From Between Tears and Laughter

Nothing impresses me more in American civilization than the fact that soap here is good and cheap and available to all.

What do civilized men do, and what should civilized nations do? . . . The spirit of courtesy and accommodation is the very antithesis of the spirit of strife and contention.

Common sense is so uncommon.

Disagreement is not only profitable, but necessary to thinking.

General education in good manners and music . . . is the basic teaching of Confucianism. It is the central, basic, and fundamental teaching of Confucian philosophy, which merges political and moral problems into one.

The human mind is a curious thing.

I have a hunch that if we leave the planning of world peace to women, we shall have it.

The air must be chock full of . . . smell particles.

“Now” has mathematically no meaning and no boundary.

Evil breeds sorrow and good breeds happiness . . . We have to be satisfied with some such statement of the moral laws of the universe.

It almost seems that the enjoyment of music provides the aim and end and raison d’etre of culture itself.

[By] the lambs of Europe . . . I mean the Norwegians, the Swedes, the Danes, the Swiss . . . pioneers in social legislation and standards of enlightenment.

The efforts of the common people . . . I respect.

I am not anti-English; I am anti-idiots.

How did the white man go about conquering the world . . . ? The white man had guns.

Rituals and music [could] help to achieve [a] social harmony by establishing the right likes and dislikes.

It is too late now to strangle Russia and China.

To bring the people’s inner feeling and external conduct into balance is the work of rituals and music.

Economic thinking has superseded all other forms of thinking.

The age we are living in . . . there is little evidence of regeneration and a great deal of decay.

Social “facts” . . . are a blending of judgments, prejudices, and piecemeal information.

Not the objective facts of physical science . . . it is exactly on this type of facts that diplomatic thinking is based.

Peace has already been achieved between Canada and the United States.

We are talking more and more about the right to a job, right to an income . . . and are talking less and less about the right to be free . . . and the right of the individual.

We are told to give up more and more freedom.

The machine has been substituted for the man.

The winter begins strictly on summer solstice.

I say, “this” emanates from “that,” and “that” also derives from “this.”

The voice of the heart is proof itself of “human dignity”.

I would not have life at any price.

There is a common love for flavors in our mouths, a common sense for sounds in our ears, and a common sense for beauty in our eyes . . . What is that thing that we have in common in our hearts?

Reason and the sense of right please our minds as beef and pork and mutton please our palates.

Who has not a sense of shame is not a man . . . who is without a sense of right and wrong is not a man.

Yutang, Lin. Between Tears and Laughter. New York: The John Day Company, 1943.

On the Wisdom of America

After ten years in the United States, Lin Yutang published On The Wisdom Of America (New York: The John Day Company) in 1950. In it, he cites many well-known Americans and elaborates on their output, reflecting Chinese values. The result can be rewarding. Among his many themes are “Psychoanalysis, Woman, When the Practical Man Becomes a Lover, Thoreau and Confucius, The Joys of Common Life, The Heroism of Common Toil, The Art of Doing Nothing, Society and Nature, Benjamin Franklin, Humor, Woodrow Wilson, and Einstein’s credo.”

The important thing is . . . to enjoy the voyage on which we are likely to be a long time.

To know one has good ancestors; it’s a kind of subconscious feeling that makes for strength and pride.

Simplicity and sweet serenity have not been literary fashions during the last decades.

Is it too much to say that . . . fraud is not Freud?

Myself and my ancestors . . . we are at least full of zest.

Curiosity is a valuable trait.

A young farmer was urged to set out some apple-trees. No, said he, they are too long growing, and I don’t want to plant for other people. The young farmer’s father was spoken to about it, but he, with better reason, alleged that apple-trees were slow and life was fleeting. At last some one mentioned it to the old grandfather of the young farmer. He had nothing else to do, so he stuck in some trees. He lived long enough to drink barrels of cider made from the apples that grew on those trees. . . .

I doubt that the pleasure of a woman who sees her carrots grow is excelled by that of an artist in seeing his completed painting.

The question indeed comes down to this: Is it possible to be at once sweet and sophisticated? . . . can one be at once honest and kindly, intelligent and courteous, informed and gay?

“I’ve done nothing to-day.” What! Have you not lived? That is . . . the most illustrious of your occupations.

Dr Lin about Americans of too desperate eagerness and anxiety or of too intense responsiveness and good-will: “What intelligence it shows! How different from the stolid cheeks, the codfish eyes, the slow, inanimate demeanor we have been seeing in the British Isles!” . . . The American over-tension and jerkiness and breathlessness and intensity and agony of expression are primarily social . . . phenomena.

The beauty of a conversation is that the other side always has a chance.

It seems simpler, and safer, to eat one guinea-fowl now on earth than wait for two in heaven tomorrow.

The great thing about laughter is laughter.

utang, Lin. On The Wisdom of America. New York: The John Day Company, 1950.

