By Lin Yutang
1. Approach To Life
IN what follows I am presenting the Chinese point of view, because I cannot help myself. I am interested only in presenting a view of life and of things as the best and wisest Chinese minds have seen it and expressed it in their folk wisdom and their literature. It is an idle philosophy born of an idle life, evolved in a different age, I am quite aware. But I cannot help feeling that this view of life is essentially true, and since we are alike under the skin, what touches the human heart in one country touches all. I shall have to present a view of life as Chinese poets and scholars evaluated it with their common sense, their realism and their sense of poetry. I shall attempt to reveal some of the beauty of the pagan world, a sense of the pathos and beauty and terror and comedy of life, viewed by a people who have a strong feeling of the limitations of our existence, and yet somehow retain a sense of the dignity of human life.
The Chinese philosopher is one who dreams with one eye open, who views life with love and sweet irony, who mixes his cynicism with a kindly tolerance, and who alternately wakes up from life’s dream and then nods again, feeling more alive when he is dreaming than when he is awake, thereby investing his waking life with a dream-world quality. He sees with one eye closed and with one eye opened the futility of much that goes on around him and of his own endeavors, but barely retains enough sense of reality to determine to go through with it. He is seldom disillusioned because he has no illusions, and seldom disappointed because he never h:id extravagant hopes. In this way his spirit is emancipated.
For, after surveying the field of Chinese literature and philosophy, I come to the conclusion that the· highest ideal of Chinese culture has always been a man with a sense of detachment (takuan) torward life based on a sense of wise disenchantment. From this detachment comes high-mindedness (K´uanglzuai), a high-mindedness which enables one to go through life with tolerant irony and escape the temptations of fame and wealth and achievement, and eventually makes him take what comes. And from this detachment arise also his sense of freedom, his love of vagabondage and his pride and nonchalance. It is only with this sense of freedom and nonchalance that one eventually arrives at the keen and intense joy of living.
It is useless for me to say whether my philosophy is valid or not for the Westerner. To understand Western life, one would have to look at it as a Westerner born, with his own temperament, his bodily attitudes and his own set of nerves. I have no doubt that American nerves can stand a good many things that Chinese nerves cannot stand, and vice versa. It is good that it should be so that we should all be born different. And yet it is all a question of relativity. I am quite sure that amidst the hustle and bustle of American life, there is a great deal of wistfulness, of the divine desire to lie on a plot of grass under tall beautiful trees of an idle afternoon and just do nothing. The necessity for such common cries as “Wake up and live” is to me a good sign that a wise portion of American humanity prefer to dream the hours away.
The American is after all not as bad as all that. It is only a question whether he will have more or less of that sort of thing, and how he will arrange to make it possible. Perhaps the American is merely ashamed of the word “loafing” in a world where everybody is doing something, but somehow, as sure as I know he is also an animal, he likes sometimes to have his muscles relaxed, to stretch on the sand, or to lie still with one leg comfortably curled up and one arm placed below his head as his pillow. If so, he cannot he very different from Yen Huei, who had exactly that virtue and whom Confucius desperately admired among all his disciples. The only thing I desire to see is that he be honest about it, and that he proclaim to the world that he likes it when he likes it, that it is not when he is working in the office but when he is lying idly on the sand that his soul utters, “Life is beautiful”
We are, therefore, about to see a philosophy and art of living as the mind of the Chinese people as a whole has understood it. I am inclined to think that, in a good or bad sense, there is nothing like it in the world. For here we come to an entirely new way of looking at life by an entirely different type of mind. It is a truism to say that the culture of any nation is the product of its mind. Consequently, where there is a national mind so racially different and historically isolated from the Western cultural world, we have the right to expect new answers to the problems of life, or what is better, new methods of approach, or, still better, a new posing of the problems themselves. We know some of the virtues and deficiencies of that mind, at least as revealed to us in the historical past. It has a glorious art and a contemptible science, a magnificent common sense and an infantile logic, a fine womanish chatter about life and no scholastic philosophy. It is generally known that the Chinese mind is an intensely practical, hard-headed one, and it is also known to some lovers of Chinese art that it is a profoundly sensitive mind; by a still smaller proportion of people, it is accepted as also a profoundly poetic and philosophical mind.
