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.