Yutang Lin Essay - Critical Essays

Lin, Yutang


Yutang Lin 1895-1976

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.

Principal Works

War-Time Essays (essays) 1934

The Little Critic: Essays, Satires and Sketches on China (essays) 1935

My Country and My People (nonfiction) 1935

A History of the Press and Public Opinion in China (monograph) 1936

Confucius Saw Nancy and Essays about Nothing (essays) 1937

The Importance of Living (nonfiction) 1937

The Birth of a New China: A Personal Story of the Sino-Japanese War (nonfiction) 1939

Moment in Peking: A Novel of Contemporary Chinese Life (novel) 1939

With Love and Irony (nonfiction) 1940

A Leaf in the Storm: A Novel of War-Swept China (novel) 1941

The Wisdom of China and India [editor] (nonfiction) 1942

Between Tears and Laughter (nonfiction) 1943

The Wisdom of Confucius [editor and translator] (nonfiction) 1943

The Vigil of a Nation (nonfiction) 1944

Chinese Ideals of Life (nonfiction) 1944

The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo (novel) 1947

Chinatown Family (novel) 1948

On the Wisdom of America (nonfiction) 1950

Widow Chuan (novel) 1952

The Vermilion Gate: A Novel of a Far Land (novel) 1953

Looking Beyond (novel) 1955; republished as Unexpected Island, 1955

Chuang-tzu [translator] (nonfiction) 1957

Lady Wu: A True Story (novel) 1957; republished as Lady Wu: A Novel, 1965

The Secret Name (nonfiction) 1958; also published as The Secret Name: The Soviet Record, 1917-1958, 1959

From Pagan to Christian (autobiography) 1959

The Chinese Way of Life (nonfiction) 1959

The Red Peony (novel) 1961

Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China (nonfiction) 1961

Pleasures of a Nonconformist (nonfiction) 1962

The Flight of the Innocents (novel) 1964

The Chinese Theory of Art [editor] (nonfiction) 1967

Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage (nonfiction) 1972

Eighty: An Autobiography (autobiography) 1975

Imperial Chinese Art (nonfiction) 1983

Crossing the Gate of Death in Chinese Buddhist Culture (essay) 1995

Crossing the Threshold of Liberation (essays) 1995

A Golden Ring: An Introduction to Buddhist Meditation (essays) 1995

The Sixfold Sublimation in Limitless-Oneness (essays) 1995

Wisdom and Compassion in Limitless-Oneness (essays) 1995


Robert Morss Lovett (review date 23 October 1935)

SOURCE: Lovett, Robert Morss. “Face, Fate and Favor.” New Republic 84, no. 1090 (23 October 1935): 308-09.

[In the following review, Lovett offers a positive assessment of Lin's My Country and My People, which reveals much about the Chinese character, mind, and way of life.]

My Country and My People is a book in which charm is touched with pathos. Mr. Lin sees the Chinese as an old people come to the autumn of its natural life, “in which green is mixed with gold and sadness is mixed with joy, and hope is mixed with reminiscence.” The tragedy is that this ancient people, repository of the richest experience, culture and art in the world, has become...

(The entire section is 1028 words.)

Peter Fleming (review date 2 February 1936)

SOURCE: Fleming, Peter. “A Realist on China.” Spectator 156, no. 5618 (2 February 1936): 352.

[In the following review, Fleming finds My Country and My People to be a well written book filled with much knowledge and honest description of China's people and their culture.]

This book [My Country and My People], although its quality is uneven, is worth all the other modern books about China put together. There are places where the emphasis is wrong, passages where the writing is woolly, but on the whole the treatment is incisive, dispassionate, and above all honest. After all the nonsense written about China by foreigners, after all the special pleading...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)

Peter Quennell (review date 14 March 1936)

SOURCE: Quennell, Peter. “China.” New Statesman and Nation 11, no. 264 (14 March 1936): 403, 406.

[In the following review, Quennell finds My Country and My People to be a lively, readable, and amusing book which is designed for the general reader.]

From several points of view My Country and My People, Mr. Lin Yutang's contribution to the study of China and the Chinese temperament, is a remarkable and interesting book. For one thing, if we discount a certain naivety and redundancy, due to the fact that the author is employing a foreign language, it is unusually well written. Secondly, although Mr. Lin Yutang has been educated in Europe, the attitude...

(The entire section is 1038 words.)

Carl Crow (review date 27 November 1937)

SOURCE: Crow, Carl. “An Appreciation of Life.” Saturday Review of Literature 17, no. 5 (27 November 1937): 7.

[In the following review, Crow comments how The Importance of Living is a delightful book that details the beauties and joys of simple, homely things which anyone can read with pleasure and profit.]

