How ancient Chinese thought influenced pleasure and delight – Michael Nylan
“Pleasure,” wrote Oscar Wilde, the 19th-century English aesthete, “is the only thing worth having a theory about.” More recently, Andre Malraux asked in The Temptation of the West, “Of all his ideas, is there any one more revealing of a man’s sensibilities than his concept of pleasure?” Both formulations could be plausibly ascribed to some of the most important classical philosophers in China, who deemed pleasure to be one of the most effective tools to motivate right action, as each defined it, as well as to discern a person’s character.
To signify acts of pleasure-seeking, pleasure-taking, and imparting pleasure, a wide range of thinkers from the fourth century BCE to the eleventh century CE deployed the single graph, lè 樂. The verbal use of lè (“to take or derive pleasure in”) in classical Chinese literature takes only a very few objects, those that promise deeper satisfactions in return for steady, long-term commitments. You can take pleasure in intimate friends (lè yǒu 樂友), in music (lè yuè 樂樂 – a different pronunciation of the same character), in a vocation and legacy (lè yè 樂業), in sharing (lè yǔ 樂與), in being alive and vital (lè shēng 樂生), in doing your duty (lè yì 樂義), in learning and emulating (lè xué 樂學), in others of the requisite worth (lè rén 樂人), in Heaven or the cosmic operations (lè tiān 樂天), and in your true home (lè jiā 樂家). The early Chinese theorists imagined a world of pleasure far more interconnected and resonant than modern philosophers were apt to do, full of profound reflection on ethics and aesthetics.
One crucial difference between the early Chinese theories and those articulated in the West is that the early Chinese thinkers consistently opposed pleasure not to pain, but to anxiety or insecurity (yōu 憂, or bù’ān 不安 in classical Chinese). These they held to be the chief barrier to experiential pleasure and well-being. As one early text puts it, “Human nature is incapable of feeling pleasure in an insecure situation, yet one cannot gain any benefit from what one does not take pleasure in.” To those conversant with Stoic and Epicurean arguments, the Chinese seem curiously resigned to the fact that, no matter how sustained and sustaining and sustaining, fulfilled and fulfilling, each particular person will know a heap of trouble in life. A sciatic nerve acts up during a convivial dinner; one’s favorite colleagues, relatives, or friends sicken and die; the cat is run over; the newspaper is replete with tales of poverty, destruction and hate crimes. Early Chinese thinkers never urged avoidance of pain; instead, they were intent upon minimizing the sources of insecurity, so that small pleasures could balance daily setbacks.
It is only when we compare lè to its nearest synonym, xǐ 喜 (“delight”) that we begin to apprehend what distinctive work the word lè does in Classical Chinese rhetoric. Whereas almost every instance of lè points to relational pleasures that accrue through the long-term beneficial practices and associations that promote deep satisfactions, the uses of xǐ 喜 are a mixed bag, at best. For xǐ connotes short-term delight that is not necessarily wrong in itself, but that may conduce to eventual harm, insofar as it consumes bodily resources without replenishing them. It is revealed readily in the face (as when a person erupts in laughter), and often simply describes “enjoyment in doing X,” where X can be anything: swordplay, dancing, composing a poem, resting after hard work, stumping others in debate, or even going to war. Xi is the feeling one has in response to good food and good wine at banquets; it is coupled with getting possessions or rewards, with pride of possession or the sense of novelty to be had from luxuries, curiosities, and baubles; and it can convey self-congratulatory moods and airs.
By the masters’ theories, xǐ activities can roil the senses without refining one’s capacity for appreciation, heightening one’s taste for reciprocity and communion, or inducing a willingness to delay immediate gratification. Nothing is inherently wrong with either delight or brevity, of course, and people can take innocent delight in many things, even if such small delights pale beside the weighty and significant pleasures associated with lè. But since it’s equally possible to delight in fine weather, in a narrow escape from just punishment or in backstabbing an enemy, the term “delight” does not entail either profound transformation or moral commitment.
In ancient Chinese philosophy, pleasure comes in three temporal aspects: confident expectation of future pleasure; sensory experience of pleasure in the present; and the pleasant memory of it in retrospect. Memories, even false memories, can be the most powerful of the three, since there is ample time after the sensation to dwell upon it and incorporate a well-considered appreciation of the act’s social construction. The classical persuaders were probably right in regarding the communal reaction to an action as a major determinant of the person’s memory of it, making for a gratified smile or a grimace. Since people are social beings, a memory of pleasure can gain added force from social approbation. The early Chinese thinkers were looking for a deeper foundation on which beauty and decorum, on the one hand, and physical pleasure, on the other, might be grounded, and the enduring distinction between le and xi captures that dichotomy. ∎