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Yutang Lin 1895-1976

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Chinese novelist, linguist, essayist, and philosopher.

The following entry provides criticism on Lin's works from 1935 through 1999.

Lin achieved acclaim for revealing the history and culture of China to Americans through essays, nonfiction books, and novels. My Country and My People (1935) and The Importance of Living (1937) established his reputation as an Eastern voice for Western audiences. He also translated and edited several collections of Chinese wisdom teachings, and prepared the Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage in 1972.

Biographical Information

Lin was born on October 10, 1895, in Changchow, China, and brought up as a Christian by his Presbyterian father, Lin Chi-seng, and mother, Lin (Yang) Sunmeng. He attended English-language schools and graduated from St. John's University, Shanghai, in 1919, the same year he married Tsuifeng Liao. He later studied at Harvard University and the University of Leipzig. During the 1920s he taught English at Beijing (Peking) National University. During this time he publicly supported the Kuomintang (National Peoples' Party) against independent warlords, and by 1926 he was forced to seek safety elsewhere. He returned to his native region and became dean of the college of arts and a professor of English at National Amoy University. Yutang remained in China until 1936, when he moved his family to New York. By this time My Country and My People, written with the encouragement of American author Pearl Buck, had become a bestseller in the United States. Throughout the next two-to-three decades, Lin spent most of his time in the United States. In 1959 Lin, who had rejected the religion of his parents as a young man, published a spiritual autobiography, From Pagan to Christian, tracing his religious journey from Christianity to Taoism and Buddhism and back. This volume solidified his reputation in some American circles as the ideal of a modern Chinese intellectual embracing Western values and standing in contrast to both modern Communism and traditional Buddhist culture. However, some observers suggest that later writings, including Pleasures of a Nonconformist (1962), indicate that Lin didn't fully embrace the mainstream Christian culture of the mid-twentieth century.

In 1965 Lin turned his attention to writing columns in Chinese for a news agency in the Republic of China (Taiwan). The next year he moved to Taipei, Taiwan, and a year after that he was invited by the Chinese University of Hong Kong to edit a reference volume which became the Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage. In 1967 The Chinese Theory of Art was published; this was the last of his works written specifically to explain Chinese culture to Western readers. In 1973 he wrote Eighty: An Autobiography, which was published in 1975, the same year he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lin died in Hong Kong on March 26, 1976, and was buried in Taipei.

Major Works

My Country and My People, The Importance of Living, and The Birth of a New China: A Personal Story of the Sino-Japanese War (1939) were written for American audiences, and they established Lin's reputation in the United States as a trustworthy authority on China and Chinese culture. Characterized by a gentle tone, sly sense of humor, and excellent command of idiomatic English, Lin's nonfiction provided Western audiences with descriptions of a distant and unfamiliar country in a language and voice they could relate to. Novels followed, including Moment in Peking: A Novel of Contemporary Chinese Life (1939) and A Leaf in the Storm: A Novel of War-Swept China (1941). These too met with approval from critics and the American public alike. Volumes of collected Oriental wisdom followed, including The Wisdom of China and India (1942) and The Wisdom of Confucius (1943). The 1948 novel, Chinatown Family, characterized as a lighthearted story about idealized Chinese family life set in the United States, is considered to be the first entry in the genre of Asian-American fiction. Although he continued to write prolifically, few of Lin's later works resonated with the American reading public or with critics the way his earlier works did. Both his residency and his writing career shifted to Asia during the 1960s. Lin, who once described himself as “thinking with the brush in Chinese and thinking with the typewriter in English,” was not only bilingual, but bicultural as well. He appeared to be as comfortable in the cities of the United States as he was in Beijing, and later Taipei, and his ease with both Eastern and Western cultures contributed greatly to his ability to explain the one to the other.

Critical Reception

Lin enjoyed a warm critical reception to most of his earliest works. Nathaniel Peffer of the Saturday Review of Literature wrote about Lin's My Country and My People, “His book is therefore the best that has been written on China in English, and I recommend it to all those who want a true and sensitively perceived picture of China.” Other critics echoed this praise, establishing Lin as a popular and welcome representative of Chinese culture. By the early 1960s, critics were generally less effusive in their praise of Lin's efforts to enlighten Western readers about Oriental culture; a 1961 Times Literary Supplement review of Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China charged that “Dr. Lin's China has become something of a faded stereotype.”

According to scholar Xiao-huang Yin, Asian American critics more than two decades after Lin's death also note that the author's congenial English-language messages of the 1930s and 1940s contrast sharply with the Chinese-language articles he wrote during the same period, many of which contained criticism of American politics and culture. Some current Asian American scholars charge that Lin's English writings deliberately watered down Chinese civilization and culture—and perhaps misrepresented his own regard for Western culture—in order to reap the financial rewards that came with exploiting a Western hunger to understand the exotic and virtually unknown Orient.

Although most of Lin's English-language writings have been out of print since the early 1970s, his works command a modest following worldwide among loyal fans, including Chinese readers who once had no access to this Chinese writer's works. Under more relaxed cultural conditions than prevailed throughout most of the twentieth century, Lin's brand of Chinese philosophy, the collected volumes of traditional Confucian wisdom, and writings about centuries of Chinese culture have become more readily available to Chinese readers, who show some interest in knowing more about this native son and his perspective of their shared heritage.

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Principal Works