Lin Yutang: Enlightenment and Return of Faith and Tradition (Part 2)

Statue of Lin Yutang outdoors in Zhangzhou City, Fujian Province, China.
Lin Yutang was a prolific Chinese writer and philosopher who bridged Eastern and Western thought, leaving an indelible mark on both literary and cultural landscapes. (Image: Maocheng via Dreamstime)

Chinese literature, already captivating in its own right, takes on a new dimension when interpreted by Lin Yutang. His magnum opus, the novel Beijing Memories, narrates an authentic Chinese story in impeccable English.

Notably, his English biographies on Empress Wu Zetian and Su Dongpo are equally celebrated. His books My Country and My People and The Wisdom of Life offer profound insights into Chinese cultural traditions. Their sharp analysis of Chinese societal norms and ethnic characteristics became an instant sensation, climbing to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List upon their U.S. release and setting a precedent for Chinese authors’ success in America.

Addressing cultural misunderstandings

Modern institutions like “Confucius Institutes,” which sometimes misuse works by Chinese intellectuals, can inadvertently misrepresent Chinese culture. Instead, embracing Lin Yutang’s literature would provide learners both linguistic proficiency and a deep appreciation of Chinese traditional culture.

Roof of the Dragon Gate temple in Kunming, China.
Lin Yutang’s writings offer readers a profound understanding of traditional Chinese culture. (Image: Jef Wodniack via Dreamstime)

Additionally, Lin Yutang elucidated on the philosophies of Confucius, Laozi, and Mencius in books like The Wisdom of Confucius. He also adapted Chinese folktales and classic literary pieces into English, evident in New Tales Retold. Lin Yutang’s mastery extended to translation, rendering classical Chinese texts like Six Records of a Floating Life into graceful English prose.

Li Yutang’s achievements beyond literature

Beyond writing, Lin Yutang aspired to invent a Chinese typewriter, a challenging endeavor given the symbolic nature of the Chinese script. Despite skepticism, Lin Yutang’s relentless exploration led to the creation of the “MingKuai Chinese Typewriter,” for which he secured a U.S. patent. He pioneered concepts related to Chinese character strokes and radicals, culminating in the universally adopted “radical lookup method.” At 77, Lin finalized one of his most monumental works, the Contemporary Chinese-English Dictionary.

A lifelong love story

At 25, Lin Yutang married Liao Cuifeng, a woman from a prosperous Christian family who admired Lin’s talents. Before their engagement, Liao’s mother warned her of Lin’s modest background. After their marriage, in a shocking gesture, Lin Yutang burned their marriage certificate, reasoning that such a document is only needed for divorce. They vowed to face life’s ups and downs together, suggesting that reissuing a marriage certificate would be more cumbersome than nurturing their relationship.

Outside, Lin Yutang was a charming scholar, but at home, he was a child at heart. Despite his advanced age, he would hide his pipe and call out to his wife: “Feng, my pipe is missing.” Liao would have to put down whatever she was doing and search for it. After searching for a while, she would turn around only to find Lin Yutang quietly smoking his pipe.

Smoking pipe next to a glass of whiskey on a wooden desk.
He would playfully hide his pipe then prompt his wife to search for it since it was ‘missing.’ (Image: Alexandr Pereverzev via Dreamstime)

On their golden wedding anniversary in 1969, Lin Yutang gifted Liao a gold brooch engraved with “Golden Bond of Fate” and a bracelet inscribed with a poetic tribute to their timeless love. Liao was deeply moved, especially when Lin Yutang, after a lifetime of reflection, embraced Christianity, the same faith she held dear.

A spiritual journey

Highly knowledgeable in Chinese and Western philosophies, Lin Yutang believed that no Chinese would turn to Jesus through sudden enlightenment, but rather through observing the virtuous actions of Christians around them. He emphasized the need for humanity to recognize a power greater than themselves, especially in a world of crumbling ideals and moral ambiguities. To him, only God could salvage mankind. Lin’s spiritual journey, which he described as a “difficult path,” was deeply heartfelt.

A lasting legacy

Lin Yutang passed away on March 26, 1976, in Hong Kong. His hometown of Banzi erected a memorial museum in his honor, capturing the most cherished memories of his life. From the church’s rooftop, one could view the bustling village market that convened every five days. Lin Yutang embarked on his life’s journey from this very place.

He once poignantly said: “Blow out the candle because the sun has risen.” Even after his passing, Lin Yutang’s wisdom and contributions continue to illuminate the world, just like the sun after dawn.

See Part 1 here.

Translated by Joseph Wu

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  • Mikel Davis

    Mikel serves as editor and sometime writer for Nspirement. He loves foreign cultures and foreign places. They have taught him many lessons. He hopes his work can impact others so they have a better life, or at least a better day.