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Writing at a time when China appeared weak and divided against itself, Lin Yutang, unable to resist adequately the brutally aggressive activity of the Japanese military, set out through his work to increase American understanding and support for China. Because China was considered the underdog in the struggle with Japan, many Americans were sympathetic to the Chinese, but few knew much about China. In his first major work, My Country and My People (1935), Lin described sources of strength in the life of the Chinese people that he believed would help the nation survive its problems. In The Importance of Living, he examined the ideas that permitted the Chinese people to maintain a sense of human dignity in the face of cynicism and totalitarian threats. Using his mastery of English prose style, Lin attempted to popularize the “wisdom of the Orient” and make it accessible to the general reader through the use of irony and gentle humor.

In his preface, Lin informed the reader that the book was a personal testimony based on his own experience of thought and life. He warned against judging any philosopher or poet solely on the basis of how he was presented in this work, since each individual would inevitably be incompletely revealed within it. Using gentle irony, Lin apologized for the fact that he was not a trained philosopher. He refused to claim any originality because the ideas he covered had been discussed by many before him.

The opening chapter asserted that the highest ideal of Chinese culture was a person with a sense of detachment, “which enables one to go through life with tolerant irony and escape the temptations of fame and wealth and achievement.” The sense of detachment provided a feeling of freedom that permitted a keen and intense joy of living. To illustrate this phenomenon, the book explained the philosophies and art of living that the Chinese had developed over the centuries.

Living a Full and Happy Life

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Unlike the traditional Christian theological approach stressing the doctrine of Original Sin, the Chinese view of life stressed the importance of living in harmony with nature. Recognizing that humans live on earth and not in heaven, Chinese poets and philosophers did not need to reject the human body. They could accommodate the recognition of personal mortality and the realization of life’s impermanence. The Daoist philosopher and poet Zhuangzi expressed this sense of evanescence poetically when he described awakening from a dream in which he was a butterfly and wondering whether he was truly Zhuangzi dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Confucius prosaically reduced the basic desires of human beings to two fundamental aspects: alimentation and reproduction, or more simply, food and drink and family. Lin argued that only the achievement of true harmony with nature could improve human beings, and therefore the education of one’s senses and emotions was even more important than the education of one’s mind.

Although there was much disagreement between Chinese philosophers on many points, they did concur that people must be both wise and unafraid to live a full and happy life. The positive Confucian approach and the quiet Daoist view could be combined into a philosophy that Lin considered to be that of the average Chinese. The apparent conflict between calls for action and inaction could be resolved; when they were merged together they became complementary and made for contentment with life on earth. Mixing these two outlooks created a harmonious personality, which was the acknowledged aim of all culture and education; this harmonious personality would experience a joyous love of life.

As an adherent of materialism, Lin rejected the distinction between material and spiritual happiness and refused to distinguish between the joys of the mind and joys of the flesh. In a chapter entitled “The Importance of Loafing,” Lin urged the necessity of leisure to permit the achievement of a life of inner calm that led to an intense enjoyment of the life of nature. Awareness of mortality made the Chinese scholar’s enjoyment of life all the more intense. For Lin, “Chinese philosophy may be briefly defined as a preoccupation with the knowledge of life rather than the knowledge of truth.” The basic question it asks is “How are we to live?”

Lin examined Chinese answers to this question in a series of chapters that are essentially collections of familiar essays. Chapter 8, “The Enjoyment of the Home,” is mostly about family. Lin argues that ancestor worship is misunderstood if it seen as a religion. Rather, it promotes a valuable sense of family consciousness and family honor, although it can also lead to abuses such as those pointed out in My Country and My People. The chapter ends with a section titled “On Growing Old”; Lin praises the Chinese reverence for age and expresses his shock when encountering the American denial of becoming elderly. Chapter 9, “The Enjoyment of Living,” contains ten short essays devoted to such topics as “On Sitting in Chairs,” “On Tea and Friendship,” and “Some Curious Western Customs” regarding the rules of when to take off one’s hat and how to shake hands.

Chapters entitled “The Enjoyment of Nature” and the “Enjoyment of Travel” use quotations from Chinese poetry and prose to illustrate what Lin considers proper approaches to these pleasures. In “The Enjoyment of Culture” Lin argues that “the aim of education or culture is merely the development of good taste in knowledge and good form in conduct.” He especially praises the joys of reading. In an example that reflects centuries of Chinese experience with censorship, he quotes a Chinese scholar who thought that the experience of reading a banned book behind closed doors on a snowy night was one of life’s greatest delights.

A Pagan and a Christian

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In the next-to-last chapter, Lin describes his religious views. Belief in the importance of humankind is the essence of the humanism he espouses, but he is also concerned about the meaning and destiny of the world around him. Lin argues that religion should not attempt to dictate to science but should confine itself to the realm of moral conscience; failure to do so lies at the root of his dislike of existing churches. Lin rejects belief in personal immortality and considers the Christian preoccupation with it as pathological. He explains at length why he considers himself a pagan.

