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The Importance of Living (I)

By Lin Yutang Is not truth that makes man great, but man that makes truth great. — CONFUCIUS Only those who take leisurely what the people of the world are busy about can be busy about what the people of the world take leisurely. — CHANG CH’AO Preface  THIS is a personal testimony, a testimony of my own experience o 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 thing. I should have liked to call it “A Lyrical Philosophy,” using the word “lyrical” in the sense of being a highly personal and individual outlook. But that would be too beautiful a name and

By Lin Yutang

Is not truth that makes man great, but man
that makes truth great.


Only those who take leisurely what the people of
the world are busy about can be busy about what
the people of the world take leisurely.



THIS is a personal testimony, a testimony of my own experience o 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 thing. I should have liked to call it “A Lyrical Philosophy,” using the word “lyrical” in the sense of being 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 maintain 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.

I should have liked also to write the entire book in the form of a dialogue like Plato’s. It is such a convenient form for personal, inadvertent disclosures, for bringing in the significant trivialities of our daily life, above all for idle rambling about the pastures of sweet, silent thought. But somehow I have not done so. I do not know why. A fear, perhaps, that this form of literature being so little in vogue today, no one probably would read it, and a writer after all wants to be read* And when I say dialogue, I do not mean answers and questions like newspaper interviews, or those leaders chopped up into short paragraphs; I mean really good, long, leisurely discourses extending several pages at a stretch, with many detours, and coming back to the original point of discussion by a short cut at the most unexpected spot, like a man returning home by climbing over & hedge, to the surprise of his walking companion. Oh, how I love to reach home by climbing over the back fence, and to travel on bypaths! At least my companion will grant that I am familiar with the way home and with the surrounding countryside . , . But I dare not.

I am not original. The ideas expressed here have been thought and expressed by many thinkers of the East and West over and over again; those I borrow from the East are hackneyed truths there. They are, nevertheless, my ideas; they have become a part of my being. If they have taken root in my being, it is because they express something original in me, and when I first encountered them, my heart gave an instinctive assent. I like them as ideas and not because the person who expressed them is of any account. In fact, I have traveled the bypaths in my reading as well as in my writing. Many of the authors quoted are names obscure and may baffle a Chinese professor of literature. If some happen to be wellknown, I accept their ideas only as they compel my intuitive approval and not because the authors are well-known. It is my habit to buy cheap editions of old, obscure books and see what I can discover there. If the professors of literature knew the sources of my ideas, they would be astounded at the Philistine. But there is a greater pleasure in picking up a small pearl in an ash-can than In looking at a large one in a jeweler’s window.

I am not deep and not well-read. If one is too well-read, then one does not know right is right and wrong is wrong. I have not read Locke or Hume or Berkeley, and have not taken a college course in philosophy. Technically speaking, my method and my training are all wrong, because I do not read philosophy, but only read life at first hand. That is an unconventional way of studying philosophy the incorrect way. Some of my sources arc: Mrs. Huang, an amah in my family who has all the ideas that go into the breeding of $ good woman in China; a school boat-woman with her profuse use of expletives; a Shanghai street car conductor; my cook’s wife; a lion cub in the zoo; a squirrel in Central Park in New York; a deck steward who made one good remark; that writer of a column on astronomy (dead for some ten years now) ; all news in boxes; and any writer who does not kill our sense of curiosity in life or who has not killed it in himself . . . how can I enumerate them all?

Thus deprived of academic training in philosophy, I am less scared to write a book about it. Everything seems clearer and simpler for it, if that is any compensation in the eyes of orthodox philosophy. I doubt it. I know there will be complaints that my words are not long enough, that I make things too easy to understand, and finally that I lack cautiousness, that I do not whisper low and trip with mincing steps in the sacred mansions of philosophy, looking properly scared as I ought to do. Courage seems to be the rarest of all virtues in a modern philosopher. But I have always wandered outside the precincts of philosophy and that gives me courage. There is a method of appealing to one’s own intuitive judgment, of thinking out one’s own ideas and forming one’s own independent judgments, and confessing them in public with a childish impudence, and sure enough, some kindred souls in another corner of the world will agree with you. A person forming his ideas in this manner will often be astounded to discover how another writer said exactly the same things and felt exactly the same way, but perhaps expressed the ideas more easily and more gracefully. It is then that he discovers the ancient author and the ancient author bears him witness, and they become forever friends in spirit.