It is appropriate that a book on the importance of living should be written by a Chinese, for no other people have given so much attention to the problem of living, nor, to my mind, have solved the problem so satisfactorily. In the midst of a struggle for existence they have managed not only to sustain life but to make that life beautiful, interesting,...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

Mary M. Colum (review date January 1938)

SOURCE: Colum, Mary M. “Old Culture Patterns.” Forum and Century 99, no. 1 (January 1938): 24-5.

[In the following review, Colum finds The Importance of Living to be a delightful book and discusses how Westerners can learn much from the Chinese people in their understanding of life.]

It is interesting to note that, in Huxley's plea for the revival of the monastic spirit, the form of religion he offers, to give sanction to detachment, is a theism; and he would add to the Christian rule something that has always been in the Buddhist: awareness—an openness to impressions from nature, art, and personality that the Chinese poets and sages constantly display. A...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

C. E. M. Joad (review date 8 July 1938)

SOURCE: Joad, C. E. M. “The East Admonishes the West.” Spectator 161, no. 5,741 (8 July 1938): 69.

[In the following review, Joad finds Lin to be a spokesman of a dying culture inThe Importance of Living.]

Lin Yutang's previous book, My Country and My People, was a study of the Chinese character and of the attitude to life in which it finds expression. The Importance of Living is a study of Western civilisation judged by the standards and in relation to the values established by the East. The judgement is not favourable. Broadly, it is to the effect that Western civilisation entails a continuous and gigantic sacrifice of ends to means. Having...

(The entire section is 1391 words.)

Clifton Fadiman (review date 18 November 1939)

SOURCE: Fadiman, Clifton. “Forty Years of Cathay.” New Yorker 15, no. 40 (18 November 1939): 87-9.

[In the following review, Fadiman discusses how Moment in Peking is not a very interesting story, but is remarkable panorama of Chinese way of life.]

If you wish to enjoy Lin Yutang's Moment in Peking, a Chinese novel written in English, you must read it in a special way. Not in the Chinese way, whatever that is, but certainly in a manner very different from that with which we approach Western books. For the simpler conventions of the Western novel just do not seem to apply to Dr. Lin's book. There is no suspense as we understand it, no succession of...

(The entire section is 1115 words.)

Stuart Cloete (review date 30 November 1940)

SOURCE: Cloete, Stuart. “Faith in A Mad World.” Saturday Review of Literature 23, no. 6 (30 November 1940): 6.

[In the following review, Cloete comments how With Love and Irony is a book that balances well the reality and mysticism of its' characters.]

This book [With Love and Irony] is something new. New, because the title expresses the book, which is written with love and irony. New, because out of China comes a work that is almost French in feeling, bearing the French stamp of delicate irony, of a beautiful and subtly disguised bitterness, of inverted insult, of compliments which contain not a thorn, like a rose, but a dagger that tears the veil...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

H. P. Lazarus (review date 24 January 1942)

SOURCE: Lazarus, H. P. “War and the Writer.” Nation 154, no. 4 (24 January 1942): 97-8.

[In the following review, Lazarus finds A Leaf in the Storm to be a failure compared to Lin's other works.]

In time of war the writer suffers under the same forces of dislocation as the rest of us, but on him their effect is double, for he reacts both in his own person and in the persons and world of his creation. He is not only in the war, and thus disabled, but his guns are spiked, since he is deprived of his heritage as a writer. How a writer writes is, in every age and under whatever compulsion, more than half determined by the reservoir of past writing; and in...

(The entire section is 1139 words.)

Taraknath Das (review date 26 December 1942)

SOURCE: Das, Taraknath. “Dr. Lin's New Treasure Chest.” Saturday Review of Literature 25, no. 52 (26 December 1942): 5.

[In the following review, Das discusses how The Wisdom of China and India is helpful in understanding the “spirit governing the life of the vast majority of the peoples of the Orient.”]

Most of the political leaders and educators of the East, especially those of India and China, have a clear conception of the spirit of the West, because they are well acquainted with the contents of Western culture—history, literature, philosophy, political institutions, etc.—as students in Eastern and Western universities. The majority of the people...

(The entire section is 1466 words.)

Reinhold Niebuhr (review date 11 September 1943)

SOURCE: Niebuhr, Reinhold. “Blind Anger.” Nation 157, no. 11 (11 September 1943): 300-02.

[In the following review, Niebuhr offers a negative assessment of Between Tears and Laughter.]

