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 well-known, 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 are: Mrs. Huang, an amah in my family who has all the ideas that go into the breeding of a good woman in China; a Soochow 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?
— Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
If Montaigne had been a Chinese man writing in 1937, he might have been Lin Yutang. If nothing else, a time-traveling Montaigne would have surely found many enjoyable conversations to be had with Lin. Like his French predecessor, Lin presents his humble credentials without embarrassment and proceeds to consider, examine, and pontificate on any topic that catches his wondering eyes.
Immediately following this preface, by page five he’s already musing over the possibility of classifying national types according to an admittedly pseudo-scientific, quasi-chemical formula “by which the mechanism of human progress and historical change can be expressed.” R stands for a sense of reality (realism); D for dreams (idealism); H for humor; and S for sensitivity, with 4 being the highest quantity and 1 being the lowest. Therefore, “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.” After averring that this is, of course, all provocative rather than authoritative and open to revisions, he proceeds to apply the same chemical classification to writers and poets, from Shakespeare to Li Po. (Shakespeare only needs one more grain of humor to be all fours.) Already, I suspect his claims of unoriginality are a bit overstated.
Again, like his spiritual kinsman, he unabashedly writes from a first-person perspective; the idea of hiding behind some pretense of objectivity would never occur to him. These are his thoughts, stated plainly and firmly, and if you find one or another unappealing, don’t worry, there will be many others arriving presently. “I have no doubt that lyrical poetry would not have developed if our hairy human ancestors had had no lice on their bodies.” Or: “Germany lost the war because Wilhelm Hohenzollern did not know when to laugh, or what to laugh at. His dreams were not restrained by laughter.” Then there are the sections on the proper way to lie in bed (“upholstered with big soft pillows at an angle of thirty degrees with either one arm or both arms placed behind the back of one’s head”), or to sit in a chair (“I want to write about the philosophy of sitting in chairs because I have a reputation for lolling…I contend that I am not the only loller in this modern world and that my reputation has been greatly exaggerated.” Apparently the Communists especially hated him for his “most leisurely of all leisurely writers” reputation.) No subject is too prosaic for reflection and discussion, and it’s wonderful to see quotidian details being attended to in earnest, with no cynicism or irony.
Looking up the book on Goodreads before re-reading it, I saw a review from a woman complaining that she was going to have to bail on it before finishing because of his retrograde opinions on women. I was surprised, then, to first encounter numerous sympathetic references to the “subjection” of women (he blames bipedalism as the original sexist sin). Eventually, he does proclaim his view that women who don’t have children are incomplete and probably unhappy, that careers are no substitute for the engrossing work of motherhood. He also qualifies this by saying that he’s speaking of the average woman, and that if he asks her to raise the children and wash the dishes, he also asks the average man to forget about the arts and concentrate on being a breadwinner. All in all, it’s a pretty mild view for a Chinese man writing more than eighty years ago. I can’t imagine being upset over the discovery that Chinese men of 1937 weren’t intersectional feminists, or not being robust enough to be able to dismiss such an unimportant perspective in a spirit of charity. Imagine Lin (or Montaigne) being offended at encountering something in an old book contrary to their modern sensibilities. If anything, they would have been interested, if not delighted, by the surprising reminder of the true diversity to be found throughout world history.