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From the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue of Touchstone


Lin Yutang & the New China by David Marshall

Lin Yutang & the New China

Is One Man's Legacy a Reason to Hope for the Nation's Future?

by David Marshall

As we move into what might one day be called the "Chinese Century," those of us who have had the chance to watch the newest version of this ancient civilization incubate see both troubling and hopeful portents of the character Chinese power might take.

A troubling sign comes from a survey I have conducted over several years, in which I have asked Chinese intellectuals which rulers they most respect. So far, more than half the votes have gone to bloody tyrants, including Qin Shihuang, who built the Great Wall and interred thousands of workmen in his tomb with him; Zhu Yuanzhang, the cruel founder of the Ming dynasty; Mao Zedong; and even Genghis Khan. Young Chinese intellectuals like these men for their success: they "united China," "expanded the nation's boundaries," and "made the world respect China." Revolution, after all, is not a dinner party.

But there are also those who prefer kinder rulers. And I take special encouragement when I see someone on a train in Henan or at a Starbucks in Shanghai reading a book by Lin Yutang. No civilization that prints and reads his books need be permanently wed to tyrannical ideas.

Affinity with Chesterton

Philosopher, inventor, novelist, and one of China's leading men of letters, Lin Yutang (1895–1976) jointly explored Chinese tradition and his own soul through four decades of literary output that include translations of Confucius, Mencius, Lao Zi, and Zhuang Zi; a biography of the Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo; topical and often whimsical essays; a dictionary; an anthology of Chinese and Indian philosophy; historical novels; and a celebration of the art and traditions of Peking just as Mao assaulted both.

Lin also invented a Chinese typewriter, which is displayed in the little home he and his wife lived in (which he designed) in their later years, on Yang Ming Mountain, above Taipei. The house is a fitting monument to the man: it features Spanish columns, a study laden with books in many languages, and a pond for carp, where the old writer sat, like a sage of old, and pretended to fish. This home, which also became his burial place when he died, overlooks leafy suburbs crisscrossed by trains, with Mt. Guan Yin, named for the goddess of mercy, in view across the valley.

While calling himself a "pagan" in the 1930s, Lin nominated G. K. Chesterton to a whimsical conference of humorists to solve the international crisis of the time. Lin later paid Chesterton an extravagant compliment:

The most beautiful face among Western authors, so far as I have seen them in pictures, was that of G. K. Chesterton. There was such a diabolical conglomeration of mustache, glasses, fairly bushy eyebrows and knitted lines where the eyebrows met! One felt there were a vast number of ideas playing about inside that forehead, ready at any time to burst out from those quizzically penetrating eyes.

Photos of Lin himself give a subtler impression: slight figure, nicely dressed, often with pipe in hand or mouth, sometimes pensive, a less volcanic humor than Chesterton's lending joy or mirth (one is not quite sure which) to the eyes. Lin resembled Chesterton in literary versatility, paradox (or irony, as he called it, writing mainly in English), and an ultimately Christian humanism.

Lin also defended "My Country and My People," the title of the 1935 book that made him famous in America, in a spirit similar to that with which Chesterton argued for "Christendom." Chesterton paradoxically overlooked the success of imperial Britain to see England's virtues. But the manifest political failure of early twentieth-century China—opium addicts, Japanese imperialists, civil war, the arrogance of some missionary teachers, expat Shanghai rabble, extraterritorial demands on Chinese territory, and bandit warlords who robbed the treasury—made Lin's genial, non-exclusive patriotism an arguably greater triumph of paradox.

Lin's twin apologetics, for China and for Christ, derive force from their personal character, the reader's feeling of exploring a remarkable world in the hands of a worthy guide. Lin's views are, therefore, best understood in light of his life story.

Lin's Background

Lin was the son of a progressive Presbyterian pastor who lived in a mountain town some fifty miles inland of Amoy (Xiamen), across the Straits from Taiwan. His travels up and down the West River to boarding school on the magical little tidewater island of Gulangyu (known when I studied at Xiamen University in the 1980s for grapes, pianos, and beaches) were among his fondest memories.

His father loved the Confucian classics and read Mencius (a fourth-century b.c. interpreter of Confucius) as a kind of preparation for the gospel, not so unusual an insight for the time and place as one might think. He was respected in the community despite taking a dim view of the ancestor rites and folk tales that most of their neighbors enjoyed.

Studying English at St. John's College in Shanghai, the younger Lin devoured the entire school library, reading Darwin, Haeckel, and Lamarck with special care. The principal of St. John's told him that one should interpret the resurrection of Jesus spiritually. Lin felt outrage at having been cheated of some portion of Chinese heritage, and at being forced to believe tenets of Christianity that educated Westerners apparently denied.

