Chinese Flock to Free Lectures on Happiness, Justice

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When NetEase, one of China's most popular Internet portals, started offering Open University–style lectures in English last October, it expected eager Chinese netizens to flock to seminars like Web 2.0 Marketing Communications and Introduction to Robotics. They flocked, but not to those classes. Instead, two more-contemplative courses — one on happiness, the other on justice — trumped all others. "We never imagined that the most successful topics would be those to do with people's hearts and minds," says NetEase's Yang Jing.

About 3 million people have already watched the course on the concept of justice, led by Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, author of Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? In his lectures, Sandel aims to challenge ingrained ideas of ethics by debating questions such as whether it is fair for a store to increase the price of water after a natural disaster, or whether it is right to lie to protect a family member.

Sandel believes that the popularity of his course reflects an awakening of ethical reflection and debate in China as the children of the country's boom years reach maturity. "The generation that came of age during China's economic miracle now wants to engage with big questions — about moral responsibility, about justice and injustice, about the meaning of the good life," he says.

China, Sandel argues, is justifiably proud of its impressive economic advances, but "there is also a recognition that rising affluence has brought growing inequality, that GDP alone does not bring happiness, and that markets can't, by themselves, create a just society." When Sandel toured Chinese universities recently, students queued for hours to get a seat in his lectures and he says he was "struck by the hunger, even passion, for discussion of justice, fairness, equality and inequality."

Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar's course on positive psychology, the other unexpected hit on the NetEase site, has enjoyed a similarly fervid reaction. "The need for happiness — for meaning and pleasure — is universal, common to all people," says Ben-Shahar, author of the book Being Happy. "However, what people find meaningful or pleasurable often differs across different cultures."

In China, he notes, the individual focus on finding happiness reflects a societal focus on building a better society. "One of the ideas that I've often heard in my visits to China is the need to create a harmonious society," he says, referencing one of the oft-cited political catchphrases of the Hu Jintao administration. "To my mind, harmony is created by bringing together seemingly opposite forces and ideas. Harmony is about reconciling the ancient and the modern, the spiritual and the scientific, Eastern ideas and Western thought, the collective and the individual."

As China searches for that reconciliation, it's not just foreign proponents of the "good life" whose ideas are finding traction. Yu Dan, a professor at Beijing Normal University, has become a household name across the country on the back of her best-selling series of books explaining the applications of ancient philosophy in modern times. Her most famous book, Confucius from the Heart, aims to show how the often abstruse tenets of Confucianism can be simplified and still provide succor 2,500 years after they were first posited. The book has been a best seller since it was first published in 2007.

Like Sandel and Ben-Shahar, Yu believes that China's single-minded focus on economic growth in recent decades is now being tempered by a period of self-reflection and discussion about what the country — and its people — should define as important. "In the 21st century, Chinese people's thinking has undergone a big change," she says. "From the 1990s, people accumulated wealth very quickly, but now they ask themselves, Does satisfaction of being materially well-off mean that you are actually happy?"

"While improvements have been made on a national level, people are now starting to look for individual happiness — and they're looking both in traditional Chinese cultures and in Western cultures," Yu says. For Ben-Shahar, this newfound emphasis on personal awareness in China is not surprising. Some 2,500 years ago, Confucius himself noted that the examined life was the first step toward building a healthy society. "The individual and the group are interconnected, and emphasizing individual development is important for the flourishing of the group," says Ben-Shahar. Or in the words of Confucius:

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge.