kinds of customers [in occupied Shanghai; yet no one is going after them]. So long as our country does not deny that those of us residing in occupied territories still had a right to life, however feeble and cowardly it was, then I admit that I did scratch out such a living. But I do not feel terribly guilty about it. (193)
In the end, Su Qing paid dearly for this streak of independence. After the war she was picked up by KMT police for questioning and her name was subject to a smear campaign. After 1949, she suffered even more denunciations and persecutions and eventually died an obscure death. She never wrote fiction and never married again. For the nationalists and revolutionaries, however, the snuffing out of one woman's hope for happiness was negligible compared with the epic life and death struggle of the Chinese nation throughout the first half of the 20th century. In times of national crisis and national regeneration, those who blithely buried their heads in the shallow sands of domestic life, profit-seeking, and career advancement--the central ingredients of ordinary life sanctified in the Enlightenment--had fallen victim to "bourgeois decadence." This line of argument was espoused fervently by leftist intellectuals and later by the Chinese Communist Party. Ding Ling's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "Shanghai, Spring 1930" 1930 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] gives us two such myopic characters, one male and one female, who are unable to see beyond tawdry private pleasures and career success--unlike their respective spouses who find meaning and purpose in underground revolutionary activism. Happiness for the latter is defined in collective, political terms requiring the curtailment or sacrifice of almost all that constitutes the satisfaction and fulfillment of an ordinary life--for the ultimate goal of restoring vernacular happiness to the "people" in the indefinite future.
Consumers and Dreamers (and the State)
It seems that we have come full circle to the Confucian bifurcated conception of happiness whereby the ruling class assumed the obligation to facilitate the realization of the plebeian desire for human flourishing. The difference is that the Confucian elites patronized the vernacular cult of fu and to some extent also partook of its basic values and aspirations. Communist orthodoxy, however, grew increasingly hostile toward the quotidian conception of happiness and its ritual and religious trappings. Vernacular happiness came to be regarded as suspect and illegitimate. In its place was enshrined the socialist ethic of service and self-sacrifice. A new kind of asceticism reigned supreme in the revolutionary ranks who were urged to serve the people [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and create happiness for the people [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Any pain, deprivation, and suffering in the present was justified as necessary sacrifice for the collective future, now that happiness was once again de-individualized and its proper subject further projected onto the socialist fatherland. Before such a sublime entity, any romantic heartache, domestic discord, social mishap, career frustration, not to mention ennui, appeared hopelessly trite. Vernacular happiness was now synonymous with selfishness and its pursuit could amount to a political crime. (4)
Before the Communist rejection of bourgeois decadence and reintroduction of a ritual-political order was taken to the extreme during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the call for subordinating the smaller self [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to the greater self [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and prioritizing national salvation over individual happiness seemed not only reasonable but positively welcomed by the post-May Fourth generation dealing with the fallout of the romantic experiment. The urgency of saving China from imperialist conquest was such that no personal sacrifice was too great. As a popular slogan put it rhetorically: "Where is home when the nation is no more?" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. And yet not everyone subscribed to this nationalist logic. Su Qing's fellow Shanghai writer Zhang Ailing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] published a novella called "Love in a Fallen City" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (2006) in the 1940s about a young divorcee seeking in vain the security and contentment of home and hearth until the fall of Hong Kong makes it all possible for her. Reared in an aristocratic family, the heroine fears the stigma of declasse attached to working women and deems a respectable remarriage her only lifeline. At her natal home where she has sought temporary refuge, she is endlessly needled with reminders of her not belonging there. At the news of her ex-husband's untimely death, she is urged to return thither and assume the position of the chaste widow, which could restore her claim to financial support and old age care. Instead, she bravely throws herself into the game of love played by the dandies and flappers of Shanghai and Hong Kong. Yet just like Su Qing's narrator who realizes with rueful resentment that an impecunious 30-ish divorcee, however charming, has little to recommend herself on the marriage market, Zhang's vivacious and beautiful heroine dallies with a wealthy overseas Chinese playboy with little hope of getting him to tie the knot with her--until the romantic merry-go-round is put paid to by a tempest of bullets and artillery shells from the invading Japanese army. With no more dance balls and soirees to attend and so many daily chores and worries to occupy them, the pair settle down to domestic life and begin to live in earnest as husband and wife who are thankful to have each other. The heroine gets a taste of happiness for the first time in many years, no matter that thousands have perished in the battle that has brought down the city.
