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  • The Chinese Pleasure Book by Michael Nylan
  • Andrew Lambert (bio)
The Chinese Pleasure Book. By Michael Nylan. New York: Zone Books, 2018. Pp. 472. Hardcover $32.95, ISBN 978-1-942130-13-0.

In this vast and ambitious tome, Michael Nylan aims to "trace the evolution of pleasure theories in early China over the course of a millennium and a half" (p. 17), roughly from 400 BCE to 1100 CE. This involves dissecting the discourse surrounding a single graph, le 樂, which Nylan translates as pleasure, and actively distinguishes from other states such as happiness and joy. Nylan understands such pleasure as "deeper satisfactions" realized in long-term commitments and often relational in nature (p. 18). In texts, pleasure (樂) is often associated with "objects of consequence" such as intimate friends (you 友), Heaven (tian 天), graceful and charismatic acts (de 德) and family profession or heritage (ye 業) (p. 35).

Nylan believes that the importance of pleasure in understanding Chinese thought has been neglected by modern sinologists. Furthermore, the Chinese term involves connotations and practical implications that do not neatly align with accounts of comparable inner states found in "classical Greece and Rome and in modern philosophy" (p. 18). In Chinese thought, for example, pleasure is contrasted not with pain--as is common in European thought, including classical utilitarianism--but with concern or anxiety (you 憂), danger (wei 危) or grief arising from loss (ai 哀) (p. 35). The distinctive profile of Chinese pleasure thus invites a detailed study.

This book-length study consists of seven chapters. The first introduces notable features of Chinese pleasure discourse. These include: the sheer range of pleasure-related terms in the texts; the relation of pleasure with theories of resonance (ganying 感應); insistence that the pleasure promoted was not hedonistic; and that all thinkers, from the Warring States period to the eleventh century, addressed how to "convert the consuming pleasures--those that expand vast time, wealth and physical energy--into sustaining pleasures that could support…the polity, the family or the body" (p. 33). Such transformation could ensure "a life of maximal pleasure and minimal distress" (p. 54).

This wide-ranging theory of pleasure is unpacked in subsequent chapters. The second chapter examines two closely linked themes that illustrate the relational and more rewarding pleasures: music and friendship. Subsequent chapters then focus on the treatment of pleasure by particular texts or thinkers. [End Page 1] Chapters 3-5 focus on the treatment of pleasure in pre-Qin Master's texts: the Mencius, the Xunzi and the Zhuangzi. Chapter 6 focuses on Yang Xiong's conviction that pleasure is found in immersion in great writers of antiquity. The final chapter is a comparative study of pleasure in the works of Tao Yuanming and Su Shi.

The first four chapters in particular develop a multi-faceted theory of how pleasure functioned in Chinese thought and social life. This integrates accounts of human nature with broader social and political issues. The chapters on Mencius and Xunzi outline how the early Confucians understood pleasure and the desire for it as part of human nature. People were bundles of desires, and desires could not be eliminated. Accordingly, pleasure was not to be dismissed or actively restricted, but was to be accommodated where possible (asceticism finds few backers in the tradition). At the same time, the metaphors of organic growth in the Mencius and of social conditioning in the Xunzi indicate that desires were to be refined through the shaping of personal character. Mencius encourages rulers to "recognize the essential humanity underlying their desires" with "ordinary desires" transmuted into desires for "community and cooperation." (p. 137) through sympathetic extension of feeling. For Xunzi, "the Way of ritual and music…constitutes the only conceivable path by which to provide reliable satisfaction for the jumble of desires and longings" (p. 177); such cultivation enables people to become virtual works of art, charismatic and a pleasure to emulate.

The possibility of transforming desires, and the need to do so, gave rise to a rich discourse about the management of desires. A central theme of the book, and a topic Nylan has explored in previous articles, is that such management--as both giving and taking pleasure--was central to social and...


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