We have learned to respect and appreciate Lin Yutang as a kind of Wise Man from the East. Beginning with My Country and My People, in which he interpreted Chinese culture for the West, he expounded a philosophy which in our Western tradition would be called Epicurean but which he defined as a combination of Confucian and Taoist viewpoints. He gloried in the earth-bound and sober common sense of Confucianism and poured his scorn upon the heaven-storming fanaticisms of the...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)

E. M. Gull (review date 25 January 1946)

SOURCE: Gull, E. M. “Chinese Undercurrents.” Spectator 176, no. 6135 (25 January 1946): 96, 98.

[In the following review, Gull comments how Lin sets out to see and describe the daily behavior of Chinese men and women during war in The Vigil of a Nation.]

A new book by Lin Yutang is an event of importance in the Far Eastern world, for he generally throws fresh lights on Chinese thought and life. When the American edition of this volume [The Vigil of a Nation] was published the light which attracted most attention was the one focused on the hostility between the Communists and the National People's Party, or Kuomintang. This was because the American Press had...

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Pearl Strachan (review date 18 November 1947)

SOURCE: Strachan, Pearl. “One Writer Introduces Another.” Christian Science Monitor 39, no. 301 (18 November 1947): 18.

[In the following review, Strachan offers a positive assessment of Lin's biography of Su Shih inThe Gay Genius.]

This is a most enjoyable book [The Gay Genius] by a gifted and poetic Chinese writer about another Chinese writer whose greatness has kept him, in a way, a contemporary of all great Chinese writers for nearly a thousand years. In fact, his biographer has presented him, against the background of a period in China not unlike our own period, with such charm and vitality that it is hard to believe in the intervening centuries....

(The entire section is 653 words.)

Nathan L. Rothman (review date 9 October 1948)

SOURCE: Rothman, Nathan L. “Martian Among Us.” Saturday Review of Literature 31, no. 41 (9 October 1948): 38.

[In the following review, Rothman finds Chinatown Family to be a good description of the experience of a Chinese immigrant family in New York City.]

The life and hard times of a Chinese family in New York City would seem, in prospect, to be one more panel in the larger picture of immigrant struggle. The Czechs, the Swedes, the Jews, the Irish, and the Poles came in diverse ways to describe a series of homogeneous patterns on their way upward, into social solvency. But not so the Chinese.

The difference, very nicely illustrated in...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Charles Angoff (essay date July-December 1950)

SOURCE: Angoff, Charles. “An Oriental Views America.” American Mercury 71, no. 320 (July-December 1950): 241-45.

[In the following essay, Angoff offers an unflattering assessment of On the Wisdom of America.]

The United States has puzzled the Old World almost from its very beginning. The English, in particular, for a long time could make little sense out of what Tennyson called the “Gigantic daughter of the West.” The poet laureate wished her well, and so did Coleridge, who looked upon the new nation as an “august conception … Great Britain in a state of glorious magnification.” But Macaulay was filled with foreboding. He predicted that some Caesar or...

(The entire section is 1771 words.)

Bradford Smith (review date 19 July 1953)

SOURCE: Smith, Bradford. “Far Horizons, Nearby Heart.” New York Herald Tribune Book Review (19 July 1953): 6.

[In the following review, Smith finds The Vermilion Gate: A Novel of a Far Land to be a good book due to its “universal humanity.”]

Lin Yutang's tale of love and battle introduces a China little known to American readers. Chinese Turkestan (Sinkiang) and the part of China lying close to Inner Mongolia provide the locale for this interesting romance built around the struggle between Moslems and Nationalists in the thirties. Because Lin Yutang is not afraid of melodrama, his book [The Vermilion Gate: A Novel of a Far Land] is full of...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Edmund Fuller (review date 13 August 1955)

SOURCE: Fuller, Edmund. “2004 Sagacity.” Saturday Review 38, no. 33 (13 August 1955): 10.

[In the following review, Fuller offers a negative assessment of Looking Beyond, finding it to be “awkwardly wrought” novel.]

Dr. Lin Yutang has written a leisurely, fantastic novel called Looking Beyond to serve as a fresh medium for telling us some of the things that he has told us before in The Importance of Living. To this extent it is a philosophical novel. Also, he has many tart, critical comments to make about the way the human species is conducting its affairs today. In this respect it is a satirical novel.

Among the minor...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Herbert J. Muller (review date 1 November 1958)

SOURCE: Muller, Herbert J. “Dogmatic Double-Talk.” Saturday Review 41, no. 44 (1 November 1958): 38.

[In the following review, Muller discusses how the work of The Secret Name by Lin is “pretty shallow.”]

“Communism is the secret name of the dread antagonist,” wrote Heinrich Heine more than a century ago, in a remarkably prophetic passage about the “wild, gloomy time … roaring toward us.” Lin Yutang now has too easy, almost jolly a time exposing the dread antagonist; but it should first be said that the Communists have made it easy for him. As their secret is ideology, he asks a simple human question: “What have they actually done to the...

