Lin Yutang was born on October 10, 1895, in a mountain village in Fujian province. His father, Lin Zhicheng (1855-1922), a Presbyterian pastor, together with his wife Yang Shunming (1856-1933) had eight children: six boys and two girls of which Lin Yutang was the fifth son. In his autobiography, Memoirs of an Octogenarian, Lin listed the three greatest influences of his young childhood: “1, the mountain landscape, 2, my father the impossible idealist, and 3, the upbringing of a closely-knit Christian home.”
Lin Yutang’s father was a second-generation Christian. His mother, who had been converted by Presbyterians in the late 1860’s, sent one of her sons, Lin Zhicheng, to be educated for the ministry. Though he was a Christian pastor, Lin Zhicheng still imparted some Confucian instruction to his children. Lin Yutang learned about the Western world and science from his father’s friend, the Reverend Abbe Livingstone Warnshuis, an American missionary sent by the Reformed Church to Xiamen in 1900. Lin Zhicheng sent his sons to Talmadge College, founded by the Reformed Church in the nearby coastal treaty port of Xiamen. After studying there for four years, Lin Yutang went to St. John’s University in Shanghai.
St. John’s, an Episcopal school, was famous as the best place to learn English in China in 1911. President Dr. F. L. Hawks Potts created a perfect foundation for a future bilingual writer. Lin became a star at St. John’s. His future wife, Liao Cuifeng, graduated from St. Mary’s, the “sister” Episcopal school just next-door.
Lin enjoyed his university life very much, but it was there that his Christian belief first was buffeted. Though he started as a theological student at St. John’s his first year, he dropped out of the theological school because he found it difficult to accept some doctrines, including the resurrection of the body, the virgin birth and original sin.
After Lin graduated from St. John’s in 1916, he began teaching English at Tsinghua College in Beijing, where he experienced even more severe challenges to his beliefs. Lin had a crisis of identity: “What did being a Christian in China mean?” Lin realized, “To be brought up as a Christian was synonymous with being progressive, Western-minded and in sympathy with the New Learning. It meant, on the whole, acceptance of the West, with particular admiration for the Western microscope and Western surgery.” However, he did not know his own Chinese culture, tradition and philosophy. To Lin, inadequate knowledge of his motherland was not just an intellectual loss; he felt that he had been “cheated of my national heritage.” Consequently, Lin was angry at Christianity, which he thought responsible for creating in him a sense of being denationalized. The link between missionaries and the Opium War, and the churches’ prohibition of ancestor worship also enhanced his resentment.
However, Lin didn’t cut himself off from Christianity immediately. He was still sometimes amiably referred to as a “Puritan” by some of his colleagues. He even voluntarily conducted a Sunday school at Tsinghua, a secular state university, to the dismay of many faculty members. Lin explained: “I felt, like many born Christians, that if a personal god did not exist the bottom would be knocked out of his universe.” After a conversation with a colleague at Tsinghua, Lin concluded that the relationship between man and man could be maintained without reference to a Supreme Being. Thus Lin remarked, “This appeal to the dignity of human life cut off my last tie to Christianity, and from then on I was a pagan.” Lin would wander in this human-centered world for over thirty years until he was no longer content.
After teaching at Tsinghua for three years, Lin won a scholarship for overseas study in 1919. He applied to the School of Comparative Literature at Harvard University and was accepted. Lin and Liao Cuifeng were married in the summer of 1919 in Shanghai. They were blessed with three talented daughters.
In early 1922, Lin obtained his Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Harvard. Then he pursued a doctorate in Chinese linguistics at Leipzig University in Germany because of its reputation as the home of comparative philology. His doctoral dissertation in German was Chinese Ancient Phonetics.
When Lin Yutang returned to China in 1923, he was the first Chinese scholar to have obtained a PhD in linguistics from abroad. Lin settled in as professor in the department of English language at Peking University, and also gave lectures at the Peking Women’s College of Education (now part of Beijing Normal University). He became acquainted with numerous celebrities in academic cultural circles, including writer Lu Xun and renowned educator Hu Shi.
Lin wrote many essays for the Literary Thread Weekly, a magazine that advocated the New Culture Movement. Being an intellectual of conscience and responsibility, Lin was actively engaged with his pen in various social issues. His candid criticism of the warlord government brought him the danger of persecution, and his name, with those of fifty-three other professors, was listed on a “Wanted” circular in 1926. Fortunately, Lin escaped from Beijing and went south to Xiamen University, where he became dean of its Chinese department. After arousing the envy of the head of the science department, Lin left to work as a secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the Wuhan Revolutionary Government of China. Before long, however, Lin, tired of the revolutionists, went to Shanghai in August of 1927 to devote himself exclusively to creative writing.
Shanghai was the center of publishing, attracting numerous writers of various styles. In 1932, Lin founded and edited the Analects Fortnightly, the first humor magazine ever to appear in China. Following this big success, Lin started two other magazines, This Human World in 1934 and Cosmic Wind in 1935, which also became popular.
