Christopher Michaelson

On Meaningful Work and the Good Life

"When the great way prevailed, the world community was equally shared by all."† The first time Wong Jun-Chow copied this phrase from The Great Harmony, he was an adolescent among children. He had left home, headstrong, walking without shoes from his rural home outside of Changsha, Hunan, China to the nearest town. To break the pattern of subsistence farming that had kept his family perpetually downtrodden, he needed to catch up on an education that had not been available to him as a countryside peasant. He convinced the principal of an elementary school to let him prove himself worthy of it, studying beside children half his age. There, he learned to read and write characters by reproducing The Great Harmony.

A brief political tract on the well-ordered society, The Great Harmony is a Confucian depiction of institutions functioning in accord with individuals’ needs and demands. The "harmony" synchronizes institutional supply of goods and services with market demand, signaling one way in which work may be termed "meaningful." However, in reality, Wong’s family, his community, and their needs were immaterial to the orderly functioning of the greater society. Born into peasantry when inequality prevailed, Wong could not wait for "the great way" to reappear. He broke ranks with the existing social order in his search for a better life.

"The worthy and able were chosen as officeholders. Mutual confidence was fostered and good neighborliness cultivated. Therefore, people did not regard as parents only their own parents, nor did they treat as children only their own children. Provision was made for the aged till their death, the adults were given employment, and the young enabled to grow up."

As if to underscore the irony, in this period of his life Wong was also a child among adults, working as a local newspaper copyist to support himself beyond the care the school had offered him in room and board. By copying The Great Harmony hundreds of times, he had distinguished himself as a calligrapher, one of the marks of the Chinese scholar, as well as one of the skills of the productive worker of the time and place. When he was not practicing The Great Harmony, he worked long hours outside of school, in seemingly dingy conditions and little light, at eye-straining work that the newspaper would have preferred to be performed by a machine. He was compensated accordingly.

The conditions of work comprise a second way in which work might be meaningful. The more that work is performed out of necessity rather than possibility, the less meaningful it tends to seem to the worker. When institutional ends are incompatible with individual ends, the worker might as well be a machine, and the conditions of work might as well be minimally sufficient to enable the efficient operation of the human machine until it wears out and is replaced by another.

Wong’s search for a better life led him to employ his considerable natural intelligence and gifts in the art of persuasion to escape subservience at work. Those traits, which made him more valuable than any machine, carried him from peasantry through elementary school to military school to a high post in the military government, serving a country escaping thousands of years of imperial rule. In the second quarter of his life, he survived three enemies – warlords, Japanese invaders, and Communist insurgents – before the last drove his army and his family from China in 1949. Subsequently, having left behind most of the wealth he had accumulated, he failed twice as an ordinary businessman in São Paulo, Brazil. For what became the majority of his 98 years, J.C. Wong, as his name was rendered in his adopted country, was supported by his children.

"Old widows, widowers, the orphaned, the old and childless, as well as the sick and the disabled were well taken care of. Men had their proper roles and women their homes."

By old age, Wong had transcribed The Great Harmony perhaps thousands of times. In the beginning, he and the other children in his school were required to memorize such passages and practice calligraphy, seated in orderly rows under the scrutiny of an authoritarian teacher. The consequences of failure for a student who came from outside the community were especially high. Not only would he be subject to harsh discipline, but expulsion for him would mean the end of his education, forcing him back to the countryside. Amid that pressure, Wong produced characters that were uniform and dignified, their strokes bold and alive as though a part of the nature they resembled, and he cultivated a discipline that he preached throughout his lifetime: The final character must be as well-formed as the first. Transcriptions of The Great Harmony that he produced as an older man decorate the walls of the homes of his descendants, and scores of other surviving copies are rolled in scrolls within their storage trunks and on rice paper and silk. Usually, there were few errors; he focused as though he were an intelligent machine, and when he was done, berated himself for the imperfections.

This work, which was initially an externally imposed requirement and evolved into an internally assumed duty, held little pleasure for Wong, in the usual sense of the word. He was utterly serious while he did it and generally displeased upon completion. Especially when his sight and dexterity began to fail, calligraphy became a source of emotional pain and self-disparagement. Not only could he no longer improve upon it, he could not use it to occupy himself with it because he was so disgusted with the final product. About the time his skills were in noticeable decline, his second wife died, and his calligraphy followed.

