Lin Yutang and Chinese literature

One of my neighbors was doing some spring cleaning and brought me this.

Lin was a notable if somewhat minor intellectual figure in China but his real fame came as an interpreter of China to the outside world. In China he was known as a humorous critic of the warlord governments which got him in trouble with both Left and Right, since they felt warlordism was no joke and his emphasis on the continued value of Eastern Wisdom made him sound more like Tagore than anyone Chinese intelectuals of the period were likely to respect. He became an important figure in the West after Pearl Buck convinced him to write My Country, My People (1935) which launched his career as and interpreter of the West.

He is somewhat unique in that his reputation has vanished almost entirely. His books are still in print, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in a bookstore (Although I tend not to haunt the ‘don’t worry be happy section’) and he is never assigned in courses. Even during his life he was dismissed as being someone who wrote English very well. (He was a third-generation Fujian Christian) but was not all that knowledgeable about China. You can see how he worked with these two excerpts from the story Curly-Beard

 [wpcol_1half id=”” class=”” style=””]Lin Yutang:

IT WAS a world of chivalry, adventure, and romance, of plucky battles and faraway conquests, of strange doings of strange men which filled the founding of the great Tang dynasty. Somehow the men of that great period had more stature; their imagination was keener, their hearts were bigger, and their activities more peculiar. Naturally, since the Sui Empire was crumbling, the country was as full of soldiers of fortune as a forest is full of woodchucks. In those days, men gambled their fortunes on high stakes; they matched cunning with cunning and wit against wit. They had their pet beliefs and superstitions, their virulent hatreds and intense loyalties, and once in a while, there was a man of steel with a heart of gold.

It was nine o’clock in the evening. Li Tsing, a young man in his thirties, had finished his supper and was lying in bed, bored, puzzled, and angry at something. He was tall and muscular, with a head of tousled hair set on a handsome neck and shoulders. Lazily he jerked his biceps, for he had a peculiar ability to make these muscles leap up without flexing his arms. He was ambitious, with plenty of energy, and nothing in particular to do.

He had had an interview with General. Yang Su that morning, in which he had presented a plan to save the empire. He was convinced that the fat, old general was not going to read it and regretted having taken the trouble to see him at all. The general, who was in charge of the Western Capital while the Emperor was sporting with women at Nanking, had sat, bland and self-satisfied, on his couch. His face was a mass of pork, with blubbery lips, heavy pouches under his eyes, fat hanging down under his chin and lumpy, distended nostrils, from which sniffs and grunts issued regularly. Twenty pretty young women were lined up on both sides of him, holding cups and saucers, sweetmeats, spittoons, and dusters. The dusters, which were made of hair from horsetails, over a foot long, and fixed with a jade or red- painted wooden handle, were more decorative than useful.

The silky, white horsetails swung gracefully, though idly. There could not be a more convincing picture of a misfit in high office, or a neater contrast between the luxurious setting and the debased sensuality which was no longer capable of enjoying it.

[/wpcol_1half] [wpcol_1half_end id=”” class=”” style=””]
From Cyril Birch Anthology of Chinese Literature

When the Emperor Yang-ti of the Sui dynasty visited Yangchow he left his Western capital, Ch’ang-an, in the charge of Councillor Yang Su. This was a man whom high birth had made arrogant, and in the troubled state of the times he had begun to regard his own power and prestige as unrivalled in the land. He maintained a lavish court and departed from the mode of conduct appropriate to a subject. Whether it was a high officer requesting interview or a private guest paying his respects, Yang would receive his visitor seated on a couch; when he rose to leave his hall it would be to walk, supported on either side by a beautiful girl, down between rows of attendant maidens. In these and other ways he arrogated to himself the imperial prerogatives. With age his behaviour grew more extreme, until he no longer seemed aware of the responsibility he owed to sustain the realm against peril.

One day Li Ching, later to be ennobled as Duke of Wei but at that time still a commoner, requested interview with Yang Su in order to present certain policies to which he had given much thought. As with everyone else, Yang Su remained seated to receive him. But Li Ching came forward, bowed and said, “The whole empire is now in turmoil, as would-be leaders strive for mastery.

Your highness is supreme in the service of our imperial house. Your first concern should be to win the respect of men of heroic mettle, and this you are hindering by remaining seated to receive those who seek audience.”

Yang Su composed his features to an expression of more fitting gravity, rose to his feet and apologized. He derived great pleasure from the discussion which followed, and Li Ching, when the time came for him to withdraw was assured of their acceptance.


