Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2501
Article abstract: Lin’s descriptions of Chinese philosophy and character in his nonfiction and novels were major sources through which Western readers learned to appreciate Chinese life and thought.
Lin Yutang, the son of a Chinese Presbyterian minister, was educated in missionary schools that taught him Calvinist theology and forbade him to study Chinese philosophy or participate in Chinese folk traditions. From 1911 to 1916, he went to St. John’s College in Shanghai, a college supported by American Episcopalians, where all major courses were taught in English. His father, who had reluctantly sold the family home to put an older son through college, was forced to borrow money to finance Lin’s education but refused to help Lin’s brilliant older sister continue her schooling. When she died of bubonic plague shortly after her marriage, Lin felt pangs of guilt; he was thereafter sympathetic to Chinese feminists. While at St. John’s, Lin began to doubt Christian doctrine and abandoned his intent to train for the ministry.
From 1916 to 1919, he taught English at Tsinghua College in Beijing and immersed himself in Chinese literature and folklore. In 1919, he agreed to an arranged marriage with a neighbor’s daughter. Although his wife remained a pious Christian while Lin drifted further and further away from his original faith, the marriage lasted. In 1919, Lin took advantage of a meager scholarship to go to the United States with his wife for a year of graduate study in comparative literature at Harvard; then he and his wife moved to Germany, where the hyperinflation of the German mark greatly improved the standard of living their few dollars had previously allowed. After attending classes at Jena University, Lin earned a Ph.D. in linguistics from Leipzig University in 1923, submitting a thesis on archaic Chinese phonetics.
From 1923 to 1926, Lin was a professor of English at Beijing University, where he supported student protests against the weakness of the Chinese government in resisting foreign aggression and became involved in street fights alongside his students. When he learned that he was on a list of fifty radical professors who were to be arrested and killed, he fled south and taught at Amoy University (now Xiamen University) and in Hankou in 1926 and 1927. For six months in 1927, Lin served as assistant to the minister of foreign affairs in the Nationalist government before abandoning active politics, moving to Shanghai in 1928, and devoting himself to writing.
In 1932, he founded a humor magazine, Lunyu banyuegan (analects fortnightly), which became one of the most popular magazines in China, especially among college students. In 1934 and 1935, Lin started two other magazines in which he encouraged individualistic expression through brief informal essays. The irony and sarcasm with which Lin commented on life and politics in China won him the title Master of Humor and also provided a technique for social criticism that kept him out of jail as he tested the Nationalist government’s tight censorship controls. Lin satirized the Nationalist government, its Communist critics, and traditionalists longing to retreat into the imperial past. As a result, he was attacked from all angles of the political spectrum. He received death threats from people he offended and was criticized as trivial and self-indulgent by Communists for not following their ideological directives.
American novelist and China expert Pearl Buck admired Lin’s work. She urged him to write an English-language description of Chinese culture and life that would help Americans understand and sympathize with China, and she arranged a contract with her publisher. The success of the book changed the course of Lin’s life.
Lin set out to demonstrate in My Country and My People that China was still a vibrant and creative society despite its thousands of years of existence and could therefore survive its current weaknesses and problems. He admired classical Chinese philosophy for generating a practical, commonsense attitude toward life, but he did not view the traditional emphasis on family as wholly admirable. Lin praised the Chinese concept of extended family as a major cultural force making for social stability. However, he noted that too often the elevation of family ties over national interests led to nepotism and corruption. This was especially true because of the chaotic state of Chinese politics in the 1930’s when independent warlords and Communist armies challenged the Nationalist government for control at the same time that the Japanese threatened the country.
In the second part of the book, Lin discussed the circumscribed life of women, even after the liberating effects of the revolution of 1911. He described the literary revolution that occurred when the influence of Western literature encouraged using colloquial language to replace the formal language of the classics and praised the rich legacy of fine arts that China still enjoyed. The last chapter, “The Art of Living,” celebrated the humanistic attitudes toward life encouraged by the inherited Chinese philosophical traditions. An epilogue expressed Lin’s hope that the residual strengths of China would overcome the current collapse of order and that an effective leader would emerge from the chaos to prepare the way for a government of law and justice.
My Country and My People became an immediate best-seller and was widely translated in Europe and South America. Reviewers were uniformly complimentary. Lin’s publisher arranged a significant advance for his next book and in May, 1936, Lin and his family sailed for New York, where Lin intended to spend a year writing a volume expanding on the philosophical themes he had sketched in his concluding chapter. The outbreak of open warfare between China and Japan in July, 1937, changed his plans; except for brief visits to China in the 1940’s, Lin spent most of the next thirty years in the United States, where he published more than thirty novels, translations, and nonfiction works in English.
The Importance of Living was even more successful than Lin’s first book; it went through forty printings in the United States and was translated into fifteen languages. Reviews were preponderantly positive. It was Lin’s most important and influential book, and it made him the foremost interpreter of the customs, aspirations, fears, and thoughts of the Chinese people to the Western world.
