The pursuit of happiness

A new book examines why China is gloomier than its economic success would predict

It took 125 years for America’s Declaration of Independence to reach a wide Chinese audience, and when it did, some lofty phrases got lost. The earliest known Chinese translation of the declaration, published in 1901 by young nationalists burning to overthrow the Qing empire, is an impatient, combative text. The document’s name, noted the scholar who rediscovered it, Frank Li of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, became the “American War Proclamation of Independence”. The rights it deemed inalienable—“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—turned into something bleaker: “life, liberty and all interests”.

Happiness remains a thorny subject in China. Since 2012 the UN has sponsored a World Happiness Report, for which residents of about 150 countries are asked how satisfied they are with their lives. China ranked 86th in the latest report, below Russia and even war-torn Libya. Some foreign observers find it easy to explain China’s relative gloom. They see a system built on an unsentimental bargain between rulers and ruled. Citizens may enjoy the fruits of economic growth but may not protest against the costs, from pollution to yawning inequality. Such experts scoff when today’s Communist leaders say that they set great store by increasing public happiness as part of the Chinese Dream, President Xi Jinping’s campaign to make China great again. These cynics imagine that Team Xi’s true priority is to keep the economy growing quickly, on the assumption that material gains are the only thing that can keep a long-suffering public in line.

This cynical theory is popular but wrong. “Chinese Discourses on Happiness” is a timely new collection of essays edited by two sinologists based in Britain, Gerda Wielander and…