At least the Chinese are noted for taking things philosophically, which is saying more than the statement that the Chinese have a great philosophy or have a few great philosophers. For a nation to have a few philosophers is not so unusual, but for a nation to take things philosophically is terrific. It is evident anyway that the Chinese as a nation are more philosophic than efficient, and that if it were otherwise, no nation could have survived the high blood pressure of an efficient life for four thousand years. Four thousand years of efficient living would ruin any nation. An important consequence is that, while in the West, the insane are so many that they are put in an asylum, in China the insane are so unusual that we worship them, as anybody who has a knowledge of Chinese literature will testify. And that, after all, is what I am driving at. Yes, the Chinese have a light, an almost gay, philosophy, and the best proof of their philosophic temper Is to be found in this wise and merry philosophy of living.
II.A Pseudo-Scientific Formula
Let us begin with an examination of the Chinese mental make-up which produced this philosophy of living: great realism, inadequate idealism, a high sense of humor, and a high poetic sensitivity to life and nature.
Mankind seems to be divided into idealists and realists, and idealism and realism are the two great forces molding human progress. The clay of humanity is made soft and pliable by the water of idealism, but the stuff that holds it together is after all the clay itself, or we might all evaporate into Ariels. The forces of idealism and realism tug at each other in all human activities, personal, social and national, and real progress is made possible by the proper mixture of these two ingredients, so that the clay is kept in the ideal pliable, plastic condition, half moist and half dry, not hardened and unmanageable, nor dissolving into mud. The soundest nations, like the English, have realism and idealism mixed in proper proportions, like the clay which neither hardens and so gets past the stage for the artist’s molding, nor is so wishy-washy that it cannot retain its form. Some countries are thrown into perpetual revolutions because into their clay has been injected some liquid of foreign ideals which is not yet properly assimilated, and the clay is therefore not able to keep its shape.
A vague, uncritical idealism always lends itself to ridicule and too much of it might be a danger to mankind, leading it round in a futile wild-goose chase for imaginary ideals. If there were too many of these visionary idealists in any society or people, revolutions would be the order of the day. Human society would be like an idealistic couple forever getting tired of one place and changing their residence regularly once every three months, for the simple reason that no one place is ideal and the place where one is not seems always better because one is not there. Very fortunately, man is also gifted with a sense of humor, whose function, as I conceive it, is to exercise criticism of man’s dreams, and bring them in touch with the world of reality. It is important that man dreams, but it is perhaps equally important that he can laugh at his own dreams. That is a great gift, and the Chinese have plenty of it.
The sense of humor, which I shall discuss at more length in a later chapter, seems to be very closely related to the sense of reality, or realism. If the joker is often cruel in disillusioning the idealist, he nevertheless performs a very important function right there by not letting the idealist bump his head against the stone wall of reality and receive a ruder shock. He also gently eases the tension of the hot-headed enthusiast and makes him live longer. By preparing him for disillusion, there is probably less pain in the final impact, for a humorist is always like a man charged with the duty of breaking a sad news gently to a dying patient. Sometimes the gentle warning from a humorist saves the dying patient’s life. If idealism and disillusion must necessarily go together in this world, we must say that life is cruel, rather than the joker who reminds us of life’s cruelty.
I have often thought of formulas by which the mechanism of human progress and historical change can be expressed. They seem to be as follows:
Reality Dreams = Animal Being
Reality + Dreams = A Heart-Ache (usually called Idealism)
Reality + Humor = Realism (also called Conservatism)
Dreams – Humor = Fanaticism
Dreams + Humor = Fantasy
Reality + Dreams + Humor = Wisdom
So then, wisdom, or the highest type of thinking, consists in toning down our dreams or idealism with a good sense of humor, supported by reality itself.
As pure ventures in pseudo-scientific formulations, we may proceed to analyze national characters in the following manner. I say “pseudo-scientific” because I distrust all dead and mechanical formulas for expressing anything connected with human affairs or human personalities. Putting human affairs in exact formulas shows in itself a lack of the sense of humor and therefore a lack of wisdom. I do not mean that these things are not being done: they are.
That is why we get so much pseudo-science today. When a psychologist can measure a man’s I.Q. or P.Q.,1 it is a pretty poor world, and specialists have risen to usurp humanized scholarship. But if we recognize that these formulas are no more than handy, graphic ways of expressing certain opinions, and so long as we don’t drag in the sacred name of science to help advertise our goods, no harm is done. The following are my formulas for the characters of certain nations, entirely personal and completely incapable of pi oof or verification. Anyone is free to dispute them and change them or add his own, if he does not claim that he can prove his private opinions by a mass of statistical facts and figures. Let “R” stand for a sense of reality (or realism), “D” for dreams (or idealism), “H” for a sense of humor, and adding one important ingredient “S” for sensitivity.2 And further let “4” stand for “abnormally high,” “3” stand for “high,” “2” for “fair,” and “I” for “low,” and we have the following pseudo-chemical formulas for the following national characters. Human beings and communities behave then differently according to their different compositions, as sulphates and sulphides or carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide behave differently from one another. For me, the interesting thing always is to watch how human communities or nations behave differently under identical conditions. As we cannot invent words like “humoride” and “humorate” after the fashion of chemistry, we may put it thus: “3 grains of Realism, 2 grains of Dreams, 2 grains of Humor and 1 grain of Sensitivity make an Englishman.” 8
R3D2H2S1= The English
R2D3H3S3 = The French
R3D3H2S2 = The Americans
R3D4H1S2= The Germans
1I am not objecting to the limited utility of intelligence tests, but to their claims to mathematical accuracy or constant dependability as measures of human personality.
