‘Are You Happy?’ – Chinese Reflections on a State of Mind

Q: Are you happy?
A: No, I am Zeng.

Over the week-long 1 October National Day holiday, China Central Television (CCTV 央视) broadcast a series called ‘Happiness Survey’ 幸福调查 in which journalists carried out vox popinterviews in which they asked people whether they where happy, and what happiness meant for them. In the process they collected a range of candid and eccentric responses. The program gave rise to numerous discussions online and in the public sphere. The discussions offered in part criticisms of CCTV party-state propaganda, which was decried for consistently presenting China’s falsified ‘happy face’.

Certain passages in the CCTV interviews also gained popularity as comic stock-pieces – like the beginning of this dialogue where a seventy-three year-old man from Shanghai answers the question ‘Are you happy?’ by replying ‘I am Zeng’, hearing not ‘您幸福么?’ (Nin xingfu ma?), but ‘您姓傅么?’ (Nin xing Fu ma?). But mostly, the debate went beyond simple criticisms of the show to more in-depth reflection about the meaning of happiness, and the conditions required to attain happiness.

On 12 October 2012, the 1510/CoChina weekly magazine, which is regularly featured in the Key Articles section of The China Story site, published a special issue on Happiness. The essays in that issued examined happiness from personal as well as political angles, exploring the relationship between happiness and government, happiness and ethics, happiness and pluralism and happiness and love.

Here we focus on four of aspects of the discussion:

What Makes for a Happy Life?

By Wuyue Sanren 五岳散人 (‘The Leisurely Person from The Five Sacred Mountains’)

This short essay looks at the role of government in people’s happiness.

From a childhood spent in the Cultural Revolution era, Wuyue Sanren has two conflicting memories related to the topic: a song that says that happiness comes from our own hard work, and passages in school textbooks saying that the government and the Party bestow happiness on the people. A recent speech by Wang Yang, Party Secretary of Guangdong who features in the pages of China Story Yearbook 2012, clearly proposed a position against the second claim (one that was a common theme of Party propaganda from the 1950s). Wang Yang declared that we should dispel the notion that the government is responsible for the people’s happiness. Instead, he declared, the government should create the conditions for people to make their own happiness.

Wuyue Sanren shares this view of what is a fairly stock small government neoliberal approach to governance and society: the government should allow people to pursue happiness, and taxes should be spent to this end. The government should prevent the depredations of external aggression, maintain social order, resolve disputes and build and maintain public buildings and infrastructure. Beyond this, expecting the government to bring happiness to the people will only lead to delusion, and block progress for the country.

Politics, Diversity and the Happy Life

By Zhou Lian 周濂

This essay offers a reflection on whether, and to what extent, democracy can create happiness for the people. The core proposition is that a modern democratic society cannot provide ready-made happiness for all of its citizens. However, democracies can ensure the existence of a pluralistic society that allows for the co-existence of multiple communities; in this way they can create a just and decent society in which the conditions for happiness are guaranteed.

Zhou Lian rests his reflections on the widely-recognised and much-discussed distinction between community (Gemeinschaft) and society (Gesellschaft), which he explores in the first three parts of this essay. A community (Gemeinschaft) is a tightly-knit group wherein members have long-lasting and deep-rooted, intimate connections. In contrast, a society (Gesellschaft) is a much larger group wherein relationships are temporary, superficial and artificial. Although there is no consensual definition of a community among scholars, two things appear in most definitions: the ties within a community are emotionally charged, and individuals within a community share common values. In contrast, not all members of a society share ‘common understanding’, and consensus within a society is the result of difficult negotiations and compromise among conflicting interpretations of the world.

The modern condition can be understood as a shift from a ‘community-based’ world to a ‘society-based’ one in which individuals have trade reduced certainty for increased freedom. In the pre-modern period, the community (religious or political) was responsible for providing ultimate meaning and happiness, and it pervaded all aspects of life, inscribing the individual within a determined world order. This changed with the advent of the industrial revolution. However, in the era of ‘modernity’, various attempts have been made to re-constitute communities in the face of danger – along national or ideological lines. These efforts have, for the most part, had negative consequences.

Zhou Lian concludes his reflections with an attempt to define what a just and decent society could be. He opines that the most important question for an individual may be ‘What is a good life?’ but the strength of political liberalism consists in posing another potent question: ‘How should we live together?’ From this perspective, a just and decent society can be defined in negative terms as being a society that does not impose shame on its members and makes it possible for all to enjoy a sense of self-esteem. Such a society, accepting pluralism, can allow for the peaceful coexistence of multiple communities, one in which individuals who share common values can find meaning and their own sense of fulfilment, or happiness.

