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A Lin Yutang Biography

Dr Lin Yutang (1895-1976) was born as Lun-chi in Changchow in the Fukien province of China. He died on March 26, 1976, in Hong Kong.

This Chinese inventor, philosopher, author, and translator began to attack chair legs after years of extensive research - he was experimenting with a new theory of comfort: "Take any Chinese redwood furniture and saw off its legs a few inches, and it immediately becomes more comfortable; and if you saw off another few inches, then it becomes still more comfortable. The logical conclusion of this is, of course that one is most comfortable when one is lying perfectly flat on a bed." This view was expressed in his major philosophical work, The Importance of Living of 1937.

Lin in time went for a life of letters and conversation in his writer's studio, the "Have-not-done studio" as he named it. From it, he produced a stream of informal-looking, polished essays, tussling with "Do bed bugs exist in China?" and "How I Bought a Tooth-Brush". Such essays were laying the foundation for the book The Importance of Living. In it there is one Po Yuchien, who says, ""I'm too lazy to read the Taoist classics . . ." He could have put it otherwise or much better, for example: "As for me, I feel I have better things to do."

Lin's intellectual battle was over such questions of logic and rigour and constraint and unhappiness. To sacrifice comfort and in the name of a higher authority was for him a moral failure. It seemed better to remain curious, dreamy, humorous, and wayward, at least not give it up wholly. And his outlook is contrasted by that fact that Lin was in fact extremely laborious himself, as witnessed through his large production.

Lin also thought that education of the emotions and senses must be more important than following rules. Lin found freedom to enjoy life to be the ultimate spiritual good. The question of happiness is not to be deferred in the name of abstract rewards. What reward could be greater than a life enjoyed as it is lived? he asked. Along this vein Lin was also tormented by the perception that "all nature loafs, while man alone works for a living".

Lin's hailing of loafing has its traditions outside the realm of educated gentlemen in such as Britain. Chinese ideas of idle living sprang from the world of the poor and unsuccessful scholars, and finds expression in Chuang-tzu fables, where "the illusive rewards of fame are pitched against the tremendous advantages of obscurity". He who is not wanted by the public can be a carefree individual, runs the Taoist adage.

According to Lin, Western thinking had become too rigid, and a completely rational society leads to the the rule of automation's. Western philosophy was no more than the mind's chemical toilet to him.

The Chinese philosopher is like a swimmer who dives but must soon come up to the surface again; the Western philosopher is like a swimmer who dives into the water and is proud that he never comes up to the surface again. (1963:10)

The Chinese can ask . . ., "Does the West have a philosophy?" The answer is also clearly "No." . . . The Western man has tons of philosophy written by French, German, English, and American professors, but still he hasn't got a philosophy when he wants it. In fact, he seldom wants it. There are professors of philosophy, but there are no philosophers. (1963:11)

Lin is roughing it still more: Modern individuals have made their homes in cubicles of discomfort. Their walls are adorned with medallions of disappointment and calendars of wasted time. "Efficiency, punctuality, and the desire for achievement and success . . . are the things that make the Americans so unhappy and so nervous" as opposed to the joys of conversation on a breezy moonlit night - it is moments such as these that give meaning to living."

Lin felt that one "can only aim at being a likeable, reasonable being." American post-modernists such as Richard Rorty have much in common with Lin's call for a "Spirit of Reasonableness". Here is his vision of a transformed Manhattan - an idler's fantasy:

American gentlemen will float in skirts and slippers and amble on the sidewalks of Broadway with their hands in their pockets, if not with both hands stuck in their sleeves in the Chinese fashion . . . Fire engines will proceed at a snail's pace, their staff stopping on the way to gaze at, and dispute over, the number of passing wild geese in the sky.

Lin also felt "quite convinced that the aim of true communism and socialism is that all people should be able to enjoy leisure." Lin thought people would soon find themselves with more leisure time and that they would need a philosophy to cope with this enforced idleness. "Culture, as I understand it, is essentially a product of leisure. The art of culture is therefore essentially the art of loafing," he decreed.

Do not quit hoping for a better life, then.


Lin Yutang . . . taught philosophy at Columbia University in New York City for many years. He wrote books. I remember when I was in college I read his textbooks on eastern religions.

