Who is Lin Yutang?
Lin Yutang (Chinese: 林語堂 ; October 10, 1895 – March 26, 1976) was a Chinese inventor, linguist, novelist, philosopher, and translator. His informal but polished style in both Chinese and English made him one of the most influential writers of his generation, and his compilations and translations of classic Chinese texts into English were bestsellers in the West.
Lin was born in 1895 in the town of Banzai, Pinghe, Zhangzhou, Fujian. The mountainous region made a deep impression on his consciousness, and thereafter, he would constantly consider himself a child of the mountains (in one of his books he commented that his idea of hell was a city apartment).
Lin studied for his bachelor’s degree at Saint John’s University in Shanghai, then received a half-scholarship to continue study for a doctoral degree at Harvard University. He later wrote that in the Widener Library he first found himself and first came alive, but he never saw a Harvard-Yale game. In financial difficulty, he left Harvard early and moved to work with the Chinese Labour Corps in France and eventually to Germany, where he completed his requirements for a doctoral degree in Chinese philology at the University of Leipzig. From 1923 to 1926, he taught English literature at Peking University.
Enthusiastic about the success of the Northern Expedition, he briefly served in the new Nationalist government, but soon turned to teaching and writing. He found himself in the wake of the New Culture Movement which criticized China’s tradition as feudal and harmful. Instead of accepting this charge, however, Lin immersed himself in the Confucian texts and literary culture which his Christian upbringing and English language education had denied him.
His humor magazine Lunyu banyuekan (The Analects Fortnightly, 1932–40, 1945–49) featured essays by prominent writers such as Hu Shih, Lao She, Lu Xun, and Zhou Zuoren and attracted a wide readership. He was a key figure in introducing the Western concept of humor, which he felt China had lacked. Lin coined the term youmo (humor) in 1924 and used The Analects to promote his conception of humor as the expression of a tolerant, cosmopolitan, understanding and civilized philosophy of life. In 1933, Lu Xun attacked the Analects for being apolitical and dismissed Lin’s elegant xiaopin wen 小品文, or small essays, as “bric a brac for the bourgeoisie.” Lu Xun nevertheless maintained a cordial relationship with Lin and continued to contribute to his journal.
Lin’s writings in Chinese were critical of the Nationalist government to the point that he feared for his life. Many of his essays from this time were later collected in With Love and Irony (1940). In 1933, he met Pearl Buck in Shanghai, who introduced him and his writings to her publisher, Richard Walsh, head of John Day publishers, who published Lin’s works for many years.
Lin’s relation with Christianity changed over the years. His father was a second-generation Christian, but at Tsinghua, Lin asked himself what it meant to be a Christian in China. Being a Christian meant acceptance of Western science and progress, but Lin became angry that being a Christian also meant losing touch with China’s culture and his own personal identity.
On his return from study abroad, Lin renewed his respect for his father, yet he plunged into study of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism and did not identify himself as Christian until the late 1950s.