The differences here are pretty stark, and it is easy to see why Lin is not read as much as he used to be. The book is called short stories re-told, so he does not have to stick to the text very closely and there are several versions of the story, but he has changed quite a lot here. The first paragraph of Lin’s version is an introduction to the period and the milieu of dynastic decline in general, which of course would not be needed for a Chinese audience. (I would also not want it in a reading I was assigning, since the whole point is to try to read things the way Chinese would.) Throughout the story Lin adds a lot more dialog and much more detailed descriptions of what people are doing, making his version seem much more like a modern character-driven short story.

The treatment of Yang Su is also interesting. For Chinese readers the minister who exceeds his authority is a well-known enough trope that the Birch version sees no need to dress it up. Lin makes him into an orientalist caricature of the decadent Chinese. (Which may help to explain why Lin was less popular in China.) The whole point of this first story is also changes in Lin’s version. In the Birch version the point of the first encounter is to show our hero, Li Ching, is in fact a hero capable of making others behave better by his own influence. He gets Yang Su to show him proper respect and even manages to get him to agee to his plans (not that anything comes of it). In the Lin version there is not much point to the episode, other than to point out how decadent the Chinese are.

Lin’s story also ends up not having much of a moral. The Birch story rotates around Li Ching and his friend Curly Beard deciding that a Li of Taiyuan is the One Man and rightful next emperor. Li Ching decides to serve him, and Curly Beard, not being that type, decides to go carve himself out a kingdom outside China. This makes it not work so well as a short-story (which it’s not, its a piece of Chinese prose that is short enough to be called one) and so Lin focuses more on Curly-Beard and his friendship with Li Ching. He also gives Li Ching’s wife a much larger role and in general makes the story much more modern. I assume that one of his purposes in doing the translations was to show Western audiences that the Chinese really did have a literary history that paralleled their own. Since editing the Chinese to make them look civilized is not one of the main purposes of translating Chinese literature today, it is not too surprising that Lin is little read.

See also Lin Yutang, Critic and Interpreter Chan Wing-Tsit
College English, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Jan., 1947), pp. 163-169

4 responses

  1. Fantastic example of the difference between translation and interpretation. I have a collection of humor edited by Lin somewhere (I’m pretty sure it’s in my office, but the organization of that collection was obliterated in the move) but I haven’t looked at it in a long time.

  2. Lin’s reputation is rising again now that Mao’s revolution is no longer the way we measure the historical value of things and cultural chauvinism is — mostly — relaxing. The knock on Lin seemed to be that cultural authenticity is zero sum, so the more beautifully you wrote English the less of a Chinese scholar you could be or if you were Christian you couldn’t be authentically Chinese. Nobody who has worked with Lin’s Chinese-English dictionary, to take but one example, can doubt that he was a formidable Chinese scholar.

    It’s true that when he came to the States in the 1930s, he couldn’t get (or didn’t want) a job in an American university and he supported himself by his writing. He wrote things that would sell to the American public. But that shouldn’t obscure the other accomplishments of a complex and capable person.

  3. Charles,

    Yes, he is an interesting guy in that he had a series of reputations and roles. Critical journalist in China, not-very-good translator, writer of Chinese Chicken Soup books, linguist. I think he got hammered as “inauthentic” in part because he was a Christian, but also because he wrote stuff like the above, which Orientalizes China (which would have annoyed his Chinese contemporaries) and domesticates China for Westerners (which would turn off modern academics.) Of course today that fact that he was such a boundary-transgressing figure would interest a lot of people. He would make a good dissertation topic for somebody.

  4. Thank you Alan: I am doing just that by writing a dissertation entitled: ‘A Psychobiography of Lin Yutang’. He certainly has a fascinating life journey. Three people have already written theses on Lin: from my thesis I share with you that:

    ‘The three theses on the life of Lin Yutang were specific approaches: Lin’s daughter Anor (Tai-yi), in Chinese, from a filial biographical perspective; Diran Sohigian, in 1991 in English, from a historical and political perspective and Qian Jun, in 1996 in English, from historical and cross-cultural perspectives.’

    However, Lin’s story makes an interesting topic from the perspective of ‘why’ he wrote what he did, when he did. In 2007 I undertook what I call ‘A Pilgrmage to Lin Yutang’ by visiting his birthplace, where he lived as an adult and where he is buried. His legacy is rising in China but tertiary students – if not secondary students – need to hear about his life and his work. My experience was that this is the generation that can benefit from Lin’s wit and humour in understanding Western culture.

    Any one with any anecdotes or offerings of any kind that they would like to share can contact me through this site.

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