In mid-life he came back to the Church. He said it happened while attending church with his wife. [Mark Trotter - ◦Link]

Dr. Lin Yutang was raised as a Christian, but soon abandoned Christianity for Taoism and Buddhism, only to turn Christian again later in his life. The son of a Chinese Presbyterian minister, he was educated for the ministry. However, he renounced Christianity in his early 20s and became a professor of English.

Educated at Saint John's University in Shanghai, Lin was a teacher at Tsinghua University, Beijing in 1916-1919. He married and went with his wife to Harvard in 1919. There he studied Comparitive Literature under Bliss Perry and Irving Babbitt until 1920. They then moved to France, where he worked with the YMCA. He studied at Jena and Leipzig 1921-1923, and got his Doctorate at the University of Leipzig in 1923.

To university posts in China

Dr. Lin was Professor of English at Beijing National University 1923-1926, that is, he taught English philology at the University of Beijing from 1923 to 1926. He became Dean of Arts in Amoy University in 1926, etc.

Dr. Lin devised a Chinese indexing system and helped formulate the official plan for romanizing the Chinese language.

Since the Summer of 1927 he devoted himself entirely to writing. He knew how to present "bold-whimsical" essays to Chinese literary magazines and reached the peak of his literary career in his homeland.

Lin was a prolific writer in Chinese and English. After 1928 he lived mainly in the United States. Allied with new, rational sciences of the humanities, he knew where to find "real China", how to interpret what he found concerning China, its customs and heritage, and knew how to defend his country and his people against rather scandalous and quite racist representations that were in vogue earlier and in his time too. Lin was not alone in borrowing Western sciences to defend his people from Westerners.

Still more very productive years

In 1935 Lin published the first of his many English-language books, My Country and My People. It became successful at once, and was widely translated and for years regarded as a standard text on China. In 1936 he moved to New York City where he he produced historical accounts and novels in rapid succession, for there was a demand for that sort of literature. The Importance of Living (1937) belong to those early works that critics liked the most, Written in English in a charming and witty style, it made him internationally famous. The Wisdom of China and India appeared in 1942.

But in China he got involved in disputes with the Chinese Communist literary critics: he preferred to view literature as self-expression rather than as pure propaganda and social education.

Later works and years

Eventually Dr. Lin remained in the United States, marked by attempt to bridge the cultural gap between East and West, where he wrote books on Chinese history and philosophy. Later in his life he was Head of the Arts and Letters Division of UNESCO, 1948. He translated and edited The Chinese Theory of Art; it was published in 1967 or 68 (both dates may be found). He also made highly acclaimed English translations of Chinese literary masterpieces, apart from his many novels. Among them are A Moment in Peking (1939); Chinatown Family (1948), a popular treatment of life in an American Chinese Community; The Red Peony (1961); and The Flight of the Innocents (1965).

Today Lin [Lin is his last name] is hailed in his homeland once again - after pragmatic winds have been blowing over the country for some years. One can find Dr. Lin presented as "China['s] and the world's most popular Chinese author . . . he left the world with rich cultural works, making many people appreciate . . . a lot (from Chinese culture and tact)".

He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for A Moment in Peking in 1975.


Lin Yutang biography, Lin Yu-tang quotations, Literature  

Ffytche, Matt. Idle Idols. Lin Yutang. The Idler. 1993-2008.

Yutang, Lin. Between Tears and Laughter. New York: The John Day Company, 1943.

Yutang, Lin. From Pagan to Christian. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1959.

Yutang. The Importance of Living. London: Continental Book Company, 1945. Online. Limited view at Google Books.

Yutang, Lin. The Importance of Understanding: Translations from the Chinese. London: Heinemann, 1961.

Yutang, Lin. My Country and My People. London: William Heinemann, 1936.

Yutang, Lin. On The Wisdom of America. New York: The John Day Company, 1950.

Yutang, Lin, ed, tr. The Wisdom of Confucius. New York: Random House, 1938.

Yutang, Lin, ed, tr. The Wisdom of Laotse. New York: Modern Library, 1948.

Yutang, Lin, ed. The Wisdom of China. New English Library. London, 1963.

Yutang, Lin, ed. The Wisdom of China and India. New York: Random House, 1942.

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