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Lin Yutang

Post #1131 • February 27, 2008, 11:35 AM • 1 Comment

New York - Lin Yutang is one of the most intriguing characters of the 20th Century. Born in Fujian Province, educated at Harvard and the University of Leipzig, he is best known for The Importance of Living, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for a full year after it was published in December 1937. It begins:

This is a personal testimony, a testimony of my own experience of thought and life. It is not intended to be objective and makes no claim to establish eternal truths. In fact I rather despise claims to objectivity in philosophy; the point of view is the the thing. I should have liked to call it "A Lyrical Philosophy," using the word "lyrical" in the sense of bieng a highly personal and individual outlook. But that would be too beautiful a name and I must forego it, for fear of aiming too high and leading the reader to expect too much, and because the main ingredient of my thought is matter-of-fact prose, a level easier to maintian because more natural. Very much contented am I to lie low, to cling to the soil, to be of kin to the sod. My soul squirms comfortably in the soil and sand and is happy. Sometimes when one is drunk with this earth, one's spirit seems so light that he thinks he is in heaven. But actually he seldom rises six feet above the ground.

On it continues, part Montaigne, part Chuang-Tzu, praising sensuality, idleness, and smoking.

In addition to his achievements as an ocean-crossing, polyglot literatus, Lin was one of China's early political cartoonists, and (as I learn to my enormous surprise) coined the Chinese word for "humor" (yōumò, 幽默), of which there is no shortage in Chinese thought and literature but had no descriptor with all the nuances of the Western word. He invented the Chinese typewriter, not much bigger than its English counterpart, which used a system based on a revolutionary reconception of the Chinese language. Lin also collected excellent examples of 19th and 20th Century Chinese painting, with a few earlier specimens. This collection recently went to the Metropolitan Museum and was put on display as Bridging East and West: The Chinese Diaspora and Lin Yutang.

The painters whom Lin befriended, although working in an unmistakably Chinese style, were well aware of American modernism and shared Lin's fondness of levity. Lin's daughter Taiyi continued collecting as she pursued her own literary development and divided her time between London and Hong Kong; one or two of the pieces were gifts to Taiyi in honor of Yutang. Chief in the collection is Zhang Daqian, whose Mountains Clearing after Rain not accidentally recalls Morris Louis, and whose Radishes and Mustard Greens combines a humble, casual attitude with bold cropping and walloping graphic force. The show featured more fine examples, such as Zhao Shao'ang's astonishing Chirping Bird and a few lighthearted vegetable studies by Guo Dawei, recorded in a worthy and affordable catalogue. It would be a fine thing to peruse, in honor of Lin, while lying in bed at mid-morning. He writes: "When one is in bed the muscles are at rest, the circulation becomes smoother and more regular, respiration becomes steadier, and all the optical, auditory and vaso-motor nerves are more or less completely at rest, bringing about a more or less complete phyisical quietude, and therefore making mental concentration, whether on ideas or on sensations, more absolute." Ah, to go there right now.



Catherine Spaeth

February 27, 2008, 2:06 PM

I just came back from high performance mode at the Guggenheim and found this very soothing. Thank you for another China.



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