Satish Kumar Interview. 2 December 2015. Part I.


I was honoured and privileged in early December 2014 to participate in an interview with Satish Kumar. Satish is the editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, and founder of the Schumacher College in Devon, U.K. A lifelong peace and environmental activist and a former Jain monk, Satish’s most notable activist accomplishment to date is likely to be the “peace walk” he undertook with friend, EP Menon, in 1962. Inspired by the then ninety-two year old Bertrand Russell’s civil disobedience action against the atomic bomb, the two men planned a walk that would take them through the capital cities of the nuclear world: Moscow, Paris, London and Washington D.C.

Beginning in India, the two men walked through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, the Caucasus Mountains and the Khyber Pass. They eventually accomplished their mission after two-and-a-half-years, meeting Bertrand Russell in London and Martin Luther King Jr. in D.C., as well as countless other kind souls along the way. The prevalence of the latter was instrumental, for one condition under which their journey was conducted was to be without money wherever they walked.

Satish was visiting Hong Kong to conduct a series of week-long workshops. His interview was timely, since it quickly became apparent that its contents were immediately relevant to our concerns about “good life”. Some of the subjects Satish touched upon included developmentalism, industrialisation, economic growth, profits, nature, alienation etc., subjects apparently central to any consideration of the “good life”.

I reproduce here, in two installments, an edited and thematic transcript of the interview. The entry below is the first. Former students in my Political Economy class of Fall 2008 at the University of Oregon, might recall the text, Small is Beautiful, by non-orthodox economist, E.F. Schumacher. The book was the source of many inspirational discussions in class at the time; students might be pleased to see its relevance being invoked by Satish again below.

Small Is Still Beautiful

Satish Kumar began by explaining that his workshop was titled “Small is Beautiful in HK” because everything in HK appeared to be getting too big.

“Hong Kong used to have 4 million people when I came a few years ago but there are now 7 million people. It’s not only the number of people, but everywhere there are big banks, schools, universities, hospitals, shopping malls. What is getting lost is human contact.”

“When institutions get very big, they lose the human touch and lose sight of human relationships. The institution becomes a machine and human beings become cogs in that machine. I want organizations to be small so that human can interact and work together.

They can improvise, use their creativity and spontaneity. This is only possible when organizations are small and people can communicate with one another face-to-face.”

“To me things in Hong Kong have become too big. And, clearly, not just Hong Kong; the situation is the same in China, in India, in the USA, etcetera.”


Buddhist Economics: Economics Where People and Morality Matter

“When E.F. Schumacher wrote Small Is Beautiful in early 1973, his inspiration came from Buddhism. There’s a chapter in the book entitled, “Buddhist Economics”. For Schumacher, Buddhist Economics meant human economics; it is a moral economics, a spiritual economics.”

“People used to ask him what the relevance of Buddhism or morality was to Economics, since the latter was about money, land and resources. Schumacher used to respond: Economics without moral, spiritual, Buddhist, principles is like a flower without fragrance. The flower might look good but it has no fragrance.”

“So, the economy needs human, spiritual, ecological values; Buddhist economics implies a practice of economics based on a system of higher values than just greed and the accumulation of material possessions.”

Small Is Beautiful came out in 1973. At the time, Schumacher said: unless we remain human, maintain our humanity and stress an economics in which people mattered, people would become an instrument of making profit for the companies. Clearly, this situation has since only become worse.”

“Today people have value only in relation to the profits they make for their companies.

In our subconscious, people have no value if they don’t make profits for their company; they are sacked and asked to “go”. Profits have become the master, and people, the servants. When Schumacher wrote the book in 1973, and when I promoted it, our aim was to make people the masters, and profits, the servant.”

The Central Challenges of Our Times: Developmentalism and Anthropocentrism

Satish argues that the central challenges that stand in our way of moving towards an economics “where people matter” are twofold.

“First, our civilisation has come to believe that working on the land, working with our hands, is a kind of backwardness. Development means that everything should be done by machine. So, we are mechanizing our food production, the production of our clothes, shoes, furniture, buildings etcetera. Here’s the problem: When we’re alienated from nature, and alienated from our hands, we lose contact with the earth and with nature.

