Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Happiness In Chinese Culture: Part 1

Chinese Culture

For many individuals, a great deal of time and energy is spent on trying to achieve a level of happiness; there are no shortage of articles, books, TV shows and social-media postings on this subject. Happiness is not the same as the absence of unhappiness, a subject that has received much scrutiny in the western literary canon.
     But not so in China, says George Jochnowitz: “Chinese philosophers, on the other hand, don’t have too much to say about misfortune.  Confucius, the best known and most influential thinker in Chinese history, wrote about rén, meaning ‘benevolence’ or ‘virtue.’ This word, perhaps not by coincidence, is a homonym of the word meaning ‘human’ or “person,” although it is written with a different character, composed of the elements ‘person’and ‘two.’ To be both human and benevolent is to be humane; the concepts are linked linguistically in English as they are in Chinese.” This excerpt is taken from Chapter 6; Part 2 will post next week.


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by George Jochnowitz


Title: The Blessed Human Race: Essays on Reconsideration 
Author:  George Jochnowitz
Date Published: 2007
Publisher: Hamilton Books


The Blessed Human Race: Essays on Reconsideration
SourcePowell's Book

“Happy? Happy is when you don’t have a broken leg, so far as I know,” says May Wynn, a character in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny.  In other words, happiness is the absence of  serious unhappiness.  Western culture has always found unhappiness easier to describe than happiness.  When we consider ancient Greek drama, the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides move us today; the comedies of Aristophanes, however, are not especially funny.  In Chapter 28 of the Book of Deuteronomy, the blessings that God will give His people if they obey His commandments are straightforward examples of everyday life: rain in its season, for instance.  The curses if the people disobey are lengthy, imaginative, and poetic, like the following: “And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt … and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no man will buy you” (28:68).

Dante’s Divine Comedy is another example of how much easier it is for Westerners to talk about misery than about happiness.  The Inferno is hellish because it is close enough to our experiences on earth for us to comprehend; the Purgatorio is the same, albeit a temporary hell; the Paradiso is vague, difficult to grasp, and somehow not heavenly at all.

Chinese philosophers, on the other hand, don’t have too much to say about misfortune.  Confucius, the best known and most influential thinker in Chinese history, wrote about rén, meaning “benevolence” or “virtue.”  This word, perhaps not by coincidence, is a homonym of the word meaning “human” or “person,” although it is written with a different character, composed of the elements “person” and “two.”  To be both human and benevolent is to be humane; the concepts are linked linguistically in English as they are in Chinese.

Confucius believed that virtue could be achieved through lǐ, which means both “ritual” and “courtesy.”  Ritual was important to Confucius despite the fact that Confucianism is not a religion.  There is a gap between Chinese philosophy and faith, reflected by a similar gap between ritual and belief.  Although religious ritual plays an important role in Chinese culture, Chinese civilization stands out among the world’s ancient traditions as having no place for religious faith.

Taoism, spelled Daoism in the pinyin system of Romanization used in Mainland China, is generally considered a religion.  Its founder, Lao Tzu (Laozi in pinyin), accepted the world the way he found it, with all its complexity and contradictions.  He taught that one should follow the dao, the way, the path.  Jewish law, incidentally , is called halakha, which also means “way” or “path.”  Jewish law, however, is detailed and precise; the dao is unknowable.  “The dao that can be told of is not the eternal dao,” according to the opening verse of  the Tao De Ching, or Daode Jing in pinyin.  Among the many cryptic statements we find in the writings of Lao Tzu is the following:
Banish sageliness, discard wisdom
And the people will be benefited a hundredfold.
Banish humanity, discard righteousness,
And the people will return to filial piety and affection. (Chapter 19)
Lao Tzu was the first post-modernist.  Everything is true and false at the same time.  “To seek learning one gains day by day; to seek the Tao one loses day by day.” (Chapter 48)  How would Lao Tzu define happiness if he were willing to give an answer that could be understood?  I think he would say the following: Take it easy.  Don’t try too hard.  Don’t try to figure things out.  Enjoy good luck.  Enjoy bad luck.