2 In the sense of the French word sensibilité.
8 Some might with good reason suggest the including of an “L” standing for iogic or the rational faculty, as an important element Sa shaping human progress. This “L” will then, often function or weigh against sensitivity, a direct perception of things. Such a formula might be attempted. For me personally, the role of the rational faculty in human affairs is rather low.
R2D4H1S1 = The Russians
R2D3H1S1 = The Japanese
R4D1H3S3 = The Chinese
I do not know the Italians, the Spanish, the Hindus and others well enough even to essay a formula on the subject, realizing that the above are shaky enough as they are, and in any case are enough to bring down a storm o criticism upon my head. Probably these formulas are more provocative than authoritative. I promise to modify them gradually for my own use as new facts are brought to my knowledge, or new impressions are formed. That is all they are worth today a record of the progress of my knowledge and the gaps o my ignorance.
Some observations may be necessary. It is easy to see that I regard the Chinese as most closely allied to the French in their sense of humor and sensitivity, as is quite evident from the way the French write their books and eat their food, while the more volatile character of the French comes from their greater idealism, which takes the form of love of abstract ideas (recall the manifestoes of their literary, artistic and political movements). “R4” for Chinese realism makes the Chinese the most realistic people; ‘TV accounts for something of a drag in the changes in their pattern or ideal of life. The high figures for Chinese humor and sensitivity, as well as for their realism., are perhaps due to my too close association and the vividness of my impressions.
For Chinese sensitivity, little justification is needed; the whole story of Chinese prose, poetry and painting proclaims it … The Japanese and Germans are very much alike in their comparative lack of humor (such is the general impression of people), yet it is really impossible to give a “zero” for any one characteristic in any one nation, not even for idealism in the Chinese people. It is all a question of degree; such statements as a complete lack of this or that quality are not based on an intimate knowledge of the peoples. For this reason, I give the Japanese and the Germans “H1,” instead of “H0,” and I intuitively feel that I am right. But I do believe that the Japanese and the Germans suffer politically at present, and have suffered in the past, for lacking a better sense of humor. How a Prussian Geheimrat loves to be called a Geheimrat, and how he loves his buttons and metal pins!
A certain belief in “logical necessity” (often “holy” or “sacred”), a tendency to fly too straight at a goal instead of circling around it, often carries one too far. It is not so much what you believe in that matters, as the way in which you believe it and proceed to translate that belief into action. By “D3” for the Japanese I am referring to their fanatic loyalty to their emperor and to the state, made possible by a low mixture of humor. For idealism must stand for different things in different countries, as the so-called sense of humor really comprises a very wide variety of things. . . . There is an interesting tug between idealism and realism in America, both given high figures, and that produces the energy characteristic of the Americans. What American idealism is? I had better leave it to the Americans to find out; but they are always enthusiastic about something or other. A great deal of this idealism is noble, in the sense that the Americans are easily appealed to by noble ideals or noble words; but some of it is mere gullibility.
The American sense of humor again means a different thing from the Continental sense of humor, but really I think that, such as it is (the love of fun and an innate, broad common sense), it is the greatest asset of the American nation- In the coming years of critical change, they will have great need of that broad common sense referred to by James Bryce, which I hope will tide them over these critical times. I give American sensitivity a low figure because of my impression that they can stand so many things. There is no use quarreling about this, because we will be quarreling about words. . . . The English seem to be on the whole the soundest race: contrast their “R3D2” with the French “R2D3” I am all for “R3D2” It bespeaks stability. The ideal formula for me would seem to be RaDsHnS2, for too much idealism or too much sensitivity is not a good thing, either. And if I give “S1” for English sensitivity, and if that is too low, who is to blame for it except the English themselves? How can I tell whether the English ever feel anything-joy, happiness, anger, satisfaction-when they are determined to look so glum on all occasions?