So, nature becomes a ‘resource for profit’ rather than a ‘source for life’.”

Note the important distinction between being ‘a resource for economy’ as opposed to being ‘a source for life’.”

“Here’s the problematic mindset brought upon by the industrial revolution: that everything ought to be mechanised. Working by hand is bad; it is a sign of backwardness and done only if you’re uneducated, poor, a peasant, and from the village. But if you’re educated, intelligent, advanced and developed, your hands are believed useful only to work with computers, and maybe not even that. So, the one dominant idea that hampers our way of thinking and doing resides in the notion that everything has to be industrialized.”

“There’s a second difficulty, and it lies in the belief that nature-out-there is not only a resource for the economy but also that it exists only for the benefit of human beings.

This is based on the view that humans are the superior species; all other species exist only for use of human kind. This paradigm thus consists of our separation from nature and the use of nature only for human benefit. Every major institution in our society subscribes to that view: university, school, government, media and business.”

“We need to shift that idea. We need to see that nature has intrinsic value; that nature is good in itself. Therefore, we are nature, as much as trees, forests, rivers and mountains are nature. We are all part of one earth.”

“If we can have such a new paradigm, we will take care of nature. And if we take care of nature, nature will take care of us. The lack of this nature-centred consciousness is the other great difficulty humanity faces.”


A Foretaste of Shenzhen: Experiencing Hong Kong vis-a-vis Eugene, USA

Much has been made in my posts so far about conceiving of experience more holistically. Besides, I proffered that such “holistic” multi-sensory experience had much to offer as a methodological approach guiding my ethnographic project in Shenzhen. I contended – as per phenomenology – that just as “things” present themselves in a manifold, our senses and sensibilities, too, are multiple. The    world is replete with things and our senses are many: and we apprehend/experience them in a multiplicity of ways. In my previous post I referred to different profiles of Shenzhen that present themselves to us, using a number of photos to support my point. By using such visual re-presentations, I am invoking our sense of sight to convey to the reader the different profiles/facets of the Shenzhen landscape. But what of a more holistic experience of Shenzhen, as per my methodological prescription thus far? How should one experientially account for Shenzhen?

Perhaps it is helpful to begin with a description of the sense one first gets of Hong Kong when arriving from Eugene, Oregon, on the West Coast of the U.S. I offer a consideration of this scenario of going from the U.S. to H.K. since I feel this experience to share some parallels with that of journeying from H.K. to the Chinese mainland. This is not a hypothetical but in fact how I actually made my way to the PRC (People’s Republic of China) from the U.S. three or so years ago.


When one flies in from the cold, refreshing evergreen environment of an Oregonian winter and arrives in the ostensibly cosmopolitan world-city that is Hong Kong in January, one is immediately struck by the sense of being in a different place. The difference is palpable and it is felt upon arrival at the airport. Bodies are squeezed for space as one gets swept along in a tide of human movement whose pace is rapid and unforgiving. One gets the feeling of having to shuffle along, to keep pace, or risk the possibility of being stomped on. The competitive spirit seems to come naturally, for one discovers that a similar situation prevails on the roads as well. Cars, cyclists, and pedestrians compete for space with an intensity not felt in many, especially smaller, U.S. cities.


Alternatively, as there are different modalities of perception, one can simply inhale to sense the difference. The air does not have the crisp, fresh quality of the Oregonian atmosphere that allows one the indulgence of taking deep, long breaths. The dismal air quality in Hong Kong stops one mid-breath. It is not necessarily putrid but there is the sensation that one is also inhaling physical objects: particles. As one draws in air, there is the sense that one’s nostrils are being overwhelmed. The discomfort is physical. With the increased population density and the vibrancy generated by the unrelenting movement of people and machines over noticeably tighter spaces, pollution becomes an inescapable fact. Juxtaposed against the tremendous bustle and density of the archetypal Asian (and, one might say, non-Western) city, one is compelled to ask if this is why the West is commonly celebrated for its supposedly well cared-for, if not pristine, natural environment. Moreover, is it the ecological and civic-mindedness of the average citizen in the West that accounts for it, against its lack in the non-West, as commonly portrayed?