In a third way, in which meaningful work fulfills an individual’s desire for self-expression, what he perceives as his proper role, Wong’s work was no longer meaningful to him.

"While they hated to see wealth lying about on the ground, they did not necessarily keep it for their own use. While they hated not to exert their effort, they did not necessarily devote it to their own ends. Thus, evil schemes were repressed, and robbers, thieves, and other lawless elements failed to arise so that outer doors did not have to be shut. This was called the age of Great Harmony."

Wong survived for nearly a decade after that – an unusually strong body sustaining a weak will to live. Calligraphy had been the primary occupation that allowed him, as an able-bodied adult, to overcome the indignity of being supported by his children. It had been his first marketable skill, and although it no longer had any market value, it was meaningful work in a fourth way, that of being socially beneficial to the wellbeing and education of his descendants and other relations.

When he died, Wong left 20 grandchildren, most of them working-age products of the middle and upper class in urban centers of Brazil and the United States. They have grown up in the imposing shadows of their immigrant parents, whose considerable professional success was motivated by their father’s demanding work ethic and their selective acceptance of tradition, rejecting traditional gender roles with his implicit approval. But the meaning of meaningful work has not remained the same through the generations. For Wong, meaningful life required hard work, and though some of his grandchildren work hard at professions they consider to be meaningful, others would like to work less so as to preserve the possibility of meaningful lives outside of work. His identity and patriarchal style were shaped by his early career generalship, even after he left it behind, whereas they may not always see themselves first and foremost as workers. He struggled to evade tyrannical leaders, whereas they struggled to break away from seemingly tyrannical parents who promoted his work ethic. Like most of the world’s population that is unaccustomed to material comfort, he had to work to survive, whereas they have had the means and freedom to seek self-expression through their work.


By the time I was born, I think that any hopes my grandfather – or Gong-Gong, as I called Wong Jun-Chow – might have had for a happy life had long vanished. From childhood he had been self-sufficient, leaving one home and then another as he progressed up the socioeconomic ranks, trading a miserable though uncluttered life as a peasant for the complications of professional success and responsibility. He lost two sons before a daughter finally survived infancy. After four more children, he lost his first wife, from whom he was often separated for long periods during wartime owing to professional duty. Then he remarried, and subsequently lost his country. Relocating to a new hemisphere with seven of his eight surviving children, he learned Portuguese but never could be mistaken for a Brazilian. Although he was grateful to his host country, he never again felt at home and never was able to replicate his early professional success. He died at peace, however, with what he had accomplished, I think. So much of his sorrow had been wrought by forces beyond his control. And although not everything he sought turned out as he had hoped, he felt he had done what he could to live a good life. In the end, this was enough for him to die in peace and without regrets.

In aggregate, his grandchildren who have by now reached adulthood are ill at ease with the place of work in their lives. As my grandfather became ever more silent in his progression toward death, I had to wonder if he had willfully silenced himself out of a sense of hopelessness. He had watched too many promising young people – his own descendants – grow up either with the wrong professional goals or with no goals at all. For many of them, work was an entitlement, not a responsibility, and a choice, not a requirement. I think we, his grandchildren and those like us under the spell of affluent economies, resist his example only because we can. As one of that generation who has not entirely figured out his own place, I think my general interest in philosophy, and my particular research interest in meaningful work, has roots in my grandfather’s example.

Although he never purported to articulate a theory of meaningful work, his practical conception of it was multifaceted, emphasizing more its social fit and impact than his personal self-expression. Those who have the capacity to think about self-expression through work may not be fully aware of the luxury they enjoy; therefore, my research on meaningful work examines the intersection between the motivation and obligation to perform and provide meaningful work. Before my grandfather died, I said to him that someday I would write a book about our family. I’m not sure that the book on meaningful work that I recently began will turn out to be the book he was expecting, but I would like to think he would recognize its origins.

† The English translation used here of The Great Harmony was found on a yellowed sheet of paper taped to the back of one of Wong Jun-Chow’s calligraphic renderings in Chinese characters, with no attribution. It is nearly identical to Liu’s (2000) translation.

Christopher Michaelson is assistant professor of ethics and business law at the Opus College of Business.

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.