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Lin Yutanglocked

(10 October 1895–26 March 1976)
  • A. Owen Aldridge

Lin Yutang

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1939.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOT 12735, no. 1218 P&P).

Lin Yutang (10 October 1895–26 March 1976), novelist, linguist, and philosopher, was born Lin Ho-lok in Amoy, Fukien Province, China, the son of Lin Chi-shing, a Presbyterian minister, and Young Shun-min. At age seventeen, he changed his given name, meaning peaceful and happy, to Yutang, meaning elegant language, and came to be known as Lin Yutang. Lin attended English-language schools and graduated from St. John’s University, a private western-oriented institution in Shanghai, in 1916. In the same year he became a teacher at Tsing Hua College in Peking. In January 1919 he married Liu Tsui-fung, a wealthy classmate of his sister; eventually the union produced three children. In the fall of 1919 he embarked with his wife to study comparative literature at Harvard.

After a year’s residence, Lin completed his work for the M.A., with the exception of a course in Shakespeare, which he made up at Jena, Germany. On the way to Germany, he worked briefly with the American YMCA in Le Creusot, France. He then transferred to Leipzig, receiving his Ph.D. in linguistics in 1923. He immediately accepted a position in the English department of Peking National University (now Peking University). During this period he wrote articles supporting the Kuomintang (National Peoples’ Party) against independent generals or war lords. To avoid arrest by the reactionary regime, he moved in 1926 to Hsiamun University in his native Amoy, where he became dean of humanities and secretary of graduate studies.

Lin considered humor to be one of humanity’s most precious gifts, the function of which he regarded as the criticism of one’s dreams and bringing them in touch with the world of reality. In 1924 he published “A Study of Humor” in the Peking Morning Post, and in 1932 he founded a bimonthly magazine, Lun Yu (Analects), specializing in comic writing. More than one hundred of his own essays in the same facetious vein appeared between 1930 and 1936 in a Shanghai-based English-language weekly, the China Critic, a selection from which was later published as The Little Critic, Essays, Satires and Sketches on China (1935).

When Pearl Buck, visiting China on a world tour, made Lin’s acquaintance in 1933, they admired each other’s literary works and soon became friends. Dissatisfied with the writings of American missionaries about China, Buck persuaded him to record his own perspective, a task that he completed in ten months. The book, My Country and My People (1935), containing a preface by Buck, became first on the bestseller list. In rapid succession Lin brought out English translations of earlier Chinese works, a humorous drama and a collection of essays published jointly as Confucius Saw Nancy and Essays about Nothing (1936).

As Japan and China were on the brink of war in 1936, Lin moved with his family to New York City. In the next year he published his second bestseller, The Importance of Living, a blend of philosophy and humor justifying a moderate hedonism. This was followed in 1938 by an edition of The Wisdom of Confucius. In the same year he revisited France, where nearly twenty years earlier he had unsuccessfully sought to uncover lost relatives. He incorporated fictional references to these family members in his first novel, A Moment in Peking (1939), which some critics consider his best. Although it has some resemblance to the Chinese scholar-beauty romance, it also sketches the origins of the Sino-Japanese war. The book immediately had three editions in Japanese, the first of which, to Lin’s chagrin, preceded the one in Chinese. In a semi-continuation, A Leaf in the Storm (1941), Lin openly protested the Japanese invasion, the male and female protagonists symbolizing the rebirth of Chinese patriotism. After the entry of the United States into World War II, Lin published a political work, Between Tears and Laughter (1943), criticizing the Far East policy of the United States and England, which, he charged, was predicated on the West dominating the East. In the midst of the war he returned to China for a propaganda trip throughout the area controlled by the Kuo-ming-tang. On his return to America he published an account of his travels, The Vigil of a Nation (1944), and broadcast an appeal for overseas Chinese to support Chiang Kai-shek.

His personal life deteriorated in 1945, as his eldest daughter eloped with a nondescript American, and his bank account was almost wiped out. He had invested in a Chinese typewriter of his own invention that proved to be unmarketable because of the Chinese civil war, and he was forced into bankruptcy. Although the typewriter was never produced commercially, its keyboard and character classifications were later adopted for Chinese computers. In 1947 Lin was offered the post of head of the Arts and Letters Division of UNESCO in Paris, but before leaving the United States he was required to pay a debt to the Internal Revenue Service of $30,000. He obtained this amount through sales of another novel, The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo (1947).

