[Featured image: Mongolian girl with rabbit. Photographer: Igor Sobolev]
In the 1600’s, Chinese poet Chin Shengtan was stranded in a temple for 10 days due to bad weather. There he passed the time by compiling a list of 33 profoundly happy moments in his life. They resonate 400 years later.
What is a moment where you felt pure happiness? Leave comments and the end of the article and I’ll compile a modern list.
1Hot June day
It is a hot day in June when the sun hangs still in the sky and there is not a whiff of wind in the air, nor a trace of clouds; the front and back yards are hot like an oven and not a single bird dares to fly about. Perspiration flows down my whole body in little rivulets. There is the noonday meal before me, but I cannot take it for the sheer heat. I ask for a mat to spread on the ground and lie down, but the mat is wet with moisture and flies swarm about to rest on my nose and refuse to be driven away. Just at this moment when I am completely helpless, suddenly there is a rumbling of thunder and big sheets of black clouds overcast the sky and come majestically on like a great army advancing to battle. Rain-water begins to pour down from the eaves like a cataract. The perspiration stops. The clamminess of the ground is gone. All flies disappear to hide themselves and I can eat my rice. Ah, is this not happiness?
A friend, one I have not seen for ten years, suddenly arrives at sunset. I open the door to receive him, and without asking whether he came by boat or by land, and without bidding him to sit on the bed or the couch, I go to the inner chamber and ask my wife: “Have you got a gallon of wine like Su Tungp’o’s wife?” My wife gladly takes out her gold hairpin to sell it. I calculate it will last us three days. Ah, is this not happiness?
3Ferocious looking cat
I am sitting alone in an empty room and I am just getting annoyed at a little mouse at the head of my bed, and wondering what that little rustling sound signifies – what article of mine he is biting or what volume of my books he is eating up. While I am in this state of mind and don’t know what to do, I suddenly see a ferocious-looking cat, wagging its tail and staring with its wide-open eyes, as if it were looking at something. I hold my breath and wait a moment, keeping perfectly still, and suddenly with a little sound the mouse disappears like a whiff of wind. Ah, is this not happiness?
I have pulled out the hait’ang and chiching (flowering trees) in front of my studio, and have just planted ten or twenty green banana trees there. Ah, is this not happiness?
5Comfortable all over my body
I am drinking with some romantic friends on a spring night and am just half intoxicated, finding it difficult to stop drinking and equally difficult to go on. An understanding boy servant at the side suddenly brings in a package of big fire-crackers, about a dozen in number, and I rise from the table and go and fire them off. The smell of sulphur assails my nostrils and enters my brain and I feel comfortable all over my body. Ah, is this not happiness?
I am walking in the street and see two poor rascals engaged in a hot argument of words with their faces flushed and their eyes staring with anger as if they were mortal enemies, and yet they still pretend to be ceremonious to each other, raising their arms and bending their waists in salute, and still using the most polished language of thou and thee and wherefore and is it not so? The flow of words is interminable. Suddenly there appears a big husky fellow swinging his arms and coming up to them, and with a shout tells them to disperse. Ah, is this not happiness?
To hear our children recite the classics so fluently, like the sound of water pouring from a vase. Ah, is this not happiness?
Having nothing to do after a meal I go to the shops and take a fancy to a little thing. After bargaining for some time, we still haggle about a small difference, but the shop-boy still refuses to sell it. Then I take out a little thing from my sleeve, which is worth about the same thing as the difference and throw it at the boy. The boy suddenly smiles and bows courteously saying, “Oh, you are too generous!” Ah, is this not happiness?
I have nothing to do after a meal and try to go through the things in some old trunks. I see there are dozens of IOUs from people who owe my family money. Some of them are dead and some still living, but in any case there is no hope of their returning the money. Behind people’s backs I put them together in a pile and make a bonfire of them, and I look up to the sky and see the last trace of smoke disappear. Ah, is this not happiness?
It is a summer’s day. I go bareheaded and barefooted, holding a parasol, to watch young people singing Soochow fol-songs while treading the water-wheel. The water comes up over the wheel in a gushing torrent like molten silver or melting snow. Ah, is this not happiness?
I wake up in the morning and seem to hear someone in the house sighing and saying that last night someone died. I immediately ask to find out who it is, and learn that it is the sharpest, most calculating fellow in town. Ah, is this not happiness?
I get up early on a summer morning and see people sawing a large bamboo pole under a mat-shed, to be used as a water-pipe. Ah, is this not happiness?
It has been raining for a whole month and I lie in bed in the morning like one drunk or ill, refusing to get up. Suddenly I hear a chorus of birds announcing a clear day. Quickly I pull aside the curtain, push open a window and see the beautiful sun shining and glistening and the forest looks like it’s having a bath. Ah, is this not happiness?
14“Are you hungry, too?”
