This month in The Los Angeles Review of Books, read an essay on how ancient Chinese thought influenced pleasure and delight, adapted from Michael Nylan’s The Chinese Pleasure Book. Click here to learn more about the book. Click here to read the full essay. An excerpt appears below:
“‘Pleasure,’” wrote Oscar Wilde, the 19th-century English aesthete, ‘is the only thing worth having a theory about.’ More recently, Andre Malraux asked in The Temptation of the West, ‘Of all his ideas, is there any one more revealing of a man’s sensibilities than his concept of pleasure?’ Both formulations could be plausibly ascribed to some of the most important classical philosophers in China, who deemed pleasure to be one of the most effective tools to motivate right action, as each defined it, as well as to discern a person’s character.
To signify acts of pleasure-seeking, pleasure-taking, and imparting pleasure, a wide range of thinkers from the fourth century BCE to the eleventh century CE deployed the single graph,lè 樂. The verbal use of lè (‘to take or derive pleasure in’) in classical Chinese literature takes only a very few objects, those that promise deeper satisfactions in return for steady, long-term commitments. You can take pleasure in intimate friends (lè yǒu 樂友), in music (lè yuè 樂樂 – a different pronunciation of the same character), in a vocation and legacy (lè yè 樂業), in sharing (lè yǔ 樂與), in being alive and vital (lè shēng 樂生), in doing your duty (lè yì 樂義), in learning and emulating (lè xué 樂學), in others of the requisite worth (lè rén 樂人), in Heaven or the cosmic operations (lè tiān 樂天), and in your true home (lè jiā 樂家). The early Chinese theorists imagined a world of pleasure far more interconnected and resonant than modern philosophers were apt to do, full of profound reflection on ethics and aesthetics.”