Confucius, on the other hand, did not delight in paradox.  What delighted him was life: learning, exploring, music, ritual, courtesy, respect, etc.  “In education there are no class distinctions,” he said in the Analects. (15:38)  He is famous for his statement about disagreeing with one’s parents:

In serving his parents, a son may remonstrate with them, but gently; when he sees that they do not incline to follow his advice, he shows an increased degree of reverence, but he does not abandon his purpose; and should they punish him, he does not allow himself to murmur. (4:18)

In other words, Confucius was trying to reconcile independence with obedience.  Instead of accepting paradox, he called for subtlety. He also called for being humane: “A man who is not humane, what has he to do with rites?  A man who is not humane, what has he to do with music?” (3:3)  He was interested in this life, not the world to come: “We don’t know about life, how can we know about death?” (11:11)

When asked if there was a single word to some up what one’s conduct in life should be, Confucius answered “reciprocity” and illustrated what he meant by saying “Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you.” (15:23)  This is a negative phrasing of the Golden Rule.  It appears across cultural lines.  In the apocryphal book of Tobit, we read, “Do not do to anyone else what you hate.” (4:15)   Rabbi Hillel expanded on it when he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor.  All the rest is commentary, go forth and learn.”  Confucius agreed. 

Would he have agreed with the positive phrasing used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount?  Jesus said, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)  We can’t know what Confucius would have thought about this verse, but we do know what George Bernard Shaw thought.  He says, in the “Maxims for Revolutionaries,” appended to his play Man and Superman, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you.  Their tastes may not be the same.”

Confucius and Lao Tzu disagreed about reality, about striving, and about virtue.  Nevertheless, they viewed the world as a happy place.  They loved life and they loved people.  A different Chinese philosopher, Hsün Tzu (Xunzi in pinyin),  had a relatively negative view of humanity: “The nature of man is evil; his goodness is acquired.” (Chapter 23)  Hsün Tzu was not talking about original sin.  Instead, he was calling for education.  Man, said Hsün Tzu, “must submit himself to teachers and laws before he can be just; he must submit himself to the rules of decorum and righteousness before he can be orderly.”

The philosophers I have referred to lived a long time ago.  Confucius is believed to have lived from 551 to 479 B.C.E., before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  Lao Tzu is traditionally believed to have antedated Confucius.  Hsün Tzu lived from 298 to 238 B.C.E.  Long before any of them wrote, however, Chinese was a written language.  Chinese is written in characters which began as simplified pictures.  Eventually, the characters became logographs—signs for words.  That is what they are today.  Sometimes a character has two or more elements, one of which is often a radical, which tells us something about the meaning, while the other may be a phonetic, which tells us something about the sound.  The radical and the phonetic are themselves characters or variants of characters.  Thus, two or more characters can be put together to create new characters.

To illustrate this, let us consider two characters, one pronounced (falling tone), meaning “wealthy”; the other pronounced (rising tone), meaning “happiness.”  The characters are similar in having a complicated phonetic representing the sound fu.  The character for “wealthy” has a roof over the phonetic.  The roof suggests wealth, among other things.  The character meaning “happiness” has a symbol to the left suggesting ritual.  The combination of ritual and the sound fu suggests happiness, or at least did when the characters were created.  The phonetic has three elements: the number one, a mouth, and a field.  The meaning of the combination of these three elements may also suggest happiness or wealth.  Happiness is good fortune.  Wealth is a fortune.  The English words “fortune” and “fortunate” reflect a linking of these concepts.

All languages have synonyms: words with the same meaning, but not exactly.  In English, we have “joy,” “gladness,” “contentment,” etc.  In Chinese, another word for “happiness” is .  The character for this word is the same as the character for yuè, meaning “music.”  The sound of these two words is different today, but the fact that they are written in exactly the same way suggests that they once were the same word.  Chinese writing tells us that music is the same thing as happiness.

Still another synonym is .  It suggests delight as well as happiness.  At a wedding, we see this character doubled.  Double happiness is clearly linked with marriage in Chinese.  The divorce rate in China is going up, as is happening in many parts of the world, but a marriage is still double happiness.  In a movie by Ang Lee entitled The Wedding Banquet, this character appears three times in the opening credits—triple happiness.  The movie is about a ménage à trois, three people, a woman and two gay men, living happily together after one of the men marries the woman.  The extension of the double-happiness symbol is an interesting example of the evolution of both language and culture.

Delight, marriage, good fortune, music.  These associations are even older than the ideas of virtue, courtesy, learning, order, and acceptance that we find in Chinese philosophy.  In every single case, however, happiness is the appreciation of the world.  Even Hsün Tzu, who said people are evil by nature, said that by nature they want to be good and can become good.

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George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached atgeorge@jochnowitz.net.

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Copyright ©2013. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This article  is an except from The Blessed Human Race. It is republished here with the author’s permission.