Chinese reviewers’ reactions to Lin’s books were not always as favorable as those of English-language reviewers; Lin did not support any of the major political or literary factions in China, and he was condemned from all sides. Many Chinese in the United States disliked his frank descriptions of Chinese problems and feared that talk of warlords, bandits, nepotism, and corruption would lower American opinions of China. Proponents of the Nationalist government objected to his revelation of government authoritarianism; they found particularly objectionable his A History of the Press and Public Opinion in China (1936) because of its description of government propaganda and censorship activities. Chinese Communists were infuriated by Lin’s disdainful rejection of Marxism and denounced him as superficial and irresponsible. Some sober-minded Americans, impressed by reports of the horrors of the Sino-Japanese War, found the subtle humor of his prose irritating; he seemed clever and witty at the wrong moment in history.
Moment in Peking: A Novel of Contemporary Chinese Life (1939) continued Lin’s effort to increase American understanding of China, this time through an epic 815-page novel that chronicled the life of three middle-class Chinese families from 1900 to 1938. Beginning with the flight of these families from Beijing when the Boxer rebels captured the city, the narrative followed the lives of three generations as they struggled to survive the various disasters and chaos that marked twentieth century Chinese history, ending with the massive upheaval caused by the Japanese assaults on Shanghai and Beijing in 1937. Hailed as a masterful narrative by reviewers, especially effective in its presentation of the life of women during these years, it became another best-seller. He attempted to continue his presentation of wartime China in A Leaf in the Storm: A Novel of War-Swept China (1941) but was less successful. Lin’s only novel dealing with Chinese life in the United States, Chinatown Family (1948), describing the difficult rise to affluence of the children of a Chinese laundry worker as they assimilated American culture and values, received a mixed reaction from reviewers.
Lin had been skeptical of the willingness or ability of the Chinese Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek to counter Japanese aggression, but once actual warfare broke out and Chiang’s armies began to fight, Lin joined in calls for all factions in China and the United States to rally behind the Nationalists. He helped raise money for the relief effort, lectured on the Chinese war effort, and in 1943 flew into China to observe the war firsthand. The Vigil of a Nation, in which he recounted his trip, became one of his most controversial books. Lin described the war already in progress between the Nationalists and the Communists, calling Chiang’s regime authoritarian and repressive but finding it decidedly preferable to the totalitarian rigor of the Communists. Lin’s call for all-out U.S. support of the Nationalists upset and offended many American liberals who still hoped that the two sides could be reconciled.
The triumph of the Chinese Communists saddened Lin, who grew more and more conservative. In From Pagan to Christian, after describing his childhood education as a Presbyterian and his gradual disillusionment with Christian theology, Lin devoted three lengthy chapters to exploring the religious aspects of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Although he believed each had much wisdom to offer, he found none fully satisfying. Lin asserted that at no time did his belief in reason lead him to stop believing in God, but he could not find any satisfactory form of worship. His discovery of a Presbyterian church in New York that stressed the teachings of Jesus rather than theological dogma permitted him to return to the church of his childhood.
In 1966, Lin left the United States for Taiwan. At that time the only major Chinese writer to settle on the island, he was hailed by the government, which built a home for him and after his death preserved it as the Dr. Lin Yutang Memorial Library. On the island and after moving to Hong Kong in the early 1970’s, he concentrated on his lifelong ambition to produce a Chinese-English dictionary of modern usage, which was finally published in 1972.
Lin was at the peak of his influence during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Most American critics and writers turned to his books for information on China. He became the best-known Chinese cultural envoy to the United States and the favorable image of China held by many Americans was largely shaped by his works. Although he continued to publish new volumes almost yearly in the 1950’s and 1960’s and some received respectful reviews, none sold in the numbers to which he had become accustomed. Modern Library editions of his anthologies were major sources of information on Chinese thought, but intellectuals began to treat him as a not very profound popularizer. The noted critic Edmund Wilson set the theme when he dismissed Lin’s work as that of “a Chinese for Women’s Club discussions, for Book-of-the-Month Club choices, for big publishers’ advertisements.”
In the 1980’s, however, Lin’s reputation began to recover. When the Chinese Communist regime relaxed its ideological rigor after the death of Mao Zedong, Lin received recognition as a major Chinese author. Lin translated only one of his English-language works into Chinese, but translations of many of his works became available in China. A ten-volume collection of his novels was published, a lengthy television series based on Moment in Peking became a success when shown on the national network, and his essays praising democratic procedures proved popular with college students. Chinese in Taiwan, pleased by Lin’s support of the Nationalist government, had always recognized his work; a history of modern Chinese literature published in Taiwan in 1971 devoted three chapters to him in its discussion of the 1930’s.
Lin’s reputation in the United States was slower to rebound. The 1997-1998 issue of Books in Print listed only five works by the author. Both The Importance of Living and The Importance of Understanding (1960)—an anthology that Lin translated to serve as a companion to The Importance of Living—have been reprinted and are available to those interested in learning about Chinese thought. My Country and My People, no longer in print, is now a historical document, providing glimpses of life in pre-Communist China. Critical reexaminations of Lin’s work have been few and rather limited. There are, however, signs of change. Two doctoral dissertations devoted to Lin at prestigious universities, Columbia in 1991 and the University of California, Berkeley, in 1996, indicate that his reputation and the value of his work are receiving serious reconsideration.
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.