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Abstract

This article delineates the vicissitudes of vernacular happiness in China across the crucial transitions of the early 20th century. Traditionally, vernacular happiness was symbolized by a triune of gods, fu-lu-shou, standing for progeny, wealth, and longevity. Happiness was thus a matter of good fortune, ardently prayed for rather than programmatically pursued. The ruling elite patronized this folk cult of happiness through a discourse of virtue and benevolence, but were themselves inclined to pursue more transcendent goals (Dao, de) and refined pleasures (lequ).

To the May Fourth generation, the traditional social order was founded on grave injustices and the cult of happiness was predicated on the misery and sacrifice of women, youth, and the peasantry. Enlightenment, therefore, meant claiming the right to happiness for every individual, rejecting religious illusions, and taking control of one’s life beginning with the freedom to love and marry. However, the crises of sovereignty that beset the young nation soon rendered such individualist pursuit of happiness suspect and futile. The Chinese Communist Party held up the socialist nation as the repository of a noble, beatific happiness to which every Chinese must contribute by suppressing their personal desires and interests. In the post-Mao decades, vernacular happiness of the May Fourth vintage has made a triumphant comeback aided by the globalization of the American Dream and consumer capitalism, prompting the state to propose the China Dream as an antidote and hegemonic supersign.

This long trajectory is illustrated by two autobiographical narratives separated by over a century: Shen Fu’s Six Chapters of a Floating Life (1809) and Su Qing’s Ten Years of Marriage (1943). Supplementing these two primary texts are a selection of fictional narratives from the Republican period. Intersecting the literary-intellectual history are theoretical excursions on the rise of the individual and affirmation of ordinary life in the European Enlightenment as well as the relationship between the centrality of emotion and liberal democracy.

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