One has a similar moment-of-truth experience when crossing the Hong Kong border northward into Shenzhen, only that the experience is perhaps more intense and memorable. It may seem strange from a political viewpoint to be speaking of a border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, especially given the 1997 British “handover” of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Is Hong Kong not a part of China? [Warning: One risks being vilified for asking this question in the politically-charged climate of today’s (late 2014) HK .] What does “reunification” mean if not the literal restoration of political unity to erstwhile disparate political entities? Why, then, the need for a border? Such territorial borders within state boundaries never fail to boggle the mind unaccustomed to the idiosyncrasies of Chinese political practice. A generous reading tending to favour the Chinese Communist Party could see it as a vindication of its claim that it would adhere to the principle of “one country, two systems.” Arguably, it is a promise the CCP appears to have kept, at least on the surface of things. But as I will describe in the following post, “one country, two systems” rings true not only in an abstract political sense; it is palpable, detectable by the senses, too.

Beyond the Logos of Method, Settling In


I have established that Being and Knowing are multi-sensory (see previous two blog entries) and proposed that Knowing comes by way of Being-in-the-world. Another way of saying this is that “knowledge is embodied”: we know the world very literally through our experience of living in it. One practical implication of this is obvious: it is to be “on-site”; in my case, it is to be in China. Happily, it is exactly what Ethnography involves.

The insight that Knowing comes by way of Being urges us to consider the latter more holistically: what does our experience of being-in-the world really involve? Implicit here is the recommendation that we take greater notice of the many ways we apprehend the world: through our sense of sight, hearing, feel, smell, taste, as well as via our intuitions and perceptions.

And to complicate things still further, we should note that there is “human experience of the world” on the one hand, and there is also “the world” itself on the other. This distinction is important, for it draws the line between epistemology (what we know) and ontology (what is). It is an important distinction to maintain if we are to prevent ourselves from solipsistically reducing the world to simply what we experience and know about it, which is symptomatic of both idealist and empiricist traditions in Western philosophy. Accordingly, so as not to fall victim to an unwarranted (idealist or empiricist) reductionism, there seems to be good reason to think that the world is “greater than” our experiences or our concepts of it. This orientation naturally gives precedence to Ontology over Epistemology. Hence, against the Cartesian and Kantian belief that the world is just what I think, perceive, or experience it to be – what Sokowlowski (2000: 12) calls the “egocentric predicament”, my approach seeks to underscore the primacy of Ontology. This privileges Being over Knowing and takes heed of the advice to “return to the things themselves”. The inspiration I draw from phenomenology should be apparent.


Having hopefully provided some clarification of my philosophical/methodological premises. I would like now to draw out their practical implications. How does the multi-sensory nature of knowing inform our ethnographic work? Similarly, how does phenomenological insight help our research in the field? How, indeed, does one move from epistemology to “the things themselves”?


For a response one may begin by looking at the assortment of photos here and in my previous post. These photos were taken in Shekou and Baishizhou, two locations in the Nanshan district of Shenzhen. These photos would correctly be regarded as visual representations of Shenzhen and Chinese life. But in depicting contrasts, notably, between the avante-garde glass-and-steel structures against the dense and weary-looking nongminfang (literally: farmer dwellings) of Nanshan’s urban villages (chengzhencun), we get to see different, antipodal sides of Shenzhen. Let us not forget to mention the mounds of mud and debris strewn across the Shenzhen landscape (also depicted here), for they aptly represent to us still another profile: the Shenzhen landscape in a state of transition and transformation, an ostensibly transient condition of being between the “avante-garde” and the “undeveloped”. Hence, just as “things” present themselves to us in a manifold of appearances, so too, does Shenzhen: and we see the “Nanshan” landscape being constituted by multiple faces (phases?).


Phenomenology’s potential contribution to ethnographic work becomes evident here. Because it emphasises the innate, multi-sidedness of things, the phenomenological attitude instils in the ethnographer a certain vigilance in guarding against understandings based on mere first appearances: as somebody once said, if reality and appearance coincide, there would be no need for science. Indeed, things are never just what they seem, and it is apt that phenomenology should remind us to probe beyond what we see.