Zhang's contrarian tale has troubled and fascinated countless readers and critics. It seems unconscionable that a woman should rejoice over her personal triumph amid death and destruction. Yet few other stories ever talk so audaciously back to the nationalist diktat about the conjoined fate of home and nation: For a woman who is already rendered homeless by the patriarchal kinship system, the death of the nation [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] amounts to a wild card that could make her situation worse, or, in an ironic twist of fate, make her dream come true. Vernacular happiness could be made synchronous with the fate of the nation only if there were no hierarchies of gender and class and no conflict of interests and values, that is, if there was no human plurality. Zhang's story makes it plain that even between a man and a woman in love, divergence in interests and goals can give rise to endless skirmishes. Who is to say which side has a greater claim to his or her vision of happiness? And when it comes to demanding sacrifice for the good of the nation, who is to say that the common good does not in fact serve only a privileged few? "Who can know for certain that the greater good is worth all the unhappiness endured in its name and that it will ultimately redound to the benefit of all, equally and fairly?
These were precisely the questions posed by the post-Mao generation reeling from the colossal sacrifices demanded of them by the party-state for the sake of a communist utopia. It came as a terrible revelation that the party did not know best, and that the abnegation of the smaller self had not brought in return a strong nation and a flourishing society. Bidding farewell to revolution, the Chinese embarked on the pursuit of vernacular happiness with a vengeance. In pointed defiance of the socialist service ethic, happiness was recast in personal, private, even unabashedly materialist terms: the joy of romantic love, pleasure of sensuality, satisfaction of a well-paid job, admiration of peers, reward of good health, gratification of a cohesive family, security of owning one's home, delights in art and entertainment, and thrills of a consumer lifestyle with its endless choices and possibilities. To be sure, conflict and disappointment invariably arose, but few were willing to return to the collectivist era when the state promised to remove such petty troubles by imposing a unified, transcendent vision of the good life.
In the three decades of reform and opening up, the state has retreated from private life and renounced campaign-style politics. It has not only acquiesced to the post-Mao resurgence of vernacular happiness but is also actively fostering it through the deepening of market reforms and sponsorship of a consumerist economy that delivers bread and circuses to the masses long starved for such humble pleasures. It even permits a degree of religious freedom, opening the space for the worship of ancestors, gods, and spirits and allowing people to frame their disparate visions of the good life in kinship and/or spiritual terms. But, above all, it is the Enlightenment-inspired, renge-based, and subjective understanding of happiness that has made a triumphant comeback. In a kind of replay of the May Fourth discovery of the individual and celebration of free love and free marriage, the post-Mao discourse of happiness unfolds almost entirely in the context of reclaiming love, marriage, and family as the bedrock of human rights. With life's meaning and purpose once again vested in the affairs of the heart, small wonder that by far the most numerous and most popular narratives, in both verbal and visual media, are dedicated to intimate, emotionally charged relationships between lovers, spouses, and parents and children. Although lexicographic and syntactic inertia has carried the connotation of good fortune into the contemporary usage of xingfu--as when the Chinese title of Will Smith's 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness becomes When Happiness Comes Knocking [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], China's swelling ranks of the middle class have decidedly swapped fu-lu-shou for the American Dream and regarded the pursuit of happiness as a birthright and self-directed project and turned more readily to self-help guides and happiness gurus than to the gods or the government (Madsen 1995, Yang 2014, Zhang 2014a).
