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.