Teaching at Qinghua, one of China's leading universities, Lin was deeply influenced by both Gu Hongming (1857–1928), a pugnacious defender of Confucianism, and Hu Shi (1891–1962), who favored the theories of John Dewey. Lin plunged into a lifelong study of Chinese humanism, and became what he called a "pagan." Late in life, after fleeing the Mainland in the wake of the Communist victory, he returned to a somewhat liberal Christianity.

Assessment of Legge

The American author Norman Maclean once wrote that, for his own father, also a Presbyterian pastor and lover of rivers, "all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy." The title of Lin's autobiography, From Pagan to Christian (1959), is likewise a superficially casual cast, the languid precision of which (as in Zen) is the fruit of long mastery. The prepositions in that title imply, not the movement of a discrete particle from point A to point B, but the effortless liquid motion that joins source to mouth in a unified whole, like the West River flowing into the South China Sea. Lin thus contributed an essentially Taoist view of history to Chinese Christianity.

Lin's "pagan" approach can be seen in his treatment of the Scotsman James Legge, the great Victorian translator of the Confucian classics and Britain's first professor of Chinese. In Lin's 1942 anthology, The Wisdom of China and India, he included 32 poems from the Book of Poetry (a compilation of the oldest and greatest of China's classics, mostly folk songs), 30 of which had been translated by Legge (the other two by Herbert Giles), but fifteen of those were paraphrased by the Irish poet Helen Waddell from Legge's translations and notes. Lin explained his selections:

Of all translations of Chinese poetry, I think Helen Waddell's is the best. . . . Her method is to catch the essence or spirit of a poem and weave it into an exquisite creation with whatever material from the poem she needs for that particular purpose. . . . One cannot help being impressed by the fact that the fleeting thought, the sudden heart cry of a second of some peasant woman some three thousand years ago in China can be recaptured for us in the English language by someone who does not know her language.

Lin praised Legge's scholarship warmly, but his poetry translations with restraint: "In regard to diction, rhythm and general effect, (Legge's translations) often fall short of the true poetic level, but he did not mistranslate . . . some of his verses are certainly successful." Lin also spent half a page in his short autobiography complaining about Legge's clumsiness, saying he "makes a fetish of literalism."

The Monotheistic Strand

Even as a "pagan," Lin agreed with Christians like Legge, who believed the Chinese had long worshiped the true God. But not for Lin the plodding method of, say, Yan Mo, an early seventeenth-century literatus and convert of the Jesuit mission, who had carefully enumerated fifteen classical characteristics that Shang Di, China's ancient "Ruler Above," shared with the Christian God, or the careful etymology of Legge, which proved the same thing.

Throughout his career, and with apparent casualness, Lin translated a number of Chinese terms as "God," including Zao Wu, "Creator of Things," and Shendu, "God's Dwelling Place." Tian ("Heaven") was the "only God" worshiped by the emperor, aside from ancestors, at both Mount Tai, the primordial seat of worship, and the Altars of Heaven shrines outside the various capitals.

In an essay called "Why I am a Pagan," following Gu Hongming (who believed that "all great men have always believed in God"), Lin explained that "a pagan always believes in God but would not like to say so, for fear of being misunderstood." Yet the sudden, poetic leap is, as in Waddell's poems, taken in view of more careful scholarship, and Lin's own translations of the Classics often follow, or simplify, Giles or Legge.

The careful, scholarly Legge had his own poetic moments, however. During a visit to the Altar of Heaven in Beijing in 1873, Legge felt as if God were telling him, "Take your shoes off, you are standing on holy ground." So he stood at this "pagan" altar, held hands with friends, and sang the doxology. For this was the place where the Chinese had worshiped a God who transcended human cultures.

The Altar of Heaven struck Lin forcibly as well. In a travelogue from the city of Nanjing first published in 1931, he compared Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum on the hill outside that city unfavorably to the Beijing monument, with its "broad sweep of outline, magnificence and calm." More than three decades later, in Escape of the Innocents, he slipped a joyful thought about the "Temple of Heaven at moonlight" into the mind of an Englishman come to Guangdong to save a Chinese girlfriend from Mao's collectives.

In Imperial Peking, also written in exile after his reconversion, Lin explained that his delight in the Altar of Heaven, which he called "probably the most beautiful single piece of creation in all China," was aesthetic in a sense that embraced the spiritual. Its beauty derived in part from its meaning. Indeed, the main edifice may have been the world's "finest architectural tribute to the spirit of nature worship."

Worship here involved a "monotheistic" strand that antedated the Three Teachings (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism), tracing "to the early beginnings of Chinese history." Lin flicked his fishing rod again: "The worship of a monotheistic god, Shang ti, goes back to the early beginnings of Chinese history," he wrote. In a footnote, he explained that two ancient Chinese tribes used the "monotheistic" terms Shang Di and Tian (heaven), which later merged: envisioning the sudden, intuitive leap across cultures as cheerfully as a boy jumping a mountain stream.

