Lin Yutang

views updated May 21 2018

Lin Yutang

Chinese writer, philosopher, translator, and poet, Lin Yutang (1895–1976), wrote more than 35 books in English and Chinese, and brought the classics of Chinese literature to western readers.

In 1919, at the age of 23, he received a half–tuition scholarship to attend Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He married at this time and moved with his wife to the United States. At Harvard he worked toward his doctorate in comparative literature and counted literary scholar and editor Bliss Perry and humanist Irving Babbitt as his professors. Next to T.S. Eliot, Lin has been called the most influential of Babbitt's students. Lin was perhaps the only writer to feature Babbitt in one of his own poems, having mentioned him in "Autobiographical Poem of the Author at Forty," written in Chinese, and again forty years later in his Memoirs of an Octogenarian.

Lin did not finish his degree at Harvard; instead he moved to Le Creusot, France, to study with other Chinese and to work for the Young Men's Christian Academy (YMCA), teaching Chinese laborers to read and write. In 1921 he was accepted at the University of Jena in Leipzig, Germany, where he finally completed his doctorate. Lin returned to China to teach for thirteen years. He was a professor of English literature at the University of Beijing from 1923–1926, and served as Dean at Amoy University in 1926.

Participated in the Literary Revolution

The event known as the May Fourth Movement ushered in a new perspective on Chinese culture and literature. On May 4, 1919, students and intellectuals demonstrated in Beijing, calling for a sense of nationalism, anti–imperialism, and linguistic reform. Lin, part of the latter movement, favored abolishing the old, formal Chinese writing style in favor of everyday vernacular. He also supported expressionism and following one's own beliefs.

Two literary groups evolved during this time—those who maintained that literature was a vehicle for morality plays and government propaganda, and the likes of Lin, who believed literature should reflect personal experiences. He supported realism and humanitarianism in literature.

Lin's desire for literary reinvention carried through his academic life. Around 1924, he was one of the first writers to turn to the new, popular writing form of essays. Considered one the best known essayists, he contributed to the influential magazine Yü Ssu. Lin wrote satirical and critical essays filled with sarcasm about government inefficiency and corruption, and wrote rebellious essays that encouraged independent thinking.

Lin had written in an article that appeared in the publication, Random Talks. As quoted in Lai Ming's A History of Chinese Literature, he said, "All independent thinking persons who honestly hold their personal opinions will, at some time or other, become abusive. But this abusiveness is exactly what upholds the dignity of scholars. The scholar who never criticizes anything, only loses his self."

Eventually, those in power noticed Lin's writings, and warlord "Dog–Meat" General Zhang Zongchang chased him out of Beijing. In 1926, Lin fled with his family back to Amoy where he took a position at Amoy University, then served as a secretary to the foreign ministry with the Wuhan Nationalist Government at Hankou.

Established Popular Satirical Magazines

Lin did not lose his love of self–expression in his essay writing and delved into publishing journals and magazines that accepted new writers. In 1930, Lin and a few colleagues started the China Critic, written in English, that focused on political and social issues. This journal attracted western scholars, and commentaries in the New York Times discussed Lin's writings.

In 1932, Lin established The Analects Fortnightly, a western–style satirical magazine that encouraged individuality. It was an instant success, spurring Lin to start This Human World and Cosmic Wind in 1934 and 1936, respectively. These magazines featured contemporary writing that celebrated the human spirit and everyday pleasures.

Chinese peer Chou Tso–jen and western writers Benedetto Croce and Joel Elias Spingarn influenced Lin. He sometimes drew criticism for his lack of intellectual standards in creating serious modern literature, preferring instead to write about personal experiences and whimsical topics such as the joys of smoking a pipe. Nevertheless, in 1936, in the face of imminent Japanese aggression toward China during World War II, Lin joined others in issuing a Manifesto of the Literary Circle advocating for writers to stand together against suppression of free speech.

Published His First English Book

In China, Lin developed a friendship with American author Pearl S. Buck, who wrote the critically acclaimed novel, The Good Earth. At her encouragement, Lin decided to write a book in English about China specifically for western readers. In 1935, he published My Country and My People, an unashamed, and intimate portrayal of the Chinese people and mindset. The book was translated into numerous languages, and made Lin the first Chinese author to reach the top of the New York Times best–seller list.

Lin moved to the United States settling in New York after publishing My Country and My People. He followed in 1937 with his witty The Importance of Living, a precursor to the modern "self–help" book filled with philosophical observations, which also landed on the national best–seller list throughout 1938. Lin, who had become less influential among Chinese writers, had nonetheless become an international success, with his English translations of Chinese texts, historical accounts, and novels. He was a prolific writer for the next 30 years.

Lin saw himself as a "world citizen," an ambassador who brought Chinese culture to the west, and who encouraged communication between east and west. His Famous Chinese Short Stories Retold was a highly acclaimed translation of Chinese classical literature. Lin also gained notoriety for creating a new method of Romanizing the Chinese language and indexing Chinese characters.

Lin, forever an advocate for enjoyment of life, had a reputation for loafing, encouraging the pursuit of leisure, comfort, food, smoking, and relaxation. The Importance of Living contains observations of life's simple pleasures and spiritual happiness. His many philosophical quotes in the book include: "If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live," and "The most bewildering thing about man is his idea of work and the amount of work he imposes upon himself, or civilization has imposed upon him. All nature loafs, while man alone works for a living."

Visited China for the Last Time

In 1939, Lin published Moment in Peking, a novel that follows the lives of two Chinese families over 40 years. His 1942, The Wisdom of China and India, further explored Chinese humanism. Between Tears and Laughter, written during World War II, was Lin's bitter plea for the west to change its perspective of the world order. In that book he wrote: "The white man's mission has become a paradox and a boomerang. The white man gave the yellow man the Bible and guns. He should have given him the Bible, which he himself has no use for, and kept from him the guns that he himself used most expertly."

Lin returned to China for a few brief trips during the war. He and his family once survived a Japanese raid. He published Vigil of a Nation in 1944, an ambitious diary of war and societal upheaval he witnessed in his homeland. After another brief trip back to China in 1954, he returned to the United States, never to visit mainland China again.

Lin remained a staunch anticommunist, further alienating him from China. For his novel Looking Beyond, 1955, he presented a utopian view of life, emphasizing his themes of hedonistic pursuits such as wine, women, and food. Despite avowing the Taoism doctrine of pleasurable pursuits, in 1959, Lin publicly renounced his "paganism" and returned to the Christianity of his youth.

During the 1960s he translated and edited Chinese texts, and wrote several more novels. In 1973 he published a Chinese–English dictionary, and in 1975 he wrote his Memoirs of an Octogenarian. Lin was nominated in 1975 for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his later years, he lived in Taiwan and in Hong Kong, where his daughters worked. Lin died at 80 in Hong Kong on March 26, 1976, of heart failure after suffering pneumonia. He is buried in Yangmingshan, Taipei, Taiwan.


Hsia, Chih–Tsing, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction: 1917–1957, Yale University Press, New York, 1961.

Ming, Lai A History of Chinese Literature, John Day Company, New York, 1964.


Modern Age, Fall 1999.


Murray, Ryan M., Thesis: "Lighting a Candle and Cursing the Darkness: A Brief Biography of Lin Yutang," December 10, 1999, (December 15, 2004).

Qian, Suoqiao, "The Two–Way Process in the Age of Globalization: Lin Yutang's Masterpiece," City University of Hong Kong, (December 15, 2004).

Warring States Sinology, Lin Yutang, (December 15, 2004).