Almost as soon as he arrived in Paris, Lin resigned his position in order to pursue his literary career. In Cannes he wrote his most notable fictional work about America, Chinatown Family (1948), a lighthearted portrayal of ordinary domestic life flavored by oriental philosophy. The pioneer work in the genre of Asian-American fiction, it presents an idealistic vision of marriage and the family among Chinese and Italian immigrants.

In 1949 Lin and his wife moved back to the United States to be close to their daughters. He soon published two more works of popular philosophy, Wisdom of Lao Tse (1948) and On the Wisdom of America (1950). In a related modernization of classical texts, he rewrote several Chinese narratives, Miss Tu (1950), Widow, Nun, and Courtesan (1951), and Famous Chinese Short Stories (1952). Returning to the theme of war, he published in 1953 a fictional love story, The Vermilion Gate, set in the midst of the Chinese-Moslem conflict twenty years earlier.

In 1953 Lin broke his connection with the John Day Company, which had published most of his books in the United States. He was dissatisfied with the percentage of royalties he was being paid, and Pearl Buck, who was married to Richard J. Walsh, president of the Day company, had refused to lend him money during his period of financial difficulties.

In 1954 Lin became vice chancellor of Nangyang University in Singapore, but he resigned after six months, donations to the university having declined radically because of his ties with the Kuomintang. In 1955 he returned to Cannes and combined aesthetic, political, and religious topics in a utopian novel, Looking Beyond, also called Unexpected Island (1955). In 1957 he reverted to Chinese themes with an English translation of Chuangtze, published under the philosopher’s name, and a historical biography of the T’ang Dynasty, Lady Wu. His final work explaining China to the West was Chinese Theory of Art: Translations from the Masters of Chinese Art (1967).

In 1959 Lin published his spiritual autobiography, From Pagan to Christian, a modern pilgrim’s progress revealing his early links with Christianity, his doubts during middle age, and his eventual return to a nominal Christianity. That he never embraced orthodoxy, however, is amply revealed in his The Pleasures of a Nonconformist (1962). In 1961 he published a volume of straight history, Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China, and a somewhat erotic novel, The Red Peony. These were followed in 1963 by Juniper Loa, an autobiographical novel concerning a young man’s attraction to a girl who marries someone else. In 1964 he brought out his last work of fiction, Flight of Innocents.

In 1965 Lin began writing a newspaper column for the news agency of the Republic of China under the rubric “Anything That Comes to Mind,” later collecting the columns in two volumes published in 1965 and 1967. In 1966 he moved to Taiwan and was elected vice president of the local branch of the International P.E.N. Club. In the following year he accepted a professorship from the Chinese University of Hong Kong to edit a modern Chinese-English dictionary. Linguists consider its publication in 1972 to be his crowning achievement. In 1975 he was elected vice president of the World P.E.N. and nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Lin’s private life during his final years was not happy, in large measure because his eldest daughter, distraught by divorce from a husband whom she still loved, committed suicide. After the completion of his dictionary, moreover, he was forced to shuttle back and forth between Taipei, where he felt more comfortable, and Hong Kong, which his family preferred. He died in Hong Kong but is buried in the garden of his Taipei home, which has been converted into the Lin Yutang Memorial Library.

Bibliography

An extensive collection of the manuscripts of Lin’s published works is housed in the Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. A smaller manuscript collection at the Lin Yutang Memorial Library includes a large number of private letters. In 1973 Lin wrote Eighty: An Autobiography (1975), first published in Chinese Culture University Journal 9 (1974): 263–324, as “Memoirs of an Octogenarian.” Both the book and the journal contain a complete bibliography of his writings in Chinese and English. Personal reminiscences of his daughter Adet Lin are found in Our Family (1939). She provides an extended view in Chinese in Lin Yutang chuan (The life of Lin Yutang) (1990). A twelve-page Biographical Sketch of Lin Yutang (1937) has a profile by Pearl Buck. More biographical information is in Diran John Sohigian, “The Life and Times of Lin Yutang” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia Univ., 1992). Notable quotations from Lin’s works are collected by Arthur James Anderson as The Best of an Old Friend (1975). Anderson has also prepared “Lin Yutang: A Bibliography of His English Writings and Translations,” Bulletin of Bibliography 30 (1973): 83–89. Considerable overlapping exists in four books in Chinese by Chien-wei Shih: Lin Yutang tsai ta lu (Lin Yutang in China) (1991); Lin Yu Tang zai hai wai (Lin Yutang overseas) (1992); Yu mo ta shih: Lin Yutang chuan (Master humorist: The life of Lin Yutang) (1994); and Lin Yutang tsou hsiang shih chieh ti yu mo ta shih (Lin Yutang: The humorist faces the world) (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times, 27 Mar. 1976.