And, so, it is unsurprising that Shenzhen should appear to us in the form of its urban villages, its construction sites, its ultra-modern shopping malls and exclusive condominiums, and more – as our photos attest. We encounter/see all these profiles of the Shenzhen urban landscape as we make our way through it. At the same time, corresponding to which of these sites we find ourselves, we are variously struck by the following impressions: sheer human vivacity, mundane life-in-progress, noise, dust, the clanging of steel, polished marble and glass, air-conditioning, and the sanitised, serene, and pseudo-exquisiteness of aspiring middle-class urbanity. As already noted, these impressions are not formed merely from what we see or hear; they also emerge from our perception of mood, rhythm, and pace of the life and things that we see, hear and smell. Indeed as we wander through Shenzhen, we are presented with a kaleidoscope of images and impressions testifying to the rich texture and different hues of Shenzhen and Chinese life.


We are beginning to make inroads here. I have begun to grasp some of the superficial features of Shenzhen (note: my references have only been to the physical landscape). As is fitting of ethnographic work, I am beginning to Know of Shenzhen and China by Being there, inserting myself into the life there that is unfolding. In the process, I am treated to a variety of sights, sounds, smells and the respective impressions they evoke. Without doubt, the overriding impression is that of Shenzhen on the move, in transition, in the process of transformation. But whence, and whereto? The ethnographer’s task – my task – in Shenzhen is clear: it is not just to reveal these seemingly disparate and apparently different profiles and moments of Shenzhen life, but to probe deeper and  to explain how they might relate to one another. One could begin by asking: Why do these profiles of Shenzhen exist? Why do they take their current form? I anticipate that stories about what makes the Chinese “good life”  are buried somewhere beneath this melange, waiting to be unearthed.

Methodological hors d’oeuvre, II


I have promised an ethnographic investigation into the “good life” in China and am still working out how such a promise should be delivered. Inevitably, this has led me to broach the question of knowledge, epistemology, and methodology, which can broadly be understood as the logos of knowledge-production.


It was suggested in my second post that what we consider to constitute Knowledge is contingent on our presuppositions about the nature of Reality. To put matters simply, what we can potentially know about Reality is somewhat a function of what we think we already know about it. Hence, the allusion in my previous post to a “little knowledge being a dangerous thing”: the ever-looming threat to our understandings consists in hubris, in the certitudes about what we already know. It was previously also suggested that such intransigence tends to exist in the domain of Enlightenment-inspired Science, as per its claims to Universal Reason.


In taking issue with popular but limited conceptions about our senses and intellectual faculties, we have seen Ken Robinson attempting to break the stranglehold of common, Enlightenment-based ideas about human intelligence. Against such a Modernist bias, Robinson is urging us to rethink the nature of intelligence by taking into account the entirety and tremendous diversity of human experience and accomplishment. The move he commends is one towards the holism of lived experience. It is a move that seeks to reconceptualise intelligence as a phenomenon not exclusively centred on the Mind but that includes the experiences of the Body. Since intelligence is not only cerebral but also somatic, he urges us to conceive of it more holistically.


The metaphor of holism to describe our senses is fitting. It is also fecund. Conceiving of intelligence more holistically moves us from the realm of epistemology to that of ontology. It may be seen as an effort to deflate the privilege of (Eurocentric) Reason by moving from “knowing” exclusively as a cerebral act towards a way of being-in-the-world, for Knowing and Being are not independent but implicated in each other. The pretension of Universal Knowledge as being produced from the point-of-nowhere is, as such, farcical, for knowledge is always contextual. Hence, the sociological basis of knowledge is irrefragable, with knowledge always dependent on the particularity of time, culture, and clime. This is certainly one implication of Robinson’s point, but there is still another.

The message is not just that Knowing is contingent upon Being; it is also that the nature of Knowing-via-Being is sensory in all its forms, not just through the five senses commonly known to us. Knowledge comes about, in other words, by way of the entirety of human experience. We touch, see, hear, smell and taste, but we also anticipate, perceive, intuit and have premonitions: we apprehend the world through what we call “gut feelings”. Knowledge comes by way of a literal embodiment in the world around us.


