The thematic focus of this course is what the philosopher-psychologist William James observed a century ago:
"How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure."
Although the idea of the "pursuit of happiness" has a privileged place in American thinking, reflections on the happiness question can readily be found in many other cultures through the ages as well. In this course, we will study texts from Chinese civilization as their creative and thinking authors pondered this age-old question and the meaning of life. We will discuss such issues as the generally life-affirming world views of the Chinese; the debates on how to construct a perfect society; what constitutes a good life; the fulfillments of spiritual cultivation, love and marriage, having a family and friends, work and play, and public service and/or private artistic and scholarly pursuit; and attitudes towards fate, suffering, evil, war, and death. Texts selected will be works of literature in the broad sense of the word, including philosophical, historical, and religious texts as well as belles-lettres. The course covers mainly the period from early times to the 18th century, but several works from later eras will also be included.
Sample readings are:
- texts in Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, and Buddhism;
- the historical account of the First Emperor of Qin who created the Chinese empire in 221 BCE;
- the works of China's greatest recluse-poet Tao Qian (365 - 427);
- the song lyrics of the woman poet Li Qingzhao (1084 - ca. 1151);
- The Plum in the Golden Vase, an anonymous 16th-century novel that passionately depicts the dying of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) through the main characters' relentless indulgence in the four vices of "wine, lust, greed, and anger"; and
- Six Chapters of a Floating Life by Shen Fu (1763 - after 1809), a true story about an ordinary artistic couple who were ostensibly failures in life, but happy in their failures.
The format of this course combines lectures with some discussion in class. Active participation during class, three short papers (5-6 pages each), one ten-minute PowerPoint presentation on assigned readings, and a final examination are required.