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...
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