Dreaming of paradise seems to be non-productive, escapist, and likely to stand in the way of progress. Also, utopian dreams can cause fanaticism for some sort of new world order. Generally, such dreams seem foolish. But what else are we living for?
Actually, most of us are wildly sentimental for dreams of paradise. When John Boehner wept on TV over his devotion to the American dream, I was in the dentist’s chair having my teeth drilled. For some reason, I couldn’t stop laughing. It was derisive laughter, even though I’m a sucker for similar dreams. I get worked up myself.
Among the main types of utopian pipe dreams, probably the most commonplace is the idealized golden age of the past. Probably every culture has one somewhere. It may be that first community of totally devoted Christians or Muslims, or a long-lost era of imperial glory, or a time when the world seemed marvelously young. In Greece, most people feel their golden age was around the 400s BCE, during a peak of cultural creativity. In Italy, we might expect nostalgia for the Roman empire, but that feeling doesn’t seem too popular. The hordes of tourists visiting Italy come mainly for the arts and sites of the Renaissance, and that’s probably the main verdict on which vision of Italy has been the best so far. Anyway, most golden age dreams seem to be backward-looking, which seems like the opposite of looking to a brilliant tomorrow.
I always assumed that North Americans like their golden ages set in the future. And while I was growing up in Texas, it seemed like our kingdom was almost at hand. Most people I knew thought that our society was the best ever. By comparison, all other cultures, past or foreign, were backward. Yet every Sunday morning millions of us flocked to church, seeking to learn a better way to live. And our chosen teachers in this vital subject were a pack of impoverished villagers from ancient West Asia. We believed that these Old World peasants had wisdom we needed. And at church we had a full reversal of normal working assumptions. Instead of believing that our modern ways were superior, we assumed that certain ancient people should teach us, and we should conform to their ways as best we could.
Chinese culture has been even more devoted to nostalgia, and it’s myths of a “golden age” have loomed very large. Traditionally, the dawn of China’s history was idolized as an original paradise. The landscape was reportedly rich and majestic. The villagers were creative and free. Their leaders were independent elders and matrons, as yet unconquered by any “higher” lords.
Of course most nostalgia is wishful thinking, and many Chinese people have rejected reverence for the primitive past as an escapist, infantile fantasy. Countless modern nationalists have felt that China’s fixation on a supposedly golden past was just a block in the road to the future. Many young people think that the past is a nightmare they are trying to escape, and they often show a fatalism we can probably relate to. A factory girl in Shenzhen told her English teacher, “In original society, people lived in groups. Eventually, these groups broke down into families, and now they’re breaking down again, into so many different people. Finally, it will be just one single person … If you could have some kind of perfect socialism, that would be the best. But it’s impossible. That was just a beautiful ideal” (Hessler, 2006, 167).
On one level, I’d agree that the various legends of golden times are illusions, and memory makes the past seem better than it was. Besides that, we’ve seen grand and dangerous delusions about the past. We’ve had proud nationalists who idealized their own roots. These people typically claimed descent from a select group of pure ancestors, with God-given traditions. We’ve seen fanatics for ethnic purity, who treat all change from their founding traditions as heresy, and all influence from other cultures as social pollution. But people’s recollections of their “golden times” can also be a positive thing. If people feel they’ve been great in the past, maybe it helps them feel they can be great again. We moderns may assume that dreaming of paradise is a waste of time. But what future are we hoping for? In our minds we hold pictures of the world as it should be. What are we working for if not those dreams?
Clearly, dreams of paradise are controversial, and the dreams themselves often seem to be the problem. But of course that depends on how we use them. And I want to compare how Chinese people have used their paradise dreams with how we’ve used them in Western religions.
When early Daoists spoke of China’s golden age, they said it was a time of natural beauty and real equality. With fond and likely exaggerated memory, they called it “the Great Peace,” “the Great Equality,” “the time of unspoiled nature and uncorrupted human virtue.” As Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) explained its primitive beauties,
In that age, there were no paths over the mountains, no boats and bridges to cross rivers. The ten thousand creatures grew abundantly, each in its own sphere. Birds and animals formed herds; plants and trees shot up as they pleased. Therefore birds and animals could be led by the hand (and they did not try to run away), and one could climb to the nests of ravens and look into them (without disturbing them). Indeed, in the age of highest virtue, man had the same habitation as birds and animals and constituted a single race with the ten thousand creatures. Nothing was known of a “superior” and a “common” man.
The early Daoist sages like Laozi (Lao-tzu) or Zhuangzi meant to contrast such a past with their own age of rising warlords (in the 500s to 300s BCE). Looking back in nostalgic protest, they recalled an age of autonomous villages, boundless forests, peace, and freedom. If these legends have any historical background, they best fit the period before 2100 BCE.
Confucius also spoke repeatedly of the golden age. He claimed that the people of that time followed natural virtues of compassion and mutual respect. As the Classic of Rites said,
When the Great Way was practiced, the world was shared by all alike. The worthy and the able were promoted to office and men practiced good faith and lived in affection. Therefore they did not regard as parents only their own parents, or as sons only their own sons … Therefore all evil plotting was prevented and thieves and rebels did not arise, so that people could leave their outer gates unbolted. This was the age of Grand Unity.
China’s Buddhists also had legends of a golden time, or a place where things remained as they were in the beginning. It’s unclear if their stories are modifications of Chinese legends, or imported from India, or both. But according to one story,
When the people of Uttarakuru bathe in one of the four miraculous rivers flowing through the country … they simply go to the banks, undress, leave their clothing on the beach, step into boats and move out onto the water. There they bathe and play in the waves for as long as they enjoy themselves. When they return to the beach, they all pick up the garments lying nearest them. … They dress and wander off without looking for their own clothes. Why? Because the people of Uttarakuru pay no attention to what does and does not belong to them.