Lin Yutang: The Gay Genius

The gay (happy) genius is the remarkable poet, artist, scholar, and statesman Su Tungpo (Su Shi, Su Dongpo etc.) (1037-1101) of the Song Dynasty. His famous dish Dongpo’s Pork in Chinese cuisine, was created by accident. He first braised pork, added Chinese fermented wine and made red-braised pork, then slowly stewed it on a low heat. The dish flourished and became famous.

Around 2,700 of Su Song’s poems have survived, along with 800 written letters. In a day-trip essay he writes, “Is it acceptable for someone who has not personally seen or heard something to have decided views on whether it exists or not?”

Below are gleanings from Lin Yutang’s biography of him.

One day the friends of Wang Anshi(h) reported to his wife that he loved shredded venison.

“I don’t believe it,” said his wife, greatly surprised. “He never pays any attention to his food. How could he suddenly love shredded venison? What makes you think so?”

“We know because at the dinner he did not take food from the other dishes, but finished all the shredded venison.”

“But where did you put that dish?”

“Right in front of him,” was the reply.

The wife understood, and said to his friends: “I tell you what. You have some other kind of food put in front of him tomorrow and see what happens.”

The next day the friends put the shredded venison away from him and watched him eat. Wang Anshih began to take food from the dish next to him and did not know that the deer meat was upon the table.

Su Tungpo (1037-1101) was one way visiting a temple with the pleasure-loving monk Foyin. There they saw the image of the Goddess of Mercy [Quan Yin], holding a rosary in her hand.

“Since the Goddess of Mercy is a Buddha herself, what is she doing there telling the beads?” asked Su Tungpo.

“Oh,” replied Foyin, “she is only praying to Buddha like all the others.”

“But which Buddha?” asked Su Tungpo again.

“Why, the Goddess of Mercy herself.”

“Why does she pray to herself?”

“Well, said Foyin, “you know it’s always troublesome to beg from others – it is always easier to depend on oneself.”

Chiang Taikung (1100s BCE) reputedly fished with a hook and line three feet above the water. If a fish jumped three feet out of the water to be caught by his hook, it was the fish’s own fault, people said.

At the time of Su Tungpo’s birth, the grandfather was still living and was sixty-three years old. They owned large tracts of land. But instead of storing up rice in the way everybody did usually, he exchanged it for unhusked rice and stored it up to the amount of thirty or forty thousand bushes in his granary. Then a famine came, and the grandfather opened the granary to his family and kin first, and then to the tenant farmers and the poor of the village.

Now people understood. The unhusked rice would keep for years, whereas husked rice would spoil in wet weather.

Su Tungpo did not inherit from his grandfather his capacity for wine, but he did inherit his love for it.

On Su Tungpo: Without guile and without purpose, he went along singing, composing, and criticising, purely to express something he felt in his heart . . . always genuine, hearty, and true to himself . . . we hear a chord . . . generous.

The people of Szechuen were, even in those days, a hardy, argumentative, self-reliant, and largely self-reliant race.

From a letter by Su Tunpgo to the emperor: A tree dries up when its roots are cut; the lamp goes out when the oil is gone; fish die when they leave the water; farmers starve when deprived of their rice fields.

“If Your Majesty wants everybody to think the same thought and express the same opinion and the whole court to sing the same tune, everybody can do it. But should there be in the government unprincipled men serving along with the rest, how will Your Majesty expect ever to find it out?” –

“Some people you can trust, and some you cannot.” – Su Tungpo’s brother.

Among his close associates, Tungpo bubbled, joked, and made atrocious puns.

In 1081, when his money was running out, Su Tungpo became a farmer. He got a grant of about eight or ten acres of land, and made up his mind to make himself a comfortable home – damming water, building a fish pond, getting saplings from neighbors, flowers from friends’ gardens, and vegetable seeds from his home province.

They dug wells, and he watched with pride and satisfaction how his rice-stalks stood proudly erect and swaying in the wind, and how the bedewed stalks glistened at night like strings of pearls in the moonlight. He planted wheat and had a good home, and took a remarkable girl for his concubine and his wife’s assistant. His concubine gave birth to a boy.

He was a good cook and loved to do his own cooking. He also invented a vegetable soup which he named after himself.

Su was now independent and contented.

Later when he was exiled outside Chine where no medicine or doctor was available, he told his friends, “When I think how many people at the capital are annually killed by doctors I must congratulate myself.”

Tungpo studied Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, and this coloured his thinking and writing afterwards. He delved into the mysteries of the soul and a properly cultivated mind – and the Chinese art of “conserving life” (yang sheng) through such as an elixir that assured bodily ascent to heaven on the back of a stork.

“I love to plant things, especially oranges, and I can graft my own fruit trees.” – Su Tungpo, written on a boat on the Ching River.

