Li Yinhe: “Being Happy”

We take a brief respite from our nearly nonstop coverage of political stuff to bring you this translation of an essay by Li Yinhe, the famed sexologist, social commentator, and widow of Wang Xiaobo. Aside from the fact that it’s written by a famous Chinese social commentator, it has nothing to do with China, but we might understand it as one window into Chinese culture.

Li Yinhe


When the whole family was together, my sister told me something my father had said after his cerebral embolism that really shocked me. He said: “In my whole life, I haven’t had a happy moment.” Such desolate words fit with my father’s consistent adherence to being rather extreme; I can imagine vividly what he looked like as he said this sentence.

I think there are two dimensions to people’s happiness (or unhappiness). One is subjective, the other is objective. Looking at things subjectively, people with higher goals for their lives have a harder time being happy. A muddled person who passes the days simply can frequently be happy, and someone who sets their sights too high will be unhappy, because he will feel he hasn’t realized any of his goals. My father definitely had great aspirations, and he didn’t achieve them, so he was unhappy.

But the objective dimension is also useful to examine: the champion is happier than the runner-up, the minister is happier than the director, the rich man is happier than the poor man. I think my father’s unhappiness was influenced by his objective circumstances.

For most people, the objective dimension might be summarized as having less than the most fortunate and more than the least fortunate. If you go back a hundred years, [by objective standards] only one person could be happy, and that was the emperor. Today, if you break it up into fields, there can be a few more happy people. In the economic sphere it’s Bill Gates, in the political sphere it’s Hu Jintao and Obama, in the artistic sphere it’s…no one else has any way to be happy.

So whether or not people live happily is primarily a subjective question. If you think happily you can be happy, if you think unhappily you may be unhappy, perhaps even for a whole life. I must learn a lesson from my father, and be a happy person.

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