At night I seem to hear someone thinking of me in the distance. The next day I go to call on him. I enter his door and look about his room and see that this person is sitting at his desk, facing south, reading a document. He sees me, nods quietly and pulls me by the sleeve to make me sit down, saying, “Since you are here, come and look at this.” And we laugh and enjoy ourselves until the shadows on the walls have disappeared. He is feeling hungry himself and slowly asks me, “Are you hungry, too?” Ah, is this not happiness?
Without any serious intention of building a house of my own, I happened, nevertheless, to start building one because a little sum had unexpectedly come my way. From that day on, every morning and every night, I was told that I needed to buy timber and stone and tiles and bricks and mortar and nails. And I explored and exhausted every avenue of getting some money, all on account of this house, until I got sort of resigned to this state of things. One day, finally, the house is completed, the walls have been whitewashed and the floors swept clean; the paper windows have been pasted and scrolls and paintings are hung up on the walls. All the workmen have left, and my friends have arrived, sitting on different couches in order. Ah, is this not happiness?
I am drinking on a winter’s night, and suddenly note that the night has turned extremely cold. I push open the window and see that snowflakes come down the size of a palm and there are already three or four inches of snow on the ground. Ah, is this not happiness?
To cut with a sharp knife a bright green water-melon on a big scarlet plate of a summer afternoon. Ah, is this not happiness?
18Shave my head clean
I have long wanted to become a monk, but was worried because I would not be permitted to eat meat. If, then, I could be permitted to eat meat publicly, why, then I could heat a basin of hot water, and with the help of a sharper razor, shave my head clean in a summer month! Ah, is this not happiness?
19Hot water behind closed doors
To keep three or four spots of eczema in a private part of my body and now and then to scald or bathe it with hot water behind closed doors. Ah, is this not happiness?
To find accidentally a handwritten letter of some old friend in a trunk. Ah, is this not happiness?
A poor scholar comes to borrow money from me, but is shy about mentioning the topic, and so he allows the conversation to drift along on other topics. I see his uncomfortable situation, pull him aside to a place where we are alone and ask him how much he needs. Then I go inside and give him the sum and after having done this, I ask him: “Must you go immediately to settle this matter or can you stay awhile and have a drink with me?” Ah, is this not happiness?
22The hook catches
I am sitting in a small boat. There is a beautiful wind in our favour, but our boat has no sails. Suddenly there appears a big lorcha (tropical fish), coming along as fast as the wind. I try to hook on to the lorcha in the hope of catching on to it, and unexpectedly the hook does catch. Then I throw over a rope and we are towed along and I begin to sing the lines of Tu Fu: “The green makes me feel tender towards the peaks, and the red tells me there are oranges.” And we break out in joyous laughter. Ah, is this not happiness?
23Room on the river
I have long been looking for a house to share with a friend but have not been able to find a suitable one. Suddenly, someone brings news that there is a house somewhere, not too big, but with only about a dozen rooms, and that it faces a big river with beautiful green trees around. I ask this man to stay for supper, and after the supper we go over together to have a look, having no idea what the house is like. Entering the gate, I see that there is a large vacant lot, and I say to myself, “I shall not have to worry about the supply of vegetables and melons henceforth.” Ah, is this not happiness?
A traveler returns home after a long journey, and he sees the old city gate and hears the women and children on both banks of the river talking in his own dialect. Ah, is this not happiness?
25Out of sight, out of mind
When a good piece of old porcelain is broken, you know there is no hope of repairing it. The more you turn it about and look at it, the more you are exasperated. I then hand it to the cook, and give orders that he shall never let that broken porcelain bowl come within my sight again. Ah, is this not happiness?
I am not a saint, and am therefore not without sin. In the night I did something wrong and I get up in the morning and feel extremely ill at ease about it. Suddenly I remember what is taught by Buddhism, that not to cover one’s sins is the same as repentance. So then I begin to tell my sin to the entire company around, whether they are strangers or my old friends. Ah, is this not happiness?
To watch someone writing big characters a foot high. Ah, is this not happiness?
To open the window and let a wasp out from the room. Ah, is this not happiness?
A magistrate orders the beating of the drum and calls it a day. Ah, is this not happiness?
To see someone’s kite-line broken. Ah, is this not happiness?
To see a wild prairie fire. Ah, is this not happiness?
To have just finished repaying all one’s debts. Ah, is this not happiness?
To read the Story of Curly-Beard (who gave up his house to a pair of eloping lovers then disappeared). Ah, is this not happiness?
If you liked this, I recommend the following book:
- A compilation of writings by Chin Shengtan and other Chinese philosophers.
- The essays cover the topics of Human Life, Love and Death, Seasons, Nature, Human Adjustments, Home and Daily Living, Literature, Tea and Wine, Ancient Wit, and Wisdom.