Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Happiness In Chinese Culture: Part 2

Chinese Culture

This is Part 2 of an article on the history of happiness in China, as viewed by George Jochnowitz, who writes: “What was happiness for the Taipings?  They combined mysticism with politics and self-denial with a program to aid the poor and the oppressed.  They wanted justice in this world and salvation in the next.  Confucians, who believed in education, discussion, self-improvement and the reality of the world, might have been expected to be revolutionaries, but they weren’t.  Confucians and Taoists were happy with the world; they were not willing to risk revolution to improve it.  Buddhists, who looked forward to the end of the cycle of reincarnation and Nirvana, did not believe happiness could be achieved through life.  The Taiping Christians, who believed true happiness could only be found in heaven, felt that one had to be moral on earth in order to achieve salvation.” This excerpt is taken from Chapter 6; Part 1 posted last 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

Then came Buddhism, which reached China in the first century C.E., according to tradition.  China under the Han Dynasty was going through a difficult period.  The Han Dynasty finally collapsed in 220, and a period of disunity followed.  Perhaps that was a factor in leading Chinese thought from its optimistic acceptance of reality to a religion that, like most religions, recognizes the universality and power of suffering.  Buddhism teaches that one is reincarnated from one painful life to another.  What one hopes for is Nirvana, when there will be no more reincarnations.  Somehow, Buddhism and Confucianism coexisted, although they seem to contradict each other.

Buddhism reached its peak during the T’ang Dynasty (Tang in pinyin), which lasted from 617 to 907.  The Tang period produced a number of famous poets, among them Li Po (Li Bai in pinyin), who wrote a very well-known poem about the joy of drinking with his friends: the moon and his shadow.  We may interpret the poem differently, as the tragedy of being driven to drink with no human friends.  Whatever our reading, the poem does not reflect Buddhist spirituality.  It may be closer to the Taoist tradition of finding happiness--the mysteries of the Way--in the apparent contradictions of life.  A later Tang poet, Po Chü-yi (Bai Juyi in pinyin), who lived from 772 to 846, was rather political.  Here is a poem about free speech, translated by Arthur Waley:
Sent as a present from Annam— A red cockatoo.
 Colour’d like the peach-tree blossom,
Speaking with the speech of men.
 And they did to it what is always done
 To the learned and eloquent.
 They took a cage with stout bars And shut it up inside.
Politics is an attempt to improve society, which arguably shows that Bai Juyi was following the version of Confucianism expressed by Hsün Tzu: we are bad but we can achieve happiness by working to become good.

Buddhism was arguably the religion of most of China’s people for almost two millennia; nevertheless, Chinese culture has never been especially spiritual.  Ancestor worship has been identified as China’s religion, although it is not part of any system of theology.  Christianity appeared in the late 16th century.  A missionary named Matteo Ricci finally succeeded in meeting the Emperor in 1601.  Some Chinese were converted, but the numbers remained small.  Then in the 19th century, a village schoolteacher named Hung Hsiu-ch’üan (Hong Xiuquan in pinyin) received visions telling him that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ.  Perhaps the visions really meant half-brother, with Hong and Jesus sharing God as their father but with different mothers.  He established Taiping Christianity.  Taiping means “great peace” and is the name of the Pacific (or “peaceful”) Ocean.  Hong prohibited opium, tobacco, gambling, alcohol, prostitution, extra-marital sex, and foot binding.  Women were officially equal with men.  The Taipings were considered anti-Confucian because of both their puritanism and their advocacy of women’s rights.  A bloody war broke out, which ended in a horrible massacre in 1864.  The Taiping Rebellion may have been the strongest revolutionary movement in Chinese history up to that time.

What was happiness for the Taipings?  They combined mysticism with politics and self-denial with a program to aid the poor and the oppressed.  They wanted justice in this world and salvation in the next.  Confucians, who believed in education, discussion, self-improvement and the reality of the world, might have been expected to be revolutionaries, but they weren’t.  Confucians and Taoists were happy with the world; they were not willing to risk revolution to improve it.  Buddhists, who looked forward to the end of the cycle of reincarnation and Nirvana, did not believe happiness could be achieved through life.  The Taiping Christians, who believed true happiness could only be found in heaven, felt that one had to be moral on earth in order to achieve salvation.  They created a revolution to improve life as part of the road to happiness after life.  They combined a program of justice and equality with sternness and intolerance.  They believed in brotherhood, yet they destroyed Taoist and Buddhist sculptures, which they considered idolatry.  Chairman Mao admired Hong Xiuqian.  Mao and Hong both rejected the idea of happiness in the short run.

