Happiness in China: Virtue, Anxiety, and Family through the Years

Talk by Becky Hsu, Georgetown University

This presentation takes up the question of how people in China today define happiness, the good life, and having it all. This project finds that, as people in China make everyday decisions, they organize their deliberations around moral reference points—the most salient involving family obligations. Within this framework, self-assessments of happiness emphasize different things, corresponding roughly to age. In childhood and early adulthood (to early thirties): happiness includes one’s virtue, which is largely defined by attitude and actions toward parents. The powerful emotional pull of filial piety in China today is maintained in social processes where the evaluation of the self is done in reference to the virtue of filial piety. Filial piety continues to be very important throughout people’s lives, as they continue their relationships with their parents even after death, in regular visits to the grave and offerings presented at home to pay respects. In mid-life, people describe their lives as a combination of how much they have fulfilled their obligations and what kind of luck they have run into. This luck includes what is going on with their spouse, family, and friends. In the later years (midsixties and beyond), people assess their lives in terms of whether others are treating them with respect and love, and this figures into how they estimate their possibility of a good death.

This project is an offshoot of a John Templeton Foundation funded project, “The Concept of Fu in Contemporary China: Searching for Well-Being, Purpose, and the Good Life,” 2013-2016, conducted with a team of sociologists, Richard Madsen, Deborah Davis, Anna Sun, James Farrer, and Jay Chen. The presentation will focus on Hsu’s fieldwork, which relies on 155 in-depth interviews, a new nationally representative survey designed by our team and conducted in 2016, and fieldwork with a master of funeral rites. The interviews were completed in urban areas and large towns from 2013 to 2016 on the topic of happiness with people ages 21 to 86, spanning the northern (Heilongjiang, Beijing, Ningxia), central and eastern (Ningxia, Jiangsu, Shandong), western (Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing), and southern (Fujian, Hunan) areas of China. Ethnographic fieldwork with the funeral-rites master was within a temple community in Fujian. The new survey features questions on social contact, behavior, and rituals, while it distinguishes between different three aspects of happiness (emotion, well-being, and having a meaningful life). The research has been covered by The Washington Post (“What people around the world mean when they say they’re happy,” Feb. 3, 2016).

Becky Yang Hsu is assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University, where she is also affiliated with Asian Studies and the initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues. Hsu specializes in culture and sociology of religion, with an interest in moral deliberation and personhood. She is currently completing a book on how people define happiness in China. She was Project Leader (PI) of a John Templeton Foundation funded project, “The Concept of Fu in Contemporary China: Searching for Well-Being, Purpose, and the Good Life,” 2013-2016, for which she is finishing an edited volume with her collaborators. She is author of Borrowing Together: Microfinance and Cultivating Social Ties (Cambridge University Press, 2017), which details how participants in microfinance programs in rural China use the loans to cultivate their social networks. Hsu explains why microfinance's 'articles of faith' failed to comprehend the influence of longstanding relationships and the component of morality. Her other works include articles in the British Journal of Sociology and the Journal of Health Psychology. She holds a B.A. from Yale University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University.

Please upgrade to a browser that supports HTML5 audio or install Flash.

Audio MP3 Download Podcast

Duration: 01:19:55

Published: Monday, January 22, 2018