In addition to editing these periodicals, Lin wrote a column for The China Critic Weekly, an English newsletter focusing on social and political issues. His column, entitled “The Little Critic”, caught the attention of Pearl Buck, a famous American Nobel Prize laureate in literature (1938), who had been brought up in China by missionary parents. In 1933, Buck told Lin that she had been longing for a Chinese-authored book in English about China and persuaded him to be the author.My Country and My People came out in America in 1935 and immediately catapulted to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. This book earned Lin Yutang instant international fame and enormous popularity. His impressive debut on the literary stage of the world was in some sense also China’s first appearance in the consciousness of the modern global community. This masterpiece was followed by many others, including the Importance of Living (1937), Wisdom of Confucius(1938), Moment in Peking (1938), Between Tears and Laughter (1943), and From Pagan to Christian(1959).
Despite accumulating reputation and wealth more than ever before, Lin felt very lonely and upset, for the struggle among men of letters in Shanghai, which was political more than literary, became increasingly fierce and complicated. After Pearl Buck and her husband, Richard J. Walsh, urged Lin several times to move to America, the Lins emigrated there in 1936, and remained there for thirty years, except for some short visits overseas.
In 1937 the Sino-Japanese War broke out. Lin was well aware that his battlefield was in the mass media and his weapon was his pen. He published numerous articles and interviews in various journals, including The New Republic, The Atlantic, The American, The Nation, and Asia. He spoke up for China, pleading for the West to adopt a righteous official stance and calling for international aid for the Chinese people’s struggle. He also devoted himself to the work of United China Relief, while his wife labored for the Chinese Women’s Relief Association.
Lin kept in close contact with Song Meiling, who, as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, was the First Lady of China and a Christian who had also been educated in America, and they wrote to each other regularly. In November of 1942 Mme. Chiang paid a visit to America at the invitation of the White House. Her visit greatly impressed the American public and won much support for China, as Lin had expected. After the war, the Nationalist government awarded Lin the “Order of Victory of Resistance against Aggression” to acknowledge all his contributions during wartime.
In 1959 he declared his return to Christianity, surprising a lot of people. Lin had concluded that people could not survive without religion. “Man needs contact with a Power outside himself that is greater than himself. I believe that Christianity, because of what Christ revealed, offers man incomparably the best way to God.” Lin had experienced a spiritual odyssey encountering different philosophies and religions. In From Pagan to Christian he wrote,
I have dwelt in the mansion of Confucian humanism, and climbed the peaks of Mount Tao and beheld its glories, and have had glimpses of the dissolving mist of Buddhism hanging over a terrifying void, and only after doing so have I ascended the Jungfrau of Christian belief and reached the world of sunlight above the clouds.
Lin’s wife Liao Cuifeng, a devout Christian woman, played a crucial part in his return to faith. “I admired and secretly envied the true spirit of piety in her, the essence of which I believe is humility.” One Sunday in 1958, his wife asked him to accompany her to the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. For the first time he heard Dr. David Read’s preaching. The sermon that morning about eternal life left Lin deeply touched and impressed. After half a year’s attendance, Dr. Lin joined the church officially. Thus Lin ended his wandering in pagan territory for over thirty years and came back to the home of God.
In 1966, Lin left America to live in Taiwan, settling in a beautiful villa on Yangming Mountain that he designed himself. He resumed writing essays in Chinese after thirty years of writing only in English. He composed the Anglo-Chinese Dictionary of Current Usage in five years. To Lin’s joy, many people in Taiwan were from Fujian province, making him feel closer to home than anytime since childhood. Lin’s health suddenly deteriorated, however, due to a family crisis in 1971. The eldest daughter, Lin Rusi, had been battling with very severe depression after a tragic relationship, and committed suicide. Lin had a stroke and began to suffer from high blood pressure.
In Lin’s final years, he, his wife, and his relatives had evening prayers together everyday. Before he passed away in Hong Kong on March 26, 1976, he requested a Christian funeral. The service was held on March 29 at Grace Baptist Church in Taipei.
[Editor’s note: According to He Jianming, who quotes writings from Lin Yutang and from his family, Lin “did not return to church and did not accept a denominational theology. However, this did not mean that he lacked a pious faith in God.” Lin wrote, “I believed in God, but I cannot join any church.” Furthermore, he “never persuaded gentiles to turn towards the Lord Jesus.” He remained a great admirer of Daoism, considering many of the teachings of the Daodejing as quite similar to those of Jesus.]
- Jianming HE, “Dialogue between Christianity and Taosim,” in Christianity and Chinese Culture, edited by Mikka Ruokanen and Paulos Huang, pages 138-143.
- Rain YANG Liu, “Lin Yutang: Astride the Cultures of East and West,” in Carol Hamrin and Stacey Bieler, eds, Salt and Light: More Lives of Faith That Shaped Modern China (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 158-175.