(The entire section is 845 words.)

Lin Yutang (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: Yutang, Lin. “Lin Yutang.” In Famous Conversions: The Christian Experience, edited by Hugh T. Kerr and John M. Mulder, pp. 205-09. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1983.

[In the following essay, Lin discusses his views on religion and why he came back to Christianity.]

Many people have asked me, some with great joy, some with great disappointment, why I, a self-declared pagan, have returned to Christianity. I have returned to Christianity and have rejoined the Christian church because I wish to re-enter that knowledge of God and love of God which Jesus revealed with such clarity and simplicity.

The question of paramount importance...

(The entire section is 2262 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 29 December 1961)

SOURCE: “Peking in the Past Tense.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3122 (29 December 1961): 926.

[In the following review, the critic discusses how Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China is an excellent illustrated scrapbook of Peking, but cautions readers that Lin's descriptions are of out of date.]

This is a handsomely produced, excellently illustrated Chinese scrapbook [Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China] built round the kernel or theme of Peking and its court life. Some new and brilliant photographs of the city decorate the first pages of text and others are included that might have served to illustrate books on Peking published thirty...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

Chen Lok Chua (essay date winter 1981)

SOURCE: Chua, Chen Lok. “Two Chinese Versions of the American Dream: The Golden Mountain in Lin Yutang and Maxine Hong Kingston.” MELUS 8, no. 4 (winter 1981): 61-70.

[In the following essay, Chua compares the idea of an ‘American Dream’ in both Lin's Chinatown Family and Maxine Hon Kingston's Woman Warrior and China Men.]

Early Chinese immigrants shared a version of the American dream indicated by their colloquial (and still current) Chinese name for America which translates as “Golden Mountain”—Kum Sum. This name derives, of course, from the historical moment of Chinese immigration: the worldwide gold rush to California. Three...

(The entire section is 4328 words.)

Katherine A. Karle (essay date summer 1988)

SOURCE: Karle, Katherine A. “Reconsideration: Flamingos and Bison—Balance in Chinatown Family.” MELUS 15, no. 2 (summer 1988): 93-9.

[In the following essay, Karle considers the Chinese and American cultural issues introduced in Chinatown Family.]

Lin Yutang's Chinatown Family may be read usefully on numerous levels: it is a story of Chinese immigrants in the U.S., a comparison of two cultures, and a Bildungsroman. Briefly, thirteen-year-old Tom, the novel's protagonist, immigrates to America with his mother and younger sister, Eva, to join his father and two older brothers who had preceded him in moving to America to make the family's fortune....

(The entire section is 3080 words.)

Gwyneth Cravens (essay date 3 February 1992)

SOURCE: Cravens, Gwyneth. “Past Present.” Nation 254, no. 4 (3 February 1992): 136-38.

[In the following essay, Cravens compares themes found in Lin's The Importance of Living with themes found in the works of Émile Chartier, who wrote under the name of Alain.]

After a long bout of chemotherapy, a friend of mine read Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. What struck him was that although Crusoe had suffered a shipwreck and been cast ashore upon an unknown island, he discovered that he had everything there that he required for survival; all he needed to do was to live simply and to make intelligent use of what he had been given. Crusoe's gratitude spilled...

(The entire section is 1398 words.)

A. Owen Aldridge (essay date fall 1999)

SOURCE: Aldridge, A. Owen. “Irving Babbitt and Lin Yutang.” Modern Age 41, no. 4 (fall 1999): 318-27.

[In the following essay, Aldridge traces Irving Babbitt's influences on the life and career of Lin, who was enrolled in Babbitt's courses at Harvard University in 1919 and 1920.]

Although it is generally accepted that T. S. Eliot was the most illustrious of Irving Babbitt's students at Harvard, no agreement exists on who is next in line. The usual candidates are Walter Lippmann and Van Wyck Brooks. Judged from the perspective of international reputation, however, there can be no doubt that the most widely-known and perhaps the most influential of the great...

(The entire section is 5904 words.)

Further Reading


Huang, Yunte. “The Multifarious Faces of the Chinese Language.” In Transpacific Displacement: Ethnography, Translation, and Intertextual Travel in Twentieth-Century American Literature, pp. 113-37. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

Lin is among the Chinese authors discussed in this chapter.

Xiao-huang, Yin. “Worlds of Difference: Lin Yutang, Lao She, and the Significance of Chinese-Language Writing in America.” In Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature, edited by Werner Sollors, pp. 176-87. New York: New York University Press, 1998....

(The entire section is 132 words.)