China fought on the side of the side of the Allies in World War I.  When Germany was defeated, China expected that parts of Shandong Province that had been occupied by Germany would be returned.  Instead, the Versailles Conference awarded Germany’s former possessions to Japan.  Many students at Beijing University rioted on May 4th, 1919.  That was the beginning of a period of political activity and intellectual dissent know as the May 4th Movement.  The Movement’s slogan was “Science and Democracy.”  It is somewhat surprising that nobody had noticed that science—testing, examining without restrictions, reconsidering old theories—is in effect just what democracy does.  Democracy is the political realization of the scientific method.  On the one hand, May 4th was acting in the Confucian tradition of learning.  On the other hand, holding demonstrations was very much a contradiction of the Confucian idea of respect.  The May 4th Movement was anti-Confucian, yet it was at least in part following the Confucian belief in the reality of the world.

There is a May 4th Street in many Chinese cities.  May 4th is a minor holiday, called Students’ Day.  Chairman Mao did not feel threatened by a philosophy that called for science and democracy, which is quite surprising, since he was opposed to both science and democracy.  He closed down high schools and universities during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and exiled teachers and scholars to the countryside so that they could learn from the peasants.  He suppressed free speech as it had never been suppressed before, encouraging people to report their friends and relatives for counterrevolutionary thoughts.  Parents feared their children, and with good reason.  A careless remark heard by a child might get repeated to someone else, and the parent could be arrested for being a rightist.  Some children actually denounced their parents to the authorities.  China was no longer the land of filial piety.

In place of the Confucian ideals of courtesy, benevolence, and reciprocity, Mao introduced thought reform, sixiang gaizao.  Everyone in a Marxist society would be equal economically, which was supposed to mean that everyone would have the same interests and therefore think in the same way.

What about happiness?  Happiness was to be achieved through loving the Communist Party, loving China, and loving Chairman Mao.  Service and sacrifice to the ideals of Marx and Mao were the only legitimate forms of happiness.  Theater and opera were banned, except for the revolutionary operas selected by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing.

And certain pets were banned.  City dwellers were not allowed to own dogs.  Those who had dogs had to give them away to a farmer or allow them to be killed.  They could be eaten afterwards.  The reason, never stated and perhaps never understood by those who created this prohibition, was that love is finite.  Citizens should not squander love that ought to be directed to the Communist Party on their own pets.

Nowadays, this law had been modified.  China today is preoccupied with money.  An ID for one’s dog can be purchased for a large sum of money.  According to the September 20, 2004, edition of China Daily, in the city of Xi’an, an ID used to be 5,000 yuan ($600), but it has been lowered to 500 yuan ($60).  Apparently the city officials could not collect enough money with their high fees, and so they lowered them.

China has entered the stage of Marxist capitalism.  Marx wrote that humanity had to pass through a number of stages: primitive communism, feudalism, capitalism (during which science and technology would be discovered), socialism, and the final stage of communism, post-technological and therefore rich.  Chairman Mao thought he could skip the capitalist stage.  China’s current leaders have rejected Mao’s heterodoxy and accepted capitalism as a necessary period society must go through.  They know that communism must come eventually, since they believe Marx can never be wrong.  But they hope it will not come during their own lives.  However, they really aren’t thinking about Marx, although they are influenced by his analysis.  Marx taught that nothing matters but economics.  Therefore, nothing is more important than money.  Nowhere in the world do people talk about money more than they do in China.  Today, happiness means money, period.

The strength of Marxist capitalism is illustrated by news stories and op-ed essays in China’s government-controlled press.  China Daily, an English-language newspaper published in Beijing, ran a headline on February 22, 2005, announcing “Income gap grows wider in Beijing.”  It is a bit hard to think of a country run by the Communist Party announcing such news.  Even more surprising was an op-ed on February 19 entitled, “Let the market fully play its role.”  The author, Zhou Tianyong, is a researcher at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.  The essay suggests that the government of the People’s Republic should “bring out the role of the market in allocating resources and clarify the rights of production factors.”  This doesn’t sound like a People’s Republic.  It sounds like the Republican Party.

There is another tendency, however.  Religion is making an appearance.  An organization called Falun Gong (law-wheel exercise) or Falun Dafa (law-wheel big-law) has spread in China and is being persecuted by the Chinese government.  It teaches qigong breathing exercises, an aspect of Taoist ritual.  It is a modern expression of Taoism, China’s oldest organized religion.  Christianity is spreading as well.  Various Protestant denominations are growing, and new Chinese versions of Christianity are being created, although they are less innovative than the Taiping Christianity of the 19th century.

Both love of money and religious faith are post-Marxist phenomena in China.  Love of money exists everywhere, but in China it is the heir of the Marxist teaching that all motivation is economic.  Religious faith exists everywhere, but in China it is the heir to the atheistic faith of Marx, who taught that the world would inevitably go through its pre-determined stages of history.  Furthermore, the Marxist commitment to thought reform facilitates the unquestioning acceptance of dogma.

Will China ever return to the Confucian identification of happiness with virtue and reciprocity?  Will China ever seek happiness through the May 4th identification of democracy with science?  Only time will tell.

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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.