Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lin Yutang: October 10, 1895--March 26, 1976

The following is from the Wikipedia entry on Lin Yutang:

"Lin Yutang...was a Chinese writer and inventor. 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."

To be honest, I don't know just how "influential" he really was during his life time; I had never heard of him, which really doesn't mean that much, until I began doing some research for a paper while in grad school during the '80s. I found a Modern Library edition of his translation of the The Wisdom of Laotse, which is probably better known as The Tao Te Ching. While there have been later editions which incorporate manuscript discoveries made after Lin Yutang had died, I still grab his translation first and then check the more recent versions. Not only is it one of the more readable translations, his version includes commentaries for each chapter that consist of his thinking as well as quotes from other Taoist writings.

He has published over 30 books in English, ranging from a Chinese-English dictionary to the work mentioned above to collections of short stories to The Importance of Living, which is the application of Chinese philosophy and wisdom applied to the 20th century, and now the 21st century. The following is a quotation from The Importance of Living. It's an excellent example of his philosophy and of his relaxed and informal writing style. I suspect it has had a subtle influence on me, one that I probably still don't realize just how much that was, and is.

"If we must have a view of the universe, let us forget ourselves and not confine it to human life. Let us stretch it a little and include in our view the purpose of the entire creation--the rocks, the trees, and the animals. There is a scheme of things (although 'scheme' is another word, like 'end' and 'purpose,' which I strongly distrust)--I mean there is a pattern of things in the creation, and we can arrive at some sort of opinion, however lacking in finality, about this entire universe, and then take our place in it. This view of nature and our place in it must be natural, since we are a vital part of it in our life and go back to it when we die. Astronomy, geology, biology, and history all provide pretty good material to help us form a fairly good view if we don't attempt too much and jump at conclusions. It doesn't matter if, in this bigger view of the purpose of the creation, man's place recedes a little in importance. It is enough that he has a place, and by living in harmony with nature around him, he will be able to form a workable and reasonable outlook on human life itself."
from The Importance of Living, a Quill Edition, William Morrow, New York, 1937

Yutang looks for a natural pattern of things and suggests that "...we can arrive at some sort of opinion, however lacking in finality... a fairly good view if we don't attempt too much and jump at conclusions." How different this is from what we hear today from so many purveyors of absolute truths and ultimate or final proclamations of the way things are: nothing more need be known, for they know it all.

I can't say that I agree with everything in the work, but even at places where I vehemently disagree with him, I find that I don't seem to need to argue with him as I do with many other writers. Perhaps it's because he doesn't appear to try to 'convert" me but simply tells me what he thinks and why he thinks that way.

If you are looking for something to read that's a little different and something that encourages a more reasonable and relaxed philosophy, you might glance at The Importance of Living. After all, the front cover blurb is "The Classic Bestseller That Introduced Millions to the Noble Art of Leaving Things Undone."

Looking around my place, it's clear that Lin Yutang has had a significant influence on me.

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