One can draw from these two insights (i.e. the sociological nature of knowledge and its multi-sensorial nature) some important practical implications for ethnographic work. In particular, if it can be agreed that ethnography is a form of writing about the lives of others based upon the ethnographer’s actual experience in the field, then it ought to attempt to encompass “experience” in all its different modes, in the complete sense of the term as discussed here.

Hence, the recognition that knowledge is sociologically produced in time and place implicates us – as living beings with very unique biographies – in its production. This is the first principle, the sin qua non, of ethnographic work. It demands the physicality of our presence, literally, amidst the phenomena we are intent on understanding.


In addition, the embodied, multi-sensorial manner by which we experience the world makes further demands of us. Insofar as ethnographic work is a serious attempt to capture the sensibilities of other peoples as well as the rhythms of other places, it demands that we establish an enduring presence in the field. Certainly, ethnographies of adequate rigor are unlikely to be produced based upon single-day excursions to the places of our interest. If the totality of our interlocutors’ experience is to be even approximately approached, neither would the standard questionnaire.


It follows, then, that ethnography, en generale, calls for nothing less than wholesale immersion: the immersion of the fieldworker in the phenomena of interest. A will and willingness to “throw” oneself into the place, time, and practices of Others a fonds perdu. My investigation of “good life” in contemporary China can therefore only begin with my being physically located in China. For me, it begins specifically in Shenzhen, for reasons that I will soon elaborate on.


To be sure, the task is to investigate what a “good life” in China today consists of. But, if the above discussion should have any relevance, one has to begin by experiencing, in all its modalities, what life in today’s China is like in the first place. And such experience comes by first putting one in the way of the contemporary Chinese world.


Although a limited representation confined to the sense of sight, the photos posted here are intended as an effort – my effort – to grasp and convey to the reader the rhythm and cadences of contemporary Shenzhen life. I hope these pictures evoke in the reader similar sensations and sentiments to those I experienced at the scene. In a future post, I shall address how/when one can feel to have succeeded in one’s efforts at immersion: Are there criteria; if so, what are they? When can one be said to have adequately immersed? Hence, what possibility of anthropology/ethnography as a “science” of objective valuations?

Where or How Should We Begin?: A Methodological Appetizer

I have in my previous post stated the central concern of my project as the investigation of what makes the “good life” in today’s China. I then proposed to shed light on the subject by carrying out an “ethnography”.

But what exactly does that mean and how, as a practical matter, does one proceed ? Specifically, what methods should we deploy to conduct the study of “good life” in China in particular, and of social phenomena in general? What would count as data? What qualifies as legitimate knowledge? Who  speaks for the “Chinese”? Given that China is the size of a continent with a dazzling diversity of cultures – CCP officialdom has declared the number of “ethnicities” to be 56 – what is considered to “represent” China?

Clearly, we have waded into the difficult waters that muddy the enterprise of knowledge and its production. I have no wish here to enter into or elaborate on the long-running debate in the “West” (and “non-West”) about the nature of knowledge and its legitimations. That dreary task is for later (I promise).

For now it suffices to say that this debate has traditionally juxtaposed Science as knowledge par excellence against its  supposedly “inferior”, non-scientific variants. In brief, the archetype of traditional Scientific Knowledge has been modelled on a Knowledge of Nature, and is a legacy of the  European Enlightenment. Being predicated on a science of the Natural world, this putatively superior form of knowledge entails a number of features.

First, it was believed to obtain via the senses. Secondly, sensory knowledge was exalted because it derived from an Empiricist and Materialist worldview, with Matter being thought of as the sole basis of  Reality. Furthermore, consistent with this materialist ontology,  scientific knowledge was believed to be produced by a Knowing Subject situated at a distance from the Object-to-be-known. This distance/detachment/dissimilarity between Knower and Known was believed to insulate the Knower from the intrusion of his subjective feelings/prejudices, thus privileging him in the knowledge enterprise. A further corollary of this materialist worldview was the notion that Reality could be grasped precisely, specified and measured in exact terms, thus the reification of Measurement/Quantity to the neglect of Qualitative appreciation. So, third, by virtue of these properties, scientific knowledge was thought to be Objective, even Universal, produced from a “point-of-nowhere”. Perhaps it is fitting, as such, to think of Science as offering a God’s-eye-view of the world in a secular age that had declared God to be all but dead.