Rent-a-Date and the State of Happiness

by Xu Ben 徐贲

Recently, the Shanghai police cracked down on cases of ‘paid-for or compensated dates’ 援交 (short for 援助交际, a loan expression from Japanese, enjo koosai えんじょこうさい; literally ‘compensated socialising’) – a form of thinly-veiled prostitution that often involves very young girls. This phenomenon has caused some concern and, for the leading thinker Xu Ben, it signals an ethical crisis among young people and a distorted view of happiness.

If personal well-being is understood merely in terms of material achievement, money becomes the aim and criterion to happiness. By corollary if paid-for dates or prostitution generates money then it becomes an acceptable practice as it can lead to or enhance happiness. Xu Ben contrasts this conception of self-value with that articulated in Aristotle’s Ethics, where true happiness comes from leading an ethical and politically active life, while material pleasures only constitute a lower form of happiness. In a world dominated by money or one ruled by a purely authoritarian government, people can still find happiness, but it is only a distorted and inferior form of that state.

In attempting to make sense of ‘rent-a-date’, Xu Ben discusses the decline of the concepts of shame and taboos. If adults behave in a shameless way, without clear moral standards – in particular individuals who are considered to be ‘successful’ – then how can young people be expected to develop moral standards? The generation of adults who grew up during the Cultural Revolution (c.1966-1976) is not good at making independent judgements, and is therefore likely to either condescendingly condemn ‘rental dating’, or to see it simply as modern teenage behaviour. Neither of these responses are helpful.

True happiness requires values that help people construct meaning in their lives; a life of pure sensual pleasure with no meaning cannot be considered a happy. Young people in particular need such values, as they are more vulnerable and easily influenced. Teenage girls who pursue ‘compensated dating’ should not therefore be punished by the law, but receive an education in ethics. Such an education should not only be provided to them directly, but rather it should take the form of a general public discussion on ethics and what constitutes a good life. Such a discussion should extend beyond the personal and go into the political sphere. It should encourage a discussion of what constitutes a good public life. Only solid public values and ethics will ultimately lead to general public happiness.

Happiness is a Broad Vista,

by Cui Weiping 崔卫平

In this meditative essay, the noted film critic, translator and independent thinker Cui Weiping attempts to capture the meaning of happiness by going on a literary and intellectual journey through literature, film and philosophy, looking in turn at Arthur Rimbaud, ‘Citizen Kane’, Albert Camus, Fernando Pessoa and others. Her essay is structured around three main points: that happiness can only be understood in light of a person’s entire life, and therefore it depends on a sense of balance; that happiness is about leading a virtuous life; and, that misfortune and pain are not necessary contradictions to a state of happiness.

Cui Weiping bases her first point on the Greek statesman Solon’s mediation on the life of king Creosus in which he states that happiness can only be judged at the end of a person’s life, and in retrospect. For that reason also, happiness is about having more than a one-sided life; happiness is about cultivating all aspects of oneself, to prepare for the future and its uncertainties. Happiness is about finding balance between the various aspects of life, whereas a short-sighted focus on short-lived satisfaction will not lead to long-term happiness.

Although different periods and philosophers have defined the virtuous life differently, with an emphasis on political virtue, moderation, or social harmony, there is a general agreement that leading a virtuous life is, in itself and in its consequences, necessary for happiness. On the one hand, the practice of virtue brings its own satisfaction; on the other, there is a general agreement that virtue should be recompensed, and therefore, success reached by non-virtuous means comes with danger and uncertainty.

Some dramatic events outside a person’s control sometimes befall us, such as epidemics, wars, or natural catastrophes. More often, we experience less dramatic misfortunes – setbacks in love or career – or a pervasive sense of loneliness, which are nonetheless painful. Adopting a heroic stance, and bearing the misfortunes of life without letting it affect our inner being may be the true path to a deeper sense of happiness, one informed and enlarged by the gravity of life.

In conclusion Cui Weiping proposes that happiness depends on a capacity to look outside oneself, and to feel joy in the outside world and in other people – or, in other words, that happiness depends on our capacity to love.



For more on happiness, see David Malouf, The Happy Life – The Search for Contentment in the Modern World, Quarterly Essay, Issue 41 (2011), quoted in Geremie R. Barmé, ‘The People’s Republic of Wine’, Editorial, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 25 (March 2011).

The author of this post Julien Leyre is the founder of the Marco Polo Project.