Born the son of a Christian pastor and educated in missionary schools that cut him off from classical and popular Chinese culture, Lin intended to become a Christian minister. However, he gradually lost his faith and began to reject Christian doctrines. In his theology class, Lin discovered that some theologians question the doctrine of virgin birth, and he was enraged that Chinese believers had to assent categorically to this doctrine before being baptized, even though theologians of the same faith regarded it as an open question. Lin concluded that theologians are the greatest enemies of Christian religion. He could not continue to believe in the doctrines of Original Sin or Redemption. Although the Christian believer lived in a world governed and watched over by a God who played a personal role, that of a kindly father, in the believer’s life, the pagan lived in the world as an orphan and must, therefore, take care of himself. It was this fear of living without the support of a loving God that caused Lin to hesitate before he finally proclaimed himself a pagan. As a pagan, Lin found life and belief much simpler. He still believed in God but hesitated to say so for fear of being misunderstood. In From Pagan to Christian (1959), Lin described his return to the religion of his childhood.

Common Sense and Reasonableness

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The final chapter, the “Art of Thinking,” examines the nature of humanized thinking that Lin believed to be central to Chinese literature and philosophy. Common sense and the spirit of reasonableness crushed all theories and dogmas:China, therefore, becomes a land where no one is trying very hard to think and everyone is trying very hard to live. It becomes a land where philosophy itself is a pretty simple and common sense affair that can be as conveniently put into two lines of verse as in a heavy volume. It becomes a land where there is no system of philosophy, broadly speaking, no logic, no metaphysics, no academic jargon; where there is much less academic dogmatism, less intellectual or practical fanaticism, and fewer abstract terms and long words.

Chinese philosophy is, consequently, accessible to the average literate person. In contrast, the trend toward specialization and cutting up of knowledge in Western scholarship has made philosophy a subject that even educated people believe they can do without. Lin finds this “a strange anomaly of modern culture, for philosophy, which should lie closest to men’s bosom and business, has become most remote from life.”

Rather than stressing logic, Chinese philosophy stresses common sense and the spirit of reasonableness. Reasonable thinking is humanized thinking, and the reasonable person is the highest type of cultivated human being. Where the logical person is too often self-righteous and therefore inhuman as well as wrong, the reasonable person suspects he or she could be mistaken and is therefore likely to be right. Lin rejects the theories of fascism and communism, but he is even more terrified by the fanatical methods that their logical theories inspire. He reassures his readers that the human mind is capable of better things and concludes with hope “that eventually we shall be able to live peaceably because we have learned to think reasonably.”

Appreciation of Lin

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Reviewers in the United States and Europe hailed The Importance of Living as the most useful and impressive revelation of Chinese thought available to the average reader. This volume and the anthologies of Chinese literature and philosophy that Lin compiled—The Wisdom of China and India (1942), The Wisdom of Confucius (1943), The Wisdom of Laotse (1948), and The Importance of Understanding (1960), a translation of selected prose and poetry that served as a companion volume to The Importance of Living—were the major sources of knowledge of Chinese thought for several generations of Americans.

Although both The Importance of Living and The Importance of Understanding were kept in print, Lin’s reputation faded considerably during the 1960’s and 1970’s. His books began to seem dated, and few teachers cited his work as the first place to send an inquiring student. When interest in Lin resurfaced in mainland China in the 1980’s, his English-language novels were translated and presented as a series on national television, and his early essays attracted Chinese students. The work remains a charming, if highly personal, exposition of the ideas of classical Chinese writers, written in an easily accessible prose style.


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Additional Reading

Chan, Wing-Tsit. “Lin Yutang, Critic and Interpreter.” College English 8 (January, 1947): 163-169. This article sketches Lin’s life, including praise as well as negative reactions to his books on China, and criticizes him for overemphasizing the role of Daoism in Chinese thought.

Cheng Lok Chua. “Golden Mountain: Chinese Versions of the American Dream in Lin Yutang, Louis Chu, and Maxine Hong Kingston.” Ethnic Groups 4 (May, 1982): 33-59. This essay examines Lin’s novel, Chinatown Family, which describes the difficulties Chinese immigrants faced in reconciling their dreams of material wealth with the Confucian ideal of the family.

Davidson, Robert F. Philosophies Men Live By. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962. Davidson analyzes The Importance of Living as a work of twentieth century hedonism carrying on the tradition of the Cyrenaics and Epicureans.

Fairbank, John K., and Albert Feuerwerker, eds. Republican China 1912-1949, Part 2. Vol. 13 in The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. This volume is invaluable for understanding what Lin experienced during his years in China. The few references to him are in the chapter describing literary trends from 1927 to 1949.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982. Kim scorns Lin’s writings as superficial; she considers him a Chinese aristocrat who had little understanding of the reality of Asian American life that he attempted to describe in Chinatown Family.

Lai Ming. A History of Chinese Literature. New York: John Day, 1964. Although there are few direct references to Lin, the book contains a useful description of the tradition in which he wrote and his position in the Chinese literary debates during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Recken, Stephen L. “Fitting-In: The Redefinition of Success in the 1930’s.” Journal of Popular Culture 27 (Winter, 1993): 205-222. This article portrays The Importance of Living as one of many books and articles that urged Americans to reduce their material expectations during the Great Depression.

Scott, A. C. Literature and the Arts in Twentieth Century China. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1968. Scott dismisses Lin as a lightweight Chinese journalist who succeeded in the United States because of his mastery of English prose style.

Wilson, Edmund. “The Americanization of Lin Yutang.” The New Yorker 20 (February 3, 1945): 78-81. Well-known critic Wilson finds little of value in Lin’s works.