I first discovered the writing of the Chinese writer, Lin Yutang, when I was quite young. I was on my way to England seeking my fortune, when the P&O liner Otranto stopped for a re-fuelling in Fremantle, and I was temporarily free to roam Fremantle’s wide and beautiful streets and sample the goods on display in the shops.
One of the first shops I visited was a bookshop. On a shelf was a book entitled “The Importance of Living” by Lin Yutang. I flicked through the pages. The chapters headings were most entertaining. One was entitled “On having a stomach”, another “On having a mind”. There was a whole section headed “The Importance of Loafing” with the sub-heading, “Man the Only Working Animal”. That did it. I bought a copy and began to read it as the ship headed out for the next stop, Colombo.
When he wrote The Importance of Living in 1937, just before the commencement of the Second World War, Lin Yutang had emigrated to America, and was living in New York. Lin was a rather conservative, old-fashioned writer, a man who admired the philosophy of the Chinese classics and folk literature. He was in despair about aspects of modernity, especially the Americans’ concern with speed and efficiency. Why couldn’t they relax and begin living?
In the book there is a whole section on this theme. It is headed “Three American Vices” and contrasts the ancient Chinese philosophy that “Nothing matters to a man who says nothing matters” with three American ‘vices’: efficiency, punctuality and the desire to achievement and success. They were the things, Lin Yutang believed, that made Americans so unhappy. Yet he says he always relied on American water taps, rather than those made in China, because American-made taps did not leak.
This chapter relates well to the one on the delights of loafing, which had a great appeal for me. I had just finished studying for four years the art of electrical engineering. Now, almost 21, was the time for a break, a time for a touch of loafing and enjoying life. Of course, this had to be blended with the earning a living if I managed to find a job in London, for a few years.
Like the English writer, Aldous Huxley, Lin Yutang believed that machinery would free man from drudgery, and provide him or her with lots of leisure. Huxley felt that everyone would become like the idle rich and follow in their decadent steps, with lots of dancing, jazz, sex and hard liquor. Lin Yutang felt that with mass-production man would now be free to play more and work less. How wrong they both were! Has mechanisation meant less work, a guaranteed income, and lots of leisure? How wonderful if we could have been like the Chinese philosophers and painters, sitting under a tree, watching the clouds float over a snow-capped mountain, listening to the birds sing!
But I was an impressionable young man and I needed a philosophy on life, and this captivating book provided it. It was wonderful reading about the Chinese who did not reply to dinner invitations but just noted the word “received” on the invitation; how the inability to laugh had cost the former Kaiser Wilhelm an empire; that discontent was divine; that the question “who am I” was almost impossible to answer; that achieving happiness was a perennial problem; that earth is the only heaven; that ‘who are the wise, the loafers or the hustlers? was an important question. At the rear of the book is a “Chinese Critical Vocabulary” explaining the meaning of certain Chinese characters eighty-one in all and their extended meaning, dealing with everything from 她 ‘ta’, the quality of understanding and the consequent ability to take things lightly, to 明 ‘ming’, on the brightness of the moon or the resplendent dress of a woman.
Lin Yutang would have been saddened by the world of today. But his book is an antidote. His style of writing is the art of digression, providing the reader with pleasant excursions into the finer details of ancient Chinese culture, a gently wisdom with a slight touch of humour. Such books help lead us back to our childhoods, when fantasy reigned supreme, before it was diminished by those years at school.
This is not a book to read at one sitting from cover to cover. It is a book to dip into, to leisurely explore its contents. It has been recently republished, and a reviewer on Amazon. com puts it nicely:
This book gets the reader back to the very basics of human life: food, friendship, tea, smoking (a bit controversial nowadays), and growing old. It is all about cherishing each passing moment and learning to instil each moment of life with quality and to live it artfully.
I learnt a lot from Lin Yutang.
Chinese philosopher of the Old School.