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Happiness with Chinese Characteristics

On April 2, 2012, the United Nations released the first World Happiness Report on the occasion of its first General Assembly on “Happiness and Wellbeing: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.” It ranked China the 112th happiest country out of 156. As an article in Caixun.COM summarized the report's message, “In other words, excluding African countries that are suffering from conflict, China is among the most unhappy countries in the world.”

A month later, Youku produced a video on its finance channel, promoting the “successful” approach to obtaining happiness. The video opens with comedic actor Fan Wei playing the part of a poor and small-minded man whose definition of happiness centers around what he lacks: “If I’m hungry and someone else has a meat bun, he’s happier than I am. If I’m cold and someone is wearing a cotton-padded jacket, he is happier than I am. If I want to go to the restroom and the only toilet is occupied, the person occupying it is happier than I am.”

From there, the video segues to a series of interviews on the “definition of happiness” with famous individuals and successful business leaders, including real estate tycoon Pan Shiyi, NBA superstar Yao Ming, blockbuster film director Lu Chuan, entertainment news anchor Liang Dong, and Yu Dan, a popular TV lecturer on Confucianism. Many of these celebrities tell viewers they believe the secret of happiness has nothing to do with the accumulation of wealth or the realization of one’s career ambitions.

The video instantly became a target for Chinese netizens frustrated with growing social and economic inequality in China. Expressing their views through sarcastic commentary, some netizens openly derided the interviewees as out of touch with reality:

最爱围观: There is a small group of people within society that doesn’t contribute any labor and possess control over the majority of society’s wealth. These individuals think of all kinds of ways to comfort the poor and even try to convince you that those with money are unhappy. Haha, ridiculous. I’d rather have money than have happiness.

恋上了影子: Allowing the 1% to tell the 99% what happiness means is rather ridiculous.

野生奥特曼: This video interviewed those with fame or money. The words from their mouths are hypocritical and full of nonsense.

Property developer Pan Shiyi claims that money can’t buy happiness, saying that “Actually, the greatest happiness comes in being able to realize your value to society.” This message irked many netizens who are confronted with an increasing gap between housing price and affordability.

Weibo user 零下捕捉 commented: “Pan Shiyi nauseates me. What is this so-called ‘value to society?’ I don’t understand how you real-estate developers can raise the price of housing so high and still dare talk about ‘social value.’  You have everything and yet you can say these words without understanding how privileged you are. You have taken away our right to eat, drink and travel. To now tell us that acquiring this right will not bring happiness and that real happiness is to understand our ‘value to society’ ... is really f-ing despicable.

TV Confucianism lecturer Yu Dan tries to convince people that one should not try to attain happiness beyond one’s reach by saying: “I believe that peach blossoms can bring happiness, but the rapeseed flower is far more commonly seen and available.” She encourages people to recognize what Japanese writer Haruki Murakami calls “a little happiness in hand.”

Weibo user aft0808 could not disagree more: “The term ‘a little happiness in hand’ is laughable. When you eat ‘gutter’ oil [recycled cooking oil] every month, struggle to pay the mortgage every month, take public transportation every day, get up earlier than roosters and go to bed later than hookers, do the most work and get the least pay, if every day these kind of experiences are all you can reach, what kind of ‘little happiness’ are you talking about?”

Many viewers were also unhappy with Yao Ming’s comment, “If you don’t control your desires, they will turn into greed. Uncontrolled greed will only result in the perpetration of more sins.”

Weibo user 永远的路飞 responded: “Brother Yao, you received such a high salary playing in the NBA, later you opened several restaurants, and you made many endorsement deals worth tens of millions. Compared to you, I am too embarrassed to call myself greedy.”

Director Lu Chuan received the most user support. Discussing the difficulties of his employees’ trying to find affordable housing in Beijing, Lu complained that housing prices in Beijing have reached levels on par with Hong Kong, where per capita GDP is four times higher. His concerns resonated with Weibo users who are trying to make ends meet:

shinezai: Happiness is being able to eat non-toxic food and living in an affordable house ... Why have all of these basic necessities become the happiness we can only dream about?

zeropa: How can we talk about happiness when we can’t even afford basic necessities?  Even food safety is a problem. For us common people, who dare to say they are happy?  Ignorance is the only happiness that we know. Once you are aware of the poisons within our food and products ... sigh ... forget about being happy.

Nonetheless, some netizens did provide their own definitions of happiness:

侒靜丶: I have a sweet wife, loving parents and grandmother. They all take care of me and I look after them too. I feel very happy. Happiness can’t be measured by money. It discriminates against no one. We all have the right to happiness; it all depends on whether you can grasp it.

A graduate student at the School of International Affairs at Pennsylvania State University, YiYang Cao is an intern at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. Prior to working at the...
Born and raised in China (Shaanxi and Shenzhen), Sun Yunfan has lived in the U.S. for the past decade. She studied painting at the School of Visual Arts and received an M.F.A. in Fine Arts from Pratt...
Qiaoyi (Joy) Zhuang is a recent graduate of Syracuse University. She majored in International Relations, concentrating on U.S.-China Relations and NGO management. Zhuang is an intern at the Asia...

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