We might apply the same formula to writers and poets. To take a few well-known types:
Shakespeare4 = R4D4H3S4
Heine = R3D3H4S3
Poe = R3D4H1S4
Li Po = R1D3H2S4
Tu Fu = R3D3H2S4
Su Tungp’o = R3D2H4S3
These are no more than a few impromptu suggestions. But it is clear that all poets have a high sensitivity, or they wouldn’t be poets at all Poe, I feel, is a very sound genius, in spite of his weird, imaginative gift. Doesn’t he love “ratiocination”?
So my formula for the Chinese national mind is:
There we start with an “S3” standing for high sensitivity, which guarantees a proper artistic approach to life and answers for the Chinese affirmation that this earthly life is beautiful and the consequent intense love of this life. But it signifies more than that; actually it stands for the artistic approach even to philosophy. It accounts for the fact that the Chinese philosopher’s view of life is essentially the poet’s view of life, and that, in China, philosophy is married to poetry rather than to science as it is in the West. It will become amply clear from what follows that this high sensitivity to the pleasures and pains and flux and change of the colors of life is the very basis that makes a light philosophy possible. Man’s sense o the tragedy of life comes from his sensitive perception of the tragedy of a departing spring, and a delicate tenderness toward life comes from a tenderness toward the withered blossoms that bloomed yesterday- First the sadness and sense of defeat, then the awakening and the laughter of the old rogue-philosopher.
4 I have hesitated a long time between giving Shakespeare “S4” and “S8“. Finally his “Sonnets” decided it No school teacher has experienced greater fear and trembling in grading a pupil than I in trying to grade Shakespeare.
On the other hand, we have “R4“standing for intense realism, which means an attitude o accepting life as it is and of regarding a bird in the hand as better than two in the bush. This realism, therefore, both reinforces and supplements the artist’s affirmation that this life is transiently beautiful, and it all but saves the artist and poet from escaping from life altogether. The Dreamer says “Life is but a dream,” and the Realist replies, “Quite correct. And let us live this dream as beautifully as we can.” But the realism of one awakened is the poet’s realism and not that of the business man, and the laughter of the old rogue is no longer the laughter of the young go-getter singing his -way to success with his head up and his chin out, but that of an old man running his finger through his flowing beard and speaking in a soothingly low voice. Such a dreamer loves peace, for no one can fight hard for a dream- He will be more intent to live reasonably and well with his fellow dreamers. Thus is the high tension of he lowered.
But the chief function o this sense of realism is the elimination of all non-essentials in the philosophy of life, holding life down by the neck, as it were, for fear that the wings of imagination may carry it away to an imaginary and possibly beautiful, but unreal, world. And after all, the wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials, in reducing the problems of philosophy to just a few the enjoyment of the home (the relationship between man and woman and child), of living, of Nature and of culture and in showing all the other irrelevant scientific disciplines and futile chases after knowledge to the door. The problems of life for the Chinese philosopher then become amazingly few and simple. It means also an impatience with metaphysics and with the pursuit of knowledge that does not lead to any practical bearing on life itself. And it also means that every human activity, whether the acquiring of knowledge or the acquiring of things, has to be submitted immediately to the test of life itself and of its subserviency to the end of living. Again, and here is a significant result, the end of living is not some metaphysical entity-but just living itself.
Gifted with this realism, and with a profound distrust of logic and of the intellect itself, philosophy for the Chinese becomes a matter of direct and intimate feeling of life itself, and refuses to be encased in any system. For there is a robust sense of reality, a sheer animal sense, a spirit of reasonableness which crushes reason itself and makes the rise of any hard and fast philosophic system impossible. There are the three religions of China, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, all magnificent systems in themselves, and yet robust common sense dilutes them all and reduces them all into the common problem of the pursuit of a happy human life. The mature Chinese is always a person who refuses to think too hard or to believe in any single idea or faith or school of philosophy whole-heartedly. When a friend of Confucius told him that he always thought three times before he acted, Confucius wittily replied, “To think twice is quite enough.” A follower of a school of philosophy is but a student of philosophy, but a man is a student, or perhaps a master, of life.
The final product of this culture and philosophy is this: in China, as compared with the West, man lives a life closer to nature and closer to childhood, a life in which the instincts and the emotions are given free play and emphasized against the life of the intellect, with a strange combination of devotion to the flesh and arrogance of the spirit, of profound wisdom and foolish gaiety, of high sophistication and childish naïveté. I would say, therefore, that this philosophy is characterized by: first, a gift for seeing life whole in art; secondly, a conscious return to simplicity in philosophy; and thirdly, an ideal of reasonableness in living. The end product is, strange to say, a worship of the poet, the peasant and the vagabond.