Once happiness becomes an emotion, or "an ideal of uninterrupted good feelings" (McMahon 2006, 462), contemporary urban Chinese have also come to experience the same quandary that attends happyism. Noting the astonishing success of the "smiley face" worldwide and the imperative of constant good cheer, McMahon (2006) writes: "Who among us never smiles for the camera? A glance at the family photo album will confirm that our grandparents' generation was seldom so quick to present itself in this light. And when we think that the smile of Mona Lisa, just five centuries old, was something of an anomaly and a shock in its time, we get an idea of how much we--how much the world--has changed" (464). Much of urban China can be included in the global "we" here. Taking stock of the exponential growth of the happiness industrial-academic-entertainment complex, Jackson Lears (2013) notes that "behind the facade of smiley-faced optimism, American culture seems awash in a pervasive sadness, or at least a restless longing for a sense of fulfillment that remains just out of reach." In China too, just as vernacular happiness is granted relative free rein, depressive disorders are also on the rise, giving impetus to a regime of therapeutic governance with a global psychiatric industry peddling psychotropic drugs on its heels (Kleinman 2011, Yang 2014, Zhang 2014b)--a trend lamented by Ethan Watters (2010) in his ethnographical study of "the Americanization of mental illness" that privileges psychopharmaceutical treatment in place of communal coping mechanisms.
Urban China seems light years from the rural society that Potter set foot on some 30 years ago where she was flummoxed by the inattention to emotion and reluctance to make much of it. Today emotion talk is positively deafening. Even in the absence of electoral politics, the social order is increasingly grounded in feelings--the elusive but incontestable nerve centers of vernacular happiness, increasingly manifested as "a deep and vulnerable desire...to be healed of the dissatisfactions of being human" (McMahon 2006, 471). Although the state has not gone so far as to infuse a special "high"-inducing chemical in the drinking water to pacify the population as the Hong Kong author Chan Koon-chung [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (2011) fantasizes in his post-apocalyptic novel The Fat Years [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]2013, it has not shied away from playing the politics of happiness. (5) Surveying the People's Daily and China Daily, the official mouthpieces of the party, Anna Sun (2014) notes the sharp rise in the frequency with which "happiness" has appeared in article titles since 2000. She connects it to the reorientation of the national agenda from the relentless class struggle and developmentalism of the Mao era to the goal of "modest prosperity" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a term that resonates well with both the Confucian tradition of benevolent governance [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and the folk cult of happiness. In a similar vein, Yanhua Zhang (2014b) approaches the "Yu Dan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] phenomenon"--referring to a college professor's phenomenal success with a televised lecture series that packaged the Analects as a bible for "the happiness of the heart"--in light of the state's effort to steer the national conversation in a neoliberal direction through its sponsorship ofhappiness-themed mass media programs and scholarly research projects, including the annual happiness survey published in the journal aptly named Modest Prosperity [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].
More recently, as an antidote to the global spread of the American Dream whose rabid individualist ethos has been blamed for many contemporary social ills, most notably economic inequality and social anomie, the state has proposed the "China Dream" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Individual Chinese are urged to dream, to desire, and to strive in their personal, idiosyncratic ways (within certain bounds, of course), but they are also to think of their dreams as somehow connected to something larger than atomistic selves and therefore more worthy and enduring (Denton 2014). That larger something is invariably the nation, specifically a rising China and the glory of being a citizen of a rich and powerful country commanding the respect and even deference of the rest of the world--precisely the kind of overarching framework of moral purpose that has been lost in America according to the authors of Habits of the Heart (Bellah et al. 1986, see also Madsen et al. 2001). Perhaps out of the recognition that happiness without the freedom of choice or happiness in the absence of justice is a false good (Zhou 2012), the state now pursues an indulgent, neoliberalized version of Huang Liuhong's Confucian paternalism. Instead of prohibiting vernacular happiness for its anarchic or anomic tendencies, or requiring everyone to dream the same lofty dream, the state now merely nudges everyone toward something beyond themselves and their good feelings, if only to save them from their "glorious, but terrifying, isolation" (Bellah et al. 1986, 6). For those panting on the "hedonic treadmill," a condition long familiar to the citizens of the affluent West where happiness has not grown proportionately with rising incomes after a certain threshold, this could even be a welcome reprieve.