Human Nature Fulfilled

Classical Confucianism, Lin argued, rightly saw human nature as something best "fulfilled, rather than fought against." Preference for the former over the latter was at the heart of his humanism and of his lifelong criticism of Evangelical convention. Thus, he liberally translated the opening phrases of the Doctrine of the Mean as, "What is God-given is called human nature. To fulfill the law of our human nature is called the moral law (tao). The cultivation of the moral law is what we call culture." It is as the fulfillment of humanity that Lin was attracted to Jesus.

While he gives equal space in From Pagan to Christian to Buddhism and Confucianism, Lin's heart was always with the Taoists. Both Lao Zi, the ancient Taoist philosopher, and Jesus were gentle and eschewed pride. Both cleansed themselves of virtue to reveal true goodness. Both recognized the power of weakness to overcome strength. While "brothers" in spirit, Jesus lived out—and in that sense fulfilled—Lao Zi: "Both established the kingdom of the poor in spirit, a phrase which enraged Nietzsche, but Jesus exemplified it by washing the feet of his disciples."

Despite his own liberal reading of the Gospels, Lin seemed enticed almost against his will by developed Christian theology. He meditated on the following verse by Lao Zi:

Who receives unto himself the calumny of the world
Is the preserver of the state.
Who bears himself the sins of the world
Is the king of the world. . . .

Faced with this passage, Lin admitted that it was "almost hard to credit the resemblance to Christian teaching."

A Diffident Apologist

Given his father's lifelong fascination with Western ideas, and his own epic reflections on China that began as a nativist reaction, Lin Yutang somewhat resembled a second-generation immigrant. He shared, at any rate, Chesterton's power of seeing familiar things, including his native land, with wide-eyed wonder. In The Wisdom of India and China, he effectively moved from pointillistic descriptions to a sweeping historical overview of Chinese thought, which began in the subcontinent. The first part of this anthology, almost a third of its pages, is broadly Hindu. The Buddhist sutras that take up the next 200 or so pages are mostly translated from Chinese, "consonant with my bias for Chinese sources," he writes, and are thus linked to the following 600 pages of Chinese texts.

While most of his books were personal, From Pagan to Christian was his most overtly autobiographical, even while it also retold Chinese intellectual history in an integrated form. The first chapter takes us from Lin's childhood to Xiamen, Shanghai, and Beijing, with Lin losing more of his childhood faith at each stop, and becoming more infatuated with China. The next three chapters tell the story of China's "three religions" as Lin found them, pausing to highlight similarities with the Christian tradition, such as extended parallels between Zhuang Zi and Pascal. Materialism creeps like a serpent into the following chapters—China's fall from grace being exemplified most intensely in Maoism.

Lin became at best a diffident apologist for Christianity. He spilled almost as much ink criticizing Christian creeds, dogmatism, "revivalists," and hell, as explaining what drew him back. But even the structure of his autobiography shows that Jesus had, in effect, become the central pillar in his own Altar of Heaven. From Pagan to Christian told not just Lin's own story, but also the story of China, leading to the "void" of "abjectly idolatrous" Marxism and secular liberalism.

Lin thus introduced his penultimate chapter by asking, "Isn't there light somewhere in this terrifying darkness to save humanity?" That chapter, "The Majesty of Light," begins with a messianic aphorism from the Book of History: "Blow out the candles! The sun is risen!" The last thing he meant to suggest was that Jesus had in any sense bridled his (increasingly poignant) delight in the vast sweep of Chinese tradition that Mao was at that moment destroying.

Lin thus briefly sketched what earlier Christian thinkers implicitly suggested as early as the Tang dynasty (a.d. 781): a coherent story of Chinese religious tradition from a Christian perspective. This vision seems to have had an impact on one of the leading Chinese Christians of the present generation. Yuan Zhiming, a philosopher who had taught Marxist philosophy in the People's Liberation Army, helped lead the Democracy Movement of the late 1980s. After fleeing China, he read Lin, turned to Christ, then retold the story of Chinese civilization from a similar perspective in films and books. He has personally led more than 10,000 Chinese to Christ, and, I have found, is well-known in mainland China. Yuan is a voice not only for individual revival, but also for a Christian understanding of Chinese history, centered on the Taoist concept of "without force," that will help make it a blessing to the world.