In the late part of his life Su Tungpo lived as a high-ranked official in the capital, promoted by the Empress. He had developed the ideas of independence of mind and impartiality of opinion as the prime requisites of a good minister. But the party men heartily disliked it.

One night at home, after a good supper, Su paced about the room, feeling his belly with great satisfaction. He asked the women in the family what they thought his belly contained. In Chinese, one speaks of a “bellyful” of thoughts, feeling, scholarship, and so on.

His clever concubine said, “Your belly is full of unpopular ideas.”

“That’s right,” the poet exclaimed, and had a good laugh.

Su Tungpo gave birth to a new form of Chinese art, essentially designed to express the joy of the brush.

At the time of Su Tungpo, scholars were poets, calligraphers, and painters at the same time.

A group of scholars gathered together in one another’s homes, had wine dinners, joked, and versified. At such times Su or some of his friends would approach the desk, with ink, brush, and paper spread before him. As one started to paint, to write, or to versify, the others looked on and joined in, adding poems for postscripts. They had the best of wine, and the best of ink, besides the best of brushes and the rarest quality of paper.

In Chinese painting and calligraphy, straight, even lines are abhorred, except in case of necessity. There is emphasis on vital lines also. For the basis of these vital lines, the calligraphist goes back to Nature, where lines suggest movement, and the variety is rich indeed, and rhythms are as a rule functional and serve a definite purpose. The fewer details there are in a composition, the easier it is to convey rhythm in such largely conceptual-impressionistic art. A mood is expressed, and the artist is satisfied.

The best artists learn to observe details to express themselves much better – to see how the wings of birds and feet of gallopping horses really moved, for example. And today the camera disclosed details.

Many centuries earlier, Su relates that among the hundred odd paintings in his collection, Szechuen collector valued most highly the one of a fight between bulls. One day the collector was sunning this painting in a courtyard. A young cowherd happened to pass by, and shake his head and laugh at the painting. When he was asked what he laughed at, the boy answered, “When bulls are locked in combat, their tails are tautly drawn between their hind legs. This painting makes the bulls’ tails stand up straight behind!”

There is an art of rising to power and an art of getting out of it.

Lin Yutang: My Country and My People

The patriotic book was originally written in English, and later translated into Chinese. Dr Lin describes parts of Chinese culture of the 1920s and 1930s in it. A good deal of the partly humorous descriptions are outcomes of a brilliant, perceptive mind.

He was busy popularising classical Chinese literature for a Western public, and wanted to make Chinese ways of living known in the West. His typically charming and witty way of writing in this book has been called a mixture of history, philosophy, psychology, sociology mingled with his own wisdom.

The book has an introduction by Pearl S. Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel Literature Prize. She was the one who persuaded Lin to write the book. It was first published in 1935.class=”n”> China gave the world some of its most important inventions. And she has a wisdom of life entirely her own.

China has a strange vitality, and has received her share of nature’s bounty. She has lived through calamities with a grim and somewhat course grin.

Merry Old China quietly sips her tea and smiles on. A great old soul!

Trying to understand a foreign nation with a foreign culture, especially one so different from one’s own as China’s . . . there is need for broad, brotherly feeling, for the feeling of the common bond of humanity and the cheer of good fellowship.

What is needed is a certain detachment from deeply imbedded notions from one’s childhood. (1936:7 mod)

The modern Chinese has a conflict of loyalties – to old China and to a mere shallow, open-eyed wisdom. Sometimes it is a conflict between clan-pride and shame.

To combine real appreciation with critical appraisal, to see with the mind and feel with the heart is not at all easy.

Even the connoisseur’s eyes are sometimes deceived and his fingers sometimes falter.

A Chinese in his gowns and slippers hates the word “exercise.” Excercise for what? Grown-up men dashing about in a field for a ball now seems supremely ridiculous. Why all the bother? He is for quiet and peace. That is how it is with the modern Chinese.

Lives untouched be the modern influence, but lives no less grand and noble and humble and sincere.

Apart from the cultural unity which binds the Chinese people as a nation, the southern Chinese differ probably as much from the northerners, in temperament, physique and habits, as the Mediterraneans differ from the Nordic peoples.

Chinese leaders . . . simply work like civilized human beings, where life is regarded as not worth the bother of too much human effort.

When one cannot be powerful, one must choose to be dainty, and when one cannot be aggressive, one has to make a virtue of reasonableness.

Chinese women: The pores of the skin are finer than those of the Europeans, with the result that Chinese ladies, on the whole, have more delicate complexions than have European ladies.

The Chinese word for “character” brings to us the vision of a mature man of mellow temperament, retaining an equanimity of mind –

Strength of character is really strength of mind, according to the Confucianists.

“Predestined enemies will always meet in a narrow alleyway.”

From a list of Chinese traits: Pacifism, humour, and sensuality.