III. The Scamp as Ideal
To me, spiritually a child of the East and the West, man’s dignity consists in the following facts which distinguish man from animals. First, that he has a playful curiosity and a natural genius for exploring knowledge; second, that he has dreams and a lofty idealism (often vague, or confused, or cocky, it is true, but nevertheless worthwhile); third, and still more important, that he is able to correct his dreams by a sense of humor, and thus restrain his idealism by a more robust and healthy realism; and finally, that he does not react to surroundings mechanically and uniformly as animals do, but possesses the ability and the freedom to determine his own reactions and to change surroundings at his will. This last is the same as saying that human personality is the last thing to be reduced to mechanical laws; somehow the human mind is forever elusive, uncatchable and unpredictable, and manages to wriggle out, of mechanistic laws or a materialistic dialectic that crazy psychologists and unmarried economists are trying to impose upon him. Man, therefore, is a curious, dreamy, humorous and wayward, creature.
In short, my faith in human dignity consists in the belief that man is the greatest scamp on earth. Human dignity must be associated with the idea of a scamp and not with that of an obedient, disciplined and regimented soldier. The scamp is probably the most glorious type of human being, as the soldier is the lowest type, according to this conception. It seems in my last book, My Country and My People, the net impression of readers was that I was trying to glorify the “old rogue.’* It is my hope that the net impression of the present one will be that I am doing my best to glorify the scamp or vagabond. I hope I shall succeed. For things are not so simple as they sometimes seem. In this present age of threats to democracy and individual liberty, probably only the scamp and the spirit of the scamp alone will save us from becoming lost as serially numbered units in the masses of disciplined, obedient, regimented and uniformed coolies. The scamp will be the last and most formidable enemy of dictatorships. He will be the champion of human dignity and individual freedom, and will be the last to be conquered. All modern civilization depends entirely upon him.
Probably the Creator knew well that, when He created man upon this earth, He was producing a scamp, a brilliant scamp, it is true, but a scamp nonetheless. The scamp-like qualities of man are, after all, his most hopeful qualities. This scamp that the Creator has produced is undoubtedly a brilliant chap. He is still a very unruly and awkward adolescent, thinking himself greater and wiser than he really is, still full of mischief and naughtiness and love of a free-for-all. Nevertheless, there is so much good in him that the Creator might still be willing to pin on him His hopes, as a father sometimes pins his hopes on a brilliant but somewhat erratic son of twenty. Would He be willing some day to retire and turn over the management of this universe to this erratic son of His? wonder. . . .
Speaking as a Chinese, I do not think that any civilization can be called complete until it has progressed from sophistication to un- ^ sophistication, and made a conscious return to simplicity of thinking and living, and I call no man wise until he has made the progress from the wisdom of knowledge to the wisdom of foolishness, ‘and become a laughing philosopher, feeling first life’s tragedy and then life’s comedy. For we must weep before we can laugh. Out of sadness comes the awakening and out of the awakening comes the laughter of the philosopher, with kindliness and tolerance to boot.
The world, I believe, is far too serious, and being far too serious, it has need of a wise and merry philosophy. The philosophy of the Chinese art of living can certainly be called the “gay science,” if anything can be called by that phrase used by Nietzsche. After all, only a gay philosophy is profound philosophy; the serious philosophies of- the West haven’t even begun to understand what life is. To me personally, the only function of philosophy is to teach us to take life more lightly and gayly than the average business man does, for no business man who does riot retire at fifty, if he can, is in my eyes a philosopher. This is not merely a casual thought, but is a fun- demential point of view with me. The world can be made a more peaceful and more reasonable place to live in only when men have imbued themselves in the light gayety of this spirit. The modem man takes life far too seriously, and because he is too serious, the world is full o troubles. We ought, therefore, to take time to examine the origin of that attitude which will make passible a whole hearted enjoyment of this life and a more reasonable, more peaceful and less hot-headed temperament.
I am perhaps entitled to call this the philosophy of the Chinese people rather than of any one school. It is a philosophy that is greater than Confucius and greater than Laozi for it transcends these and other ancient philosophers; it draws from these fountain springs of thought and harmonizes them into a whole, and from the abstract outlines of their wisdom, it has created an art of living in the flesh, visible, palpable and understandable by the common man. Surveying Chinese literature, art and philosophy as a whole, it has become quite clear to me that the philosophy of a wise disenchantment and a hearty enjoyment of life is their common message and teaching the most constant, most characteristic and most persistent refrain of Chinese thought.
To be continued…