Leaving Some Dirt

Lin's delight in Chinese tradition was critical, and, like many of his contemporaries, he was full of reform proposals. But the Chinese character has a democratic and ironic sense that, he believed, rendered quick reform (as in Meiji Japan) difficult. Warlords were, of course, odious; Lin beat them with his lash of irony. But he also agreed with the sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary Mateo Ricci, who had fixed part of the blame for China's downfall on neo-Confucians, who mixed Confucian tradition with Indian Buddhism.

Being from a district to which the great neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi had introduced foot-binding in the twelfth century, Lin offered an original and gently ironic critique. The true glory of Confucius was not his naive political ideas but his self-deprecatory sense of humor. In an essay on the virtues of Mickey Mouse (!), Lin blamed Song dynasty philosophers for "banning" humor from public life, including "proper" literature. Lin's proximate target (in a comment that now seems prophetic) was Marx and his followers: "If proletarian literature is forced to take such an attitude to life [i.e., unable to enjoy children's cartoons], then proletariat literature is also doomed, for I believe with Confucius that anything inhuman cannot last."

In the same book, in an essay entitled, "Confessions of a Vegetarian," Lin explained his bedrock philosophy, which would ultimately lead to his conversion, and the shape it would take:

As a Chinese, I do not believe in being a slave of any principle. . . . The aim of Chinese education is to cultivate a reasonable mind. A logical mind says, "If A is right, then B is wrong," but a reasonable mind always says, "A is right, but B is not wrong either."

Thus, a "reasonable reformer" does not "sweep the universe clean," but leaves some dirt. This was why, as a vegetarian, Lin ate meat! But he ended by paraphrasing the founders of two great traditions: "As Confucius would have said, what boots it a man to have discovered the greatest scientific truth and be inhuman?"

Wound Around Jesus

Even as a "pagan" Lin affirmed God, and spoke respectfully of Jesus. His autobiography shows that he abandoned his childhood faith in part because it neglected the treasures of Chinese tradition. The ancient sage Mo Zi taught universal love and insisted on the supernatural, and therefore, Lin wrote, "comes closest to the Christian teachings." It frightened some missionaries to find that universal love was known to the Chinese centuries before Christ—it was like reaching the South Pole and finding that someone had got there first.

But wisely (Lin thought, seeing Mo as overly strident and simplistic), the Chinese refused to follow Mo and the "doctrine of universal love." In the face of Gu Hongming's commitment to blind political loyalty, Lin offered the cynic Han Feizi, a third-century b.c. philosopher, and his rule of law, as a "cure for modern China." Ultimately, after Maoist destruction, these diverse threads of Chinese tradition again wound together for Lin around the person of Jesus.

One might equally well ask if Lin was an apologist of any sort, or anything but an apologist. He cared passionately about good books, trees, poets, Beijing, and family, and did not try to browbeat anyone into believing. But he won others to his perspective by testimony and through the eyes of sympathetic characters in his novels.

Despite his theological diffidence, Lin's return to Christianity added much to Chinese Christian thought. He exulted in the best in many strands of Chinese tradition, offering, in a genial but usefully critical manner, a free sketch of the history of Chinese thought, ending in Jesus. Having subsumed Western and, more impressionistically, Indian philosophy and literature, as well as modern science, into his purview, he told a story (not just of China) that began to place Kant, Marx, and Einstein alongside Su Dongpo and the Chinese sages.

It is characteristic of Lin's optimism that, although his characters tend to be placed in dire circumstances—the cruel murders of the Tang Empress Wu, the Japanese invasion, Mao's crusades against Chinese civilization—they find joy anyway.

Reminder of Beauty

Lin's own later years were often sad ones, however, for both personal and national reasons. A mentally unstable daughter committed suicide. Another daughter tells of a family visit to the border of Hong Kong in the mid 1970s, and of her father peering wistfully at the green mountains of a southern China still convulsing under the Cultural Revolution—so like the mountains of his home up the coast—and knowing he could never return.

Several editions of Lin's books have been published in recent years on both sides of the Straights. His friend Doris Brougham tells me, "People here (in Taiwan) and in China love him." I think so, too, judging from the impression I get from talking with many who tell me they read him, and even from asking directions to his house.

But it is less as a Christian, inventor, diffident apologist, or émigré dreaming of the home of his youth, that the Chinese love Lin Yutang. They love him as a humanist and humorist, who reminds those living in concrete apartments of the graceful things in their tradition. They love him for his love of beauty wherever it could be found.

A few may also come to recognize his contempt for tyrants, and the story of China he tells, with Christ as a synthesizing principle, as the "Dawn of Light" illuminating all schools, as Clement of Alexandria put it. This gives me hope that what is inhuman in that great land may indeed fail, while what is most human may be brought more fully into its own, in a richer light.  

David Marshall is the author of several books, including most recently, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story (Kuai Mu Press, 2015). He blogs at christthetao.blogspot.com.

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“Lin Yutang & the New China” first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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