Longstanding debates in the enterprise of knowledge (epistemology), however,  have questioned the degree to which such a model of knowledge, a Science-of -Nature can be used to study the Social world, with its criteria of objectivity and with its demarcation of the knower from the known, the subject from the object. And this is to say nothing of its materialist/empiricist underpinnings.

Detractors of the classical science model (eg. Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber, among others) argued that Society was fundamentally  different from Nature, and therefore required different approaches/methods for its study. Hence, the arguments (dating back to the late 19th C) contrasting the Natural Sciences (naturwissenschaften) from the Human Sciences (geisteswissenschaften).  And, hence also, the perennial tension between Positivism – the belief that Society can be studied in the same way as Nature – and Hermeneutics. While the former is devoted to the search of “objective” and “causal laws” about an external reality, the hermeneutic enterprise leans toward examining internal life and its  processes of subjective interpretation and meaning. While Positivism has emphasised the role of explaining causality, Hermeneutics has veered towards reflexive understanding (verstehen).

Why have I raised these philosophical matters?  How are they relevant to my modest proposal to conduct an ethnography of Chinese social life? What do these considerations imply for ethnographic work?

Admittedly, I was inspired to ponder on these issues after coming across Ken Robinson’s discussion about the diversity of our senses and intelligences in The Element (2009). Referring to our multi-sensorial abilities, including our often taken-for-granted sense of balance,  he writes (33):

“All these senses contribute to our feelings of being in the world and to our ability to function in it. … They illustrate how profoundly our senses, however many we have and however they work, actually affect our understanding of the world and of ourselves. Yet many of us don’t know or have never thought about some of them.”

Robinson adds (35): “Athletes have a profound sense of the capacities of their physical bodies, and their achievements show how limited our everyday ideas about human ability really are. If you watch athletes, dancers, musicians, and other performers of their class at work, you can see that they are thinking, as well as performing, in extraordinary ways.”

“As they practice, they engage their whole bodies in developing and memorizing the routines they are shaping up. In the process, they are relying on what some call “muscle memory”.”

“In performance, they are usually moving too quickly and in ways that are simply too complex to rely on the ordinary conscious processes of thinking and decision-making. They draw from the deep reserves of feeling and intuition and of physical reflex and coordination that use the whole brain and not only the parts at the front that we associate with rational thinking.”

In the final analysis, Robinson argues that our limited understandings of our senses as well as our intelligence derive from an Enlightenment-inspired tendency to privilege the domain of (rationalist and empiricist) Reason. What strikes me particularly is the panacea Robinson recommends for such Enlightenment proclivities: a need to step back and appreciate the holism and richness of human experience in its entirety. Indeed, Reason is but only one of many dimensions of human being. Consider again the connotations invoked by the following terms:  “sense of the capacities of their physical bodies”, “engage their whole bodies in developing and memorizing routines”, “muscle memory”, “too complex to rely on the ordinary conscious processes of thinking”, “deep reserves of feeling and intuition”, “physical reflex and coordination that use the whole brain and not only the parts at the front associated with rational thinking”. What is consistently being invoked is the holism of human being; even thought is a bodily experience, a somatic and physical process.

And just as the typical conceptions of our senses are found to be wanting, so too our typical understandings of knowledge, as outlined above. In other words, the critique of how we traditionally conceive of our senses (and of intelligence) apply equally to our common conceptions of (scientific) knowledge. It is a critique, above all, of reductionism: the tendency to mechanically reduce the totality of human possibility and potential, knowing and knowledge, to a fraction of its parts and to regard, erroneously, these fragments as the whole.

This insight, then, paves the way forward. It exhorts us to approach our research with a  commitment to holism and with the modest understanding that reality is oftentimes not only ineffable, but ever unfolding. We should, as such, remain open to all possible and diverse approaches of grappling with “reality” and not confine ourselves to prefabricated methodologies or preconceived ideas about what counts as legitimate knowledge. I have in this post highlighted some problems of epistemology but space has prevented me from dealing with them in sufficient detail. It is a topic to which I shall return. In the meantime, the practical methodological implications of “embracing holism” will become apparent in the posts that immediately follow.

