China’s Pursuit of Happiness
The first thing many visitors to Chinese homes see is a red diamond-shaped cutout emblazoned with the Chinese character fu — typically translated into English as “luck,” “good fortune,” or “happiness” — pasted to the front door or window. Traditionally hung in the days leading up to Chinese New Year — though many families and businesses leave them up year-round — the cutouts are supposed to symbolize the presence of these positive qualities in the household. When affixed upside down, the hangings become a play on words: The characters for “upside down” and “arrive" are homonyms, and taken together, they represent the arrival of good fortune into a home.
An inverted fu greeted me every time I guided my bike into the low doorway of the Beijing courtyard complex where I lived from 2014 to 2016. Although it was faded with age, the poster never failed to send a shock of hope through my system, even on my more difficult days. It was not an easy time, and I remember wondering how I would know when good fortune had finally arrived — and what it would mean for it to arrive for good, rather than to always come and go.
This summer was the first time I returned to China since leaving two years ago to get my master's degree. The first place I visited on my four-week fieldwork trip was the central province of Henan to tour a drone pilot training center established by XAG — a Guangzhou-based agricultural drone company whose products have been lauded for providing new economic opportunities to young farmers and for luring young Chinese back to the countryside by making farming “cool.”
While touring the center, I had a chance to sit down with Li Dong, a 30-year-old student training to become a drone pilot. Li expressed excitement about the future of China’s agriculture industry and the possibility of being able to lead a better — and maybe happier — life in the countryside. Curious, I asked what happiness meant to him. He replied almost immediately: “Marriage, having a happy family, my parents being in good health, and then having a few kids — that’s it.”
He paused briefly, looking at me, and then continued. “Well, everyone feels a bit differently,” he said. “Happiness is very simple: family, peace, and good relationships with the people around you.” He seemed excited about the opportunities being created for people such as himself by China’s rural development drive.
I was reminded of this conversation a few weeks later, when I visited Dai Village in the northeastern province of Shandong. Wang Chuanxi, the village’s Party secretary, has implemented a series of economic and land reforms reminiscent of the collectivist system that existed in China prior to the reforms of the late 1970s and ’80s.
While there, we were taken for a walk down the town’s main thoroughfare, Happiness Street, to a nearby housing complex — which, sticking with the theme, was called Happiness Garden — to speak with a few elderly residents about the changes that had taken place in the village since Wang took over. The people they brought out to speak with us were all very happy with the recent changes — increased economic opportunities, higher standards of living, and more access to leisure activities being among the developments they praised. Even our van driver, a young man in his mid-twenties, made a point of telling us he had returned to the village a few years prior because “things were getting better,” with more employment opportunities and faster growth than before.
Yet, as I sat there in Happiness Garden — located just off Happiness Street — and listened to these villagers talk about how happy they were, I wondered at everyone’s optimism. In a 2013 article on the psychopolitics of China, anthropologist Yang Jie explores the ways in which the state preempts unrest by promoting happiness and positivity as part of state policy. Yang argues that the Chinese government has a kind of informal “happiness policy” in place that encourages marginalized people to actualize their potentials and find happiness within the system, rather than question the root causes of their discontent — such as unemployment, poverty, or poor mental health.
Yang focuses her analysis on the TV show “Secrets of my Happiness,” which tells the stories of the country’s marginalized people — laid-off employees and left-behind retirees — and how they built new lives for themselves by never giving up. The show — and others like it — stress that the key to turning one’s life around is relentless positivity and a can-do spirit. The implication is always that people should simply cope with unhappy, difficult, or unhealthy situations and keep moving forward.
According to Yang, critics dismiss the message behind these narratives as “fake happiness” and a kind of self-comforting complacency. While people who take responsibility for their own happiness are celebrated, those who do not — or cannot — are further marginalized or portrayed as unproductive members of Chinese society. Ignored in all this is the fact that some forms of unhappiness are caused by deeper problems.
Earlier this year, the state-run broadcaster CCTV aired a program on the results of the 2017-2018 China Economic Life Survey. The show devoted an entire segment to the subject of happiness. The segment opened by emphasizing that happiness is found through struggle. Left out were the stories of migrant workers who had dropped out of their underfunded schools, poor families unable to pay for their children’s needed medical care, or the country’s mistreated elderly. If happiness is a struggle, what obligation does the state have to those who are losing the fight?
Not everyone in China is as happy now as the people I spoke with in Happiness Garden. Many Chinese millennials are living more independent lives than their parents or grandparents did — now living and working far from home, where these young people are prone to feelings of loneliness and depression. Not all of these struggles can be solved through improved economic conditions and positive thinking. Some issues are rooted in deeper causes, yet the relative dearth of media representations of depression and other mental health issue has many feeling left out and unsure of how to discuss their problems.
Perhaps because of this, some young Chinese are trying to reach out and find others who feel the same way. The problem is severe enough that a counseling industry centered around psychological services has sprouted up online. Support groups are also catching on. In 2015, an acquaintance of mine in Beijing, Qin Xiaojie, started her own support group, called CandleX, in which people can speak freely about their mental health issues.
Other young people, especially in the country’s cities, instead express their feelings of alienation through subcultures like sang — which celebrates having a low work ethic, low motivation, and a generally disinterested life. Sang youths stand in stark contrast to the endless positivity found in the state's depictions of modern life. Instead, they cope with the financial, work, and health pressures of urban life by embracing apathy.
After a group dinner on our last evening in Dai Village, a local official accompanied me for a walk down Happiness Street. As we walked, he encouraged me to stay in China. “You know,” he said, “you can be happy here. You can marry a Chinese guy and find a job.” It is a common suggestion, and I responded by telling him I did not want to get married. Afterward, I wondered if perhaps I had not been too abrupt; but how was I supposed to express that, for now, marriage is not important for my happiness, or that in China my choice of partner is limited by law? There is little room, particularly in rural areas, to discuss these topics.
I do not mean to diminish the genuine optimism I saw among many people on my trip to rural China, or deny that material gain is a powerful force for happiness. I only mean that the officially sanctioned path to happiness — that of ever-increasing material wealth gleaned through personal struggle — is only one variant of happiness. Although this makes sense in the Chinese context, considering the country’s difficult recent history, if the government is truly set on improving the happiness of China’s citizens, it must make room for alternate interpretations of what happiness means. Widely stigmatized topics such as mental health must also be brought into a larger conversation about what it means to be happy, rather than treated as temporary, fixable bouts of unhappiness. Ultimately, the goal of a so-called happiness policy should be to make room for people to talk about and figure out what happiness means in their own contexts — not to define it for them.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell
This article was funded by the Sixth Tone Fellowship. In 2018, Sixth Tone sponsored eight young scholars to come to China for a six-week research trip to conduct field-work in eight provinces all over the country.
(Header image: The entrance to Happiness Garden in Dai Village, Shandong province, June 28, 2018. Johanna Hemminger for Sixth Tone)