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Philosophy, Asian Studies

The Chinese Pleasure Book

Michael Nylan


472 pp

18 black and white illus.

Published: October 2018

6 x 9



ISBN: 978-1-942130-13-0

This book takes up one of the most important themes in Chinese thought: the relation of pleasurable activities to bodily health and to the health of the body politic. Unlike Western theories of pleasure, early Chinese writings contrast pleasure not with pain but with insecurity, assuming that it is right and proper to seek and take pleasure, as well as experience short-term delight. Equally important is the belief that certain long-term relational pleasures are more easily sustained, as well as potentially more satisfying and less damaging. The pleasures that become deeper and more ingrained as the person invests time and effort to their cultivation include friendship and music, sharing with others, developing integrity and greater clarity, reading and classical learning, and going home. Each of these activities is explored through the early sources (mainly fourth century BC to the eleventh century AD), with new translations of both well-known and seldom-cited texts.

“‘What bearing does pleasure have on a well-lived life?’ ‘What are its contours and limits?’ ‘How do we best understand and modulate it so that it heals us and binds us to others?’ — these are just some of the questions that Michael Nylan puts to the classical texts of early China in this groundbreaking study. Through her penetrating readings she emerges with a range of answers that will intrigue not just students of Chinese culture but all readers who have come to appreciate, over the last generation, how the ‘history of the emotions’ can illuminate our common yet culturally diverse humanity.” – Robert Kaster, Princeton University

“A fascinating exploration of ‘pleasure’ as understood by major thinkers of ancient China. Nylan’s impeccable scholarship and psychological insight illuminate the ancient texts and their radical challenge to our contemporary Western subjectivism and individualism.” – Herbert Fingarette, University of California, Santa Barbara

“The first question you ask yourself before diving into this book is whether you should read it sitting at your desk or cuddling in your bed ̶ which does not mean that it should be read EITHER as an academic theory of pleasure OR as a feel-good self-help manual (there are many more pleasures to life than food and sex, although these are admittedly an essential part of it), but rather as a renowned American sinologist’s reflections about a lifetime of befriending ancient Chinese thinkers and poets, as well as contemporary writers and philosophers, and the pleasure she derived from their conversation. In her own distinctive style of reading and writing, Michael Nylan surely ‘knows the tone,’ as well as she knows the tune.” – Anne Cheng, Collège de France, Paris