The China Dream is what Lydia Liu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (2004) would call a "supersign," born of the heterolinguistic, cross-cultural marriage between the century-old Chinese quest for recognition and preeminence in the global arena and the American Dream that still holds hegemonic sway despite its fraying edge. In its amorphous capaciousness, as William Callahan (2013) has documented recently, the China Dream may well break through its nationalist confines, as the American Dream has in the 20th century, and become amenable to cosmopolitan appropriations for the sake of planetary goals like combating climate change and implementing global justice. In that light, the motto of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, "One World, One Dream" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], is both preposterous and audacious, both an affront to the liberal sensibility and a challenge to a dissentious world to dream a common future.
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Departments of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Comparative Literature Stanford University
(1) I would like to thank Kathryn Pothier, Robert Pothier, Amitav Ghosh, and Daniel Bell for being the first readers and commentators of this paper, and Melissa Dale, Becky Hsu, Hsiao-yen Peng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and Weijie Song [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] for inviting me to present this paper at their respective institutions. I'm especially grateful to Becky Hsu's "happiness" team for offering valuable feedback and sharing their research findings with me at the Georgetown Workshop.
(2) Page references are from the Penguin edition (Shen 1983). I have also consulted the Chinese edition compiled by Cai Genxiang (Shen Fu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. 2008).
(3) There are intriguing parallels between such rustic practices and 19th-century English courtship rituals as portrayed with consummate flair in Jane Austen's novels of manners (see Illouz 2012, ch. 2; MacIntyre 1984, chs. 14, 16). In both, a man's erotic interest in a woman is conveyed in codified conduct under the watchful eye of an entire community which takes it upon itself to judge his suitability on the basis of his social station, character (embodied enactment of communal moral standards), as well as earning powers. Marriage is thus not about matching two unique personalities on the basis of emotional "chemistry," but a part of continual strategic negotiations of wealth, honor, and status among more or less socially compatible kin groups. The economy of recognition and autonomy and its attendant agony that characterize modern romantic relationships are largely absent here.
(4) Jiwei Ci [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1994) uses "utopianism" to characterize both the Communist revolution that founded the People's Republic in 1949 and the three decades of socialist experiment that ensued. In his view, the entire radical Marxist project was in essence an unprecedented voluntarist pursuit of future happiness, hence its tremendous appeal to China's suffering multitudes. This hedonic strand, initially submerged under revolutionary asceticism, reared its head when the radical project collapsed and nihilism set in at the end of the 1970s and then blossomed in all its crassness and excess in the new millennium. Hedonism thus constitutes a through line of China's revolutionary century. The 1989 pro-democracy movement was but a last gasp of utopianism that momentarily sublimated its shadowy twin hedonism in the form of political liberalism--the outcry against official corruption boiled down to resentment against "the goods of hedonism unfairly enjoyed by some and denied to other" (8). To me, this account verges on the absurd in its reductiveness. In putting the complex tapestry of 20th-century Chinese history through the wringer of a monochromatic utilitarian philosophy according to which all human endeavors aim merely for the satisfaction of "sensuous needs" (12-13), the author is willfully blind to the all-consuming quests for national sovereignty, social justice, liberty, and individual rights and dignity (renge).
(5) Predictably, the paternalistic discourse of happiness has spawned much cynical mimicry and spoof. The renowned poet Bei Dao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] may have been the first practitioner of this genre when he entitled his claustrophobic short story about a totalitarian world "No. 13 Happiness Street" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1985). Other examples include The Happy Life of Chatterbox Zhang Damin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (a novel by Liu Heng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], adapted for the big screen by Yang Yazhou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in 1998 and the small screen in 2000 by Shen Haofang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and the cheeky substitution of the character for sex [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] for the character for fortune [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in xingfu.
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|Publication:||Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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