Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Book Review: My Country and My People

Last summer, a local friend told me I should read a book called My Country and My People by Lin Yutang.

It was finished in 1935, after China became a republic and was about to fight Japan.

Lin was the son of a Presbyterian pastor in a family of six children. The younger Lin studied in Shanghai and Beijing, and then went on to get a partial scholarship to study at Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.

He married and then he and his wife went to France and then Germany where he got a PhD in Philology before returning to China in 1923.

His young family settled in Xiamen where he began writing articles and became known for his wicked humour and satire. When he poked fun at government officials, Lin once said, "Although you are an official, you still look like a man."

Lin's essays caught the attention of American Pearl S. Buck who wrote The Good Earth. She encouraged him to write about his own country.
My Country and My People is the first book by a Chinese written in English to explain to people outside of China what the country and its people are all about.

The chapters are divided into several sections, from Chinese people's character, to women, the social and political life of China, literature, Chinese calligraphy and lifestyle.

Although it's written in old English that could use some updating, his observations and ideas are still relevant today.

For example, when talking about the Chinese people's patience, he says: "The Chinese people have put up with more tyranny, anarchy and misrule than any Western people will ever put up with, and seem to have regarded them as part of laws of nature."

On the influence of Western literature:
Some fifty years ago the Chinese were impressed only by European gun-boats; some thirty years ago they were impressed by the Western political system; about twenty years ago they discovered that the West even had a very good literature, and even a better social consciousness and better social manners.
In the chapter The Art of Living he says:
Man is taught to admire beautiful things, not by books, but by social example, and by living in a society of good taste. The spirit of man in the industrial age is ugly anyway, and the spirit of their social tradition in a mad rush for things Western without the Western tradition, is uglier still to look at... All of the Chinese have gone in for the tennis lawn and geometric flower-beds
and trimmed hedges, and tailored trees trained to look a perfect circle or a perfect cone, and flowers planted to represent letters of the English alphabet. Shanghai is not China, but Shanghai is an ominous indication of what modern China may come to. It leaves a bad flavor in our mouths like those Chinese-made Western cream-cakes made with pigs' lard. And it jars on our senses like those Chinese brass bands playing "Onward, Christian Soldiers!" in a funeral march. Tradition and taste must take time to grow up.
It's so ironic that what he says in the 1930s still perfectly describes the mad rush of people striving for Western lifestyles today.

In one way it makes you wonder how far Chinese society has gone, and in another, if the Chinese Communists hadn't come to power, would Lin's observations seem passee today?

Lin was well-known in his time, and was apparently nominated several times for a Nobel prize in Literature. But his other claim to fame was his invention of the first Chinese typewriter, called the Mingkwai "clear and quick" Typewriter. He built a prototype but was unable to get it mass produced and practically went into debt.

However, he resumed his writing career outside of China in France, New York and Taiwan and in the end died in Hong Kong when he was 80-years-old.

One only wonders what Lin would write about if he saw China today.


Anonymous said...

Lin would probably be purged during the cultural revolution and suffer humility and torture by the red guards. It is the same fate as a lot of intellectuals.

Anonymous said...

no he wasnot influenced by culture revolution because he lived in hokong not mainland