Self-assertion and struggle and war and hot-headed nationalism – where will it all end, and what is it all for?

Old roguery is the highest product of Chinese intelligence. (Yutang means something like “outsmarting ways” by “roguery” here)

I believe that the Chinese are essentially humanists.

The Chinese do not live in order to die. They want to order this life so that they may work peaceably, endure nobly, and live happily.

Tolerance has been, I think, the greatest quality of Chinese culture.

Human happiness is a frail thing.

A Chinese man wants the things that make for happiness, (1936:such as] a pair of clean shirts. But if he can have only one shirt, he will not mind, either. He wants some tall old trees in his neibhbourhood, but if he cannot have them, a date-tree in his yard . . . He wants many children, and a wife who personally prepares his favourite dishes . . . and a pretty maidservant in red pyjamas . . . he would have, in any case, . . . the moon, for he can always have the moon.

The Chinese people should have humour, for the Chinese are unusually realistic people.

Asiatic humour is the product of contentment and leisure.

Humour is inevitable in China.

Chinese humour, however, is more in deeds that in words.

Humour there is, too, in Tu Fu’s and Li Po’s poetry.

The Chinese always love a good joke.

A solemn funeral is inconceivable to the Chinese mind.

We always enjoy it, but humour is ruining China. One can have too much of that.

The Chinese had no nonsense about equality, and respect for the mental labourers or the educated class has been an outstanding characteristic of the Chinese civilization.

The Chinese respect that type of education which increases the scholar’s practical wisdom, his knowledge of world affairs, and his judgment in times of crisis. It is a respect which, in theory at least, must be earned by actual worth.

Native intelligence is not confined to the educated class.

Chinese labourers are easily trained.

The Chinese way of thinking revels in proverbs.

Chinese logic is highly personal, like women’s logic.

I always depend on the judgement of a woman rather than that of a man.

Chinese philosophy . . . man should try to be reasonable, and not a merely reasoning, being.

In divining nature’s mysteries and the secrets of the human body, the Chinese have to resort largely to intuition. Strangely enough, they have intuitively felt the heart to be on the right and the liver to be on the left side of the human chest.

The Chinese scholar goes about explaining the mysteries of the human body and the universe to his own satisfaction.

No doubts that Chinese medicine works.

(1936:Some] stories are about the female ghosts and spirits of wronged and disgraced women who possess the body of some maid-servant and thus communicate their complaints to the living.

Chinese ghosts are wonderfully human, and the female ghosts are wonderfully lovely too.

For the Chinese the end of life lies in the enjoyment of a simple life, especially the family life, and in harmonious social relationships. It is so brilliantly simple.

The meaning of life lies in the sane and healthy enjoyment of it . . . Humanism has developed which frankly proclaims a man-centred universe

The end of all knowledge is to serve human happiness.


Lin Yutang: Is This Not Happiness!

The garden grows more familiar and interesting with the daily walks.


Once Confucius was walking on the mountains and he came across a woman weeping by a grave. He asked the woman what her sorrow was, and she replied, “We are a family of hunters. My father was eaten by a tiger. My husband was bitten by a tiger and died. And now my only son!”

“Why don’t you move down and live in the valley? Why do you continue to live up here?” asked Confucius.

And the woman replied, “But sir, there are no tax collectors here!”

Confucius added to his disciples, “You see, a bad government is more to be feared than tigers.”

Lionel Giles (1910) informs in a note to a passage in the chapter “Government and Public Affairs” in the Analect, that the Duke of Shê asked about the conditions of good government. Confucius said: “Government is good when it makes happy those who live under it and attracts those who live far away.”

Giles supplies this note: “Shê was a district of the Ch’u State, which Confucius visited in 488 B.C. The following anecdote, told by T’an Kung, is a striking illustration of the above saying. Travelling with his disciples, the Master came across a woman weeping and wailing beside a grave, and inquired the cause of her grief. “Alas!” she replied. “My father-in-law was killed here by a tiger; after that, my husband; and now my son has perished by the same death.” — “But why, then, do you not go elsewhere?” — “The government here is not harsh,” answered the woman. — “There!” cried the Master, turning to his disciples, “remember that. Bad government is worse than a tiger.”

Where there are too many policemen, there is no liberty. Where there are too many soldiers, there is no peace. Where there are too many lawyers, there is no justice. [In The World’s Funniest Laws by James Alexander

Women’s dresses are merely variations on the eternal struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress. (In the Ladies Home Journal, 1945)

When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set. (In Hard-to-Solve Cryptograms (2001) by Derrick Niederman, p 96)

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. (In Pearls of Wisdom: A Harvest of Quotations From All Ages (1987) by Jerome Agel and Walter D. Glanze, p 46)

Yutang, Lin. The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo. New York: John Day, 1947. (Later: Read Books, 2008).


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