What is the “Good Life” in the PRC today?


Notions of the “Good Life”

This project deals with the issue of what makes a “good life” in contemporary China. What is a “good life”? It is generally assumed that we know. As humans with rational capacities and survival instincts, it would be reasonable to think that we are striving to make our lives better in our daily preoccupations. Presumably, our daily engagements are the everyday means by which we achieve the “good life”. By the same reasoning, what does the 10% annual growth rate of China’s economy over the past thirty years signal, if not a collective Chinese desire and an actualization of that desire to improve material standards of living? Anyone who has visited a Chinese city would attest to the apparent palpability of the energies being expended. An apprehension of Chinese street life generally leaves one’s senses overwhelmed, since the milieu that one takes in is invariably pulsating with the vitality of a revivified China intent upon further economic growth and transformation. An index of the vigour of Chinese societal change is given by the fact that Chinese rural-urban migration has been estimated to involve up to some 440 million in the 30 years since 1979 (Chan 2011). This tremendous rural-to-urban exodus has now resulted in a majority of the Chinese population in 2011 – at 51% – living in the cities. By the end of 2012, this figure had increased to 52.6%. In marked contrast, just over thirty years ago in 1979 the percentage of the Chinese urban population was just 19%. Considering the relativelyshort time-frame, such a movement of people is likely the largest in human history.


And as would be the case among other populations elsewhere, one would presume that this metabolism of collective Chinese energy, this massive movement of people across the Chinese landscape is occurring in the interest of realizing the “good life”. At least, that would be the intention. But what of the result: by what measure should it be deemed “good”? And on what grounds should its pursuit be justified?

We have so far merely assumed that the “good life” being sought after were being accomplished on account of the fact that the supposed actions necessary for its attainment continue being undertaken – and by a significant proportion of the Chinese population. The attainment of “good life” is assumed based on the exertions the Chinese people continue to put themselves through; it is not based on an evaluation of the outcomes of these efforts. Plausibly, we have assumed that based on the rationality of human consciousness and action, people work to improve their life circumstances. “Good life”, so most of us intuit, is the reward for our labour; it is achieved in the throes of our hard work, however difficult. So much so that the drudgery – sometimes even dangers – of our work-lives are often excused by the catchall justification that we are striving for some aspect of the “good life”, if not, simply trying to make our lives “better”. Consequently, notions of the “good life” quite naturally evoke expectations of a trade-off between the present and the future, of hardship now for leisure – if not luxury – in some hoped-for future. Perhaps it is an index of our outcome-oriented culture that such aspirations elicit an ungrudging respect? At this point even the most imposing and dogged of interrogators would cease the questioning. The pursuit of “good life”, of life improvement, is admirable in itself: it is a goal for which virtually all trade-offs may be justified.


But note that much of the above discussion about “good life” is predicated on assumption. For one, it is assumed that the contents of what make a “good life” have been resolved; second, that “good life” is generally achieved after the requisite trade-off; and third, that such a life is still deemed “good” despite the sacrifices of the present for the future. Such a trade-off thus suggests the “good life” to be one that is somehow perpetually deferred. The prospect of a “good life” is at best a promise to be redeemed in the future even while the present could be marked by circumstances that feel like purgatory. “Good life” seems to belong to the perpetually receding categories of the “not yet” and the “not quite”. This raises the obvious question: can a life lived in constant deferral ever be considered “good”? And, thus, the question of what a “good life” consist still hangs in the balance.

Perhaps it has been inevitable that the category of the “good life” has been subject to considerable allusion. In its promise of betterment or deliverance, we have assumed much in its name. It seems that much about the “good life” – what it is, how and whether it will be accomplished – exists by way of a healthy dose of assumption, faith and wishful thinking. Against this trend and at risk of repetition, I would like to reformulate the issue of “good life” in new-millennium China in the form of the following queries: What indeed is a “good life”? And how does the “good life” as a promise of betterment compare with its realisation? These are questions that I hope my investigations will help answer.