Visions of Happiness: Daoist Utopias and Grotto Paradises in Early and Medieval Chinese Tales

By Chiang, Sing-chen Lydia | Utopian Studies, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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Visions of Happiness: Daoist Utopias and Grotto Paradises in Early and Medieval Chinese Tales

Chiang, Sing-chen Lydia, Utopian Studies


This study traces the respective evolutions of two separate motifs--Daoist utopia and grotto heavens (dongtian)--in early and medieval Chinese literature, and discusses the significance of their convergence in the influential literary classic "Peach Blossom Spring" ("Taohuayuanji") by Tao Qian (aka Tao Yuanming, 365-427). "l-he purposes of this article are twofold: first, to enhance our understanding of the ideological and textual connections between "Peach Blossom Spring" and Confucianism and Daoism; second, to offer new insights into the unique characteristics of Chinese utopianism, where political vision and mythical imagination frequently were intertwined.

Paradise and Utopia as Literary Modes

Both paradises and utopias are imaginary worlds. Their common function is to articulate our dreams for a better state of existence. In so doing, they also reflect our dissatisfaction with the status quo and our desire to transform, transcend, or escape from it. In articulating desires, paradise and utopia often differ in how each constructs not only ways of desire-fulfillment but also ways of desiring. To make a contingent distinction: a paradise is primarily a religious or mythical vision of happiness, which promises immortality, everlasting youth, supernatural power, religious salvation, divine grace, and/or other heavenly bliss and earthly pleasures. A paradise transcends the human condition including the limits of our body, psyche, natural environment, and human society. For this reason, it is often imagined to be in another life or in another world aided by magic or divine power. By contrast, a utopia is primarily a sociopolitical vision, which usually involves an ideal community, social structure, economic system, and/or political philosophy. In a utopia, human agency, rather than divine providence, is the driving force of social progress. Unlike a paradise, where individual happiness may be achieved independent of the constraints of human society, in a utopia individual happiness is inextricably linked to its social context. Therefore, a utopia typically exists in this world and in this life; it is based on the reality of this world. While both utopias and paradises may be regarded as critiques of the status quo, utopias express or represent sociopolitical solutions while paradises direct our yearning for a better life to the beyond.

Since utopias are characterized by secularism, some scholars in the field of utopian studies maintain that utopia is a unique product of Renaissance secularism and that non-Western cultures produce only paradises but not utopias. To counter this claim, Zhang Longxi argues that Confucianism has strong secular utopian tendencies: "traditionally the Chinese society, under the influence of Confucianism, is precisely a society not dominated by any religious system of thought, and ... secularism is a remarkably salient feature of Chinese culture in general" (Zhang 7). In Zhang's analysis, Confucian secularism becomes the primary inspiration of utopian imagination in China. Chief among Zhang's examples of Confucian secular utopias is the influential classic "Peach Blossom Spring."

And yet, as the analysis I shall present reveals, "Peach Blossom Spring" owes much of its provocative power to its inspiration by, and critique of, Daoist philosophy and myth. Furthermore, I suggest that paradise and utopia as two visions of happiness are, in the case of China, not always mutually exclusive; religious worldviews are not necessarily free of sociopolitical implications while political theories often have strong mythical underpinnings. For example, in both Confucianism and Daoism how a state is governed is believed to have a material influence on the workings of the cosmos, and vice versa. Therefore, I propose that works concerned with paradise and utopia are best considered as two different literary modes (which often diverge but sometimes overlap) rather than as two literary genres with definitive formal characteristics or clear generic boundaries.

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Visions of Happiness: Daoist Utopias and Grotto Paradises in Early and Medieval Chinese Tales


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