There is therefore the matter of my obligations to these authors, especially my Chinese friends in spirit. I have for my collaborators in writing this book a company of genial souls, who I hope like me as much as I like them. For in a very real sense, these spirits have been with me, in the only form of spiritual communion that I recognize as real-when two men separated by the ages think the same thoughts and sense the same feelings and each perfectly understands the other* In the preparation of this book, a few of my friends have been especially helpful with their contributions and advice: Po Chiiyi o the eighth century, Su Tungp’o of the eleventh, and that great company of original spirits of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries-the romantic and voluble Tu Ch’ihshui, the play ful, original Yuan Chunglang, the deep, magnificent Li Chowu, the sensitive and sophisticated Chang Ch’ao, the epicure Li Liweng, the happy and gay old hedonist Yuan Tsets’ai, and the bubbling, joking, effervescent Chin Shengt’an unconventional souls all, men with too much independent judgment and too much feeling for things to be liked by the orthodox critics, men too good to be “moral15 and too moral to be “good” for the Confucianism. The smallness of the select company has made the enjoyment of their presence all the more valued and sincere. Some of these may happen not to be quoted, but they are here with me in thus book all the same. Their coming back to their own in China is only a matter of time. . . . There have been others, names less well-known, but no less welcome for their apt remarks, because they express my sentiments so well. I call them my Chinese American-people who don’t talk much, but always talk sensibly, and I respect their good sense. There are others again who belong to the illustrious company of “Anons” of all countries and ages, who in an inspired moment stud something wiser then they knew, like the unknown fathers of great men.

Finally there are greater ones still, whom I look up to more as masters than as companions of the spirit, whose serenity of understanding is so human and yet so divine, and whose wisdom seems to have come entirely without effort because it has become completely natural. Such a one is Chuangtsc, and such a one is T’ao Yüanming, whose simplicity of spirit is the despair of smaller men. I have sometimes let these souls speak directly to the reader, making proper acknowledgment, and at other times, I have spoken for them while I seem to be speaking for myself. The older my friendship with them, the more likely is my indebtedness to their ideas to be of the familiar, elusive and invisible type, like parental influence in a good family breeding. It is impossible to put one’s a finger on a definite point of resemblance, I have also chosen to speak as a modern, sharing the modern life, and not only as a Chinese; to give only what I have personally absorbed into my modern being, and not merely to act as a respectful translator of the ancients. Such a procedure has its drawbacks, but on the whole, one can do a more sincere job of it. The selections are therefore as highly personal as the rejections. No complete presentation of any one poet or philosopher is attempted here, and it is impossible to judge of them through the evidences on these pages. I must therefore conclude by saying as usual that the merits of this book, if any, are largely due to the helpful suggestions of my collaborators, while for the inaccuracies, deficiencies and immaturities of judgment, I alone am responsible.

Again I owe my thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Richard J. Walsh, first, for suggesting the idea of the book, and secondly, for their useful and frank criticism. I must also thank Mr. Hugh Wade for cooperating on preparing the manuscript for the press and on the proofs, and Miss Lillian Peflfer for making the Index.


New York City

July 30, 1937

To be continued…

*Lin Yutang ( October 10, 1895 – March 26, 1976) was a Chinese inventor, linguist, novelist, philosopher, and translator. He had an informal style in both Chinese and English, and he made compilations and translations of classic Chinese texts into English. Some of his writings criticized the racism and imperialism of the West. (Wikipedia)

This is the preface to the book The Importance of Living, which was published by Reynal & Hitchcock in New York, in the 1930s of the 20th century. We will publish in installments this interesting book.


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