When Chinese revolutionary culture reached its zenith in the 1950s and 1960s, revolutionary optimism became a strongly encouraged emotional perspective, attitude, and expression. It was touted through literature, film, images, and virtually every aspect of daily life. Unhappiness, especially if publicly expressed, signaled personal and social dysfunction, which could easily become mental illness in need of a cure. However, the valorizing of happiness took place with equal fervency in the United States, where Émile Coué brought his theory of optimistic autosuggestion, inspiring influential figures such as Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and Robert H. Shuller. Both countries had similar—if not identical—strategic reasons for promoting, building, and constructing happiness as the most acceptable public emotion. Emerging from the Enlightenment, socialism and capitalism embodied the modern ideals of progress and improvement characteristic of scientific rationalism, which drove their embrace of happiness as the most effective and efficient emotional state.
About the speaker
Wendy Larson is Professor Emerita at the University of Oregon, and a specialist on modern and contemporary Chinese culture. Her recent books include Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture (2017), and From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China (2008). Her present research project analyzes Chinese revolutionary optimism within a trajectory that identifies cultural optimism as a 20th century phenomenon within both socialist and capitalist traditions, with emphasis on Enlightenment notions of progress and the future.