Most Daoists, Confucianists, and Buddhists, all agreed that the golden age had ended long ago. With the rise of military empires, the Great Equality had been destroyed. Rulers became armed thieves rather than kindly elders. Official religion was now mainly concerned with enforcing obedience to superiors. But idealists and common people still dreamed of a return to the ancient ways. They compared their external reality with their mental images of the golden age. These were their pictures of how life should be, appearing like collective memories inherited by every generation.
In China’s perennial vision of the golden age, the land is lush and green, with hillside forests, languid ponds, and sparkling beaches. The world is a numinous, living thing, where the plants, animals and people are fellow travelers on life’s great journey. Most people would rather cooperate than compete with their neighbors. They make few distinctions of status, and feel that ambition for superiority is foolish. The community respects those who give the most—not those who possess the most, or take the most. Men and women generally regard each other with mutual admiration. They value their leisure with friends and family. Their work is unhurried, because the quality of life is more important than the scale of production. Technology either enables these values, or else people don’t want it. In this perennial dream, an almost tangible memory of original bliss fills the background of personal and collective history. Life’s glimpses of peace and joy come surrounded with a scent of deja-vu. People know what they love because they’ve tasted it before.
This sense of deja-vu has been unusually strong in China. Probably most peasant rebellions or religious movements, including those of the White Lotus societies, the Taiping or Boxer rebels, Sun Yat-sen’s Republicans, or Mao Zedong’s Communists, have been fired by some version of an ancient national dream called “the Great Equality.” This dream has appeared in thousands of popular legends, religious visions, festival dramas, novels, raucous peasant songs, or subversive political tracts. In the 1920s, Liu Renhang wrote a book called Preliminary Studies Concerning the Great Equality of the East. In this, he classified various utopian visions animating the popular mind. There were “fantasy” paradises such as the Buddhist Pure Land, dreams of a return to Mother Nature, or mystical realizations of the great equality as a state of higher awareness. There were ideals of primitive socialism, revolutionary demands for economic justice, visions of equality for women, or notions of progress for all through sharing the fruits of technology. These dreams were variations on a theme that runs through Chinese history from the first to now. They reflect a moral common sense that seems characteristic of popular culture.
Of course Mao’s Red Guards seemed to totally reject such superstitious traditions of the past. But perhaps these young radicals were more traditional than they knew. They basically denounced their elders for failing to live up to their own ancient ideals of “the Great Equality.” In the past, those who defended similar dreams often claimed patronage from goddesses of antiquity, such as Lao Mu, the Old Mother; Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother; or Yao Chi Jinmu, the Keeper of Paradise. The values of the golden age were originally the values of prehistoric clan mothers. Throughout history, these were the counterculture values popular among women.
We could easily dismiss China’s legends of the golden age as “trivial utopianism.” But these legends have been widely believed throughout Chinese history. Mao Zedong explained it this way in 1939: “Developing along the same lines as many other nations of the world, the Chinese nation … first went through some tens of thousands of years of life in classless primitive communes. Up to now, approximately 4,000 years have passed since the collapse of the primitive communes and the transition to class society, first slave society and then feudalism” (De Bary and Chan, 1960, vol. II, 216). More recently, Wang Qingshu, the Secretary for the All-China Women’s Federation, said that “after the decline of the matriarchal culture of ancient China, women’s status gave them no rights in public affairs” (2004, 92). Both Mao and Wang believed in the legendary time of Great Equality.
Probably most people who’ve ever lived in China have recalled the age of “primitive communes” with a certain reverent nostalgia. And many have believed that these legends portrayed an original equality between men and women. Even patriarchal authorities believed this, and criticized their ancestors for it. So, back in the 300s BCE, the philosopher Shang Yang ridiculed the ancients for giving too much respect to mothers: “During the time when heaven and earth were established and the people were produced, people knew their mothers but not their fathers” (Cai, 1995, 36). To Shang’s mind, nothing could be more barbaric. But most people, especially the women, took the age before patriarchy as a source of inspiration.
In both the Bible and the Quran, we have accounts of an original earthly paradise. And both these accounts concerning the Garden of Eden are commonly believed as historic fact. These “Western” scriptures say that our first ancestors were cast out from a garden of paradise as a punishment for their sins. In China also, the golden age was reportedly lost due to human failings. But the Western accounts say that the earthly paradise has been lost forever. It can never be recovered, and paradise is now attainable only in another world beyond the grave. In China, however, most dreams of paradise have been set on earth. And through the centuries, probably most Chinese people have believed it possible that the time of unspoiled nature and uncorrupted human virtue can be recovered in this world. Maybe this is the ultimate pipe dream. Or maybe it’s the greatest, bravest hope of all.
Bauer, Wolfgang. 1976. China and the Search for Happiness. Michael Shaw, translator. New York: Seabury Press, pp. 131–152.
Cai Junshang. 1995. “Myth and Reality: The Projection of Gender Relations in Prehistoric China.” In The Chinese Partnership Research Group, Min Jiayin, editor. The Chalice & the Blade in Chinese Culture: Gender Relations and Social Models. Beijing: China Social Sciences Publishing House, p. 36)
De Bary, William Theodore, Wing-tsit Chan, Burton Watson, editors. 1960. Sources of Chinese Tradition, volume I. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 176
Hessler, Peter. 2006. Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China. New York: HarperCollins, p. 167.
Wang Qingshu. 2004. “The History and Current Status of Chinese Women’s Participation in Politics.” In Tao Jie, Zheng Bijan and Shirley Mow, editors. Holding Up Half the Sky: Chinese Women Past, Present, and Future. New York: The Feminist Press, p. 92.
Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.