My attempt to educate myself in Chinese culture via its literature is proceeding very slowly indeed. The next one on the pile, ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, is bigger than ‘War & Peace’ and probably nowhere near as readable. All the same, I’ll be giving it a go later this year.
In the meantime, V bought me “My Country and My People” by Lin Yutang, which I’ve spent the last month reading. Lin is one of the most famous Chinese writers and intellectuals of the 20th century, and it’s a bit of a disgrace that I hadn’t heard of him before. Aside from writing over 50 books in Chinese and English, editing the first modern English-Chinese dictionary, and translating many classics, he also found time to invent the Chinese typewriter. In 1935 he moved to the USA, and published this book;
The idea was to educate westerners about China and its culture at a time when the country was in the midst of a half century of civil wars. Much has changed about China since then – the utter destruction of traditional culture during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of the 60s and 70s for example – but the book is still, amazingly, relevant and readable more than 75 years after it was written. Actually, that could be the biggest single thing to take away from it – that many phenomena I was previously attributing to the communist party are centuries, if not millennia old.
The first five chapters -“The Chinese People” “The Chinese Character” and “The Chinese Mind” – are very comprehensive, to the extent that the remaining six chapters don’t seem entirely necessary. Lin’s explanation are in-depth without ever becoming tedious. He doesn’t even get bogged down in blaming everything on Confucianism, though there is a bit of that. He’s fairly judgemental, but even-handed with it. 75 years ago was long before the advent of modern cultural studies, and it scarcely seems possible now that anyone could write a book like this without reference to other contemporary works. Would we call this sort of thing bravery or arrogance these days? Attempting to summarise however many thousand years in a medium-sized like this surely isn’t a project any rational person would take on. And yet, it’s just one year’s work.
Not everything has aged well. His advice to women is basically that they will be more satisfied at home, rather than at work, and he also thinks their art to be inferior (ironic as his three daughters all became professional writers too.) It would be easy to write this off as being ‘of its era’, but we were well into the era of universal suffrage by the 1930s, and there’s not really any excuse. It’s a minor point, though, a few sentences in a smaller chapter, and it wouldn’t be fair to castigate him for it. The end of the book is also weaker than the start, with a good third of the book taken up by descriptions of the themes, techniques and philosophy of Chinese painting, music and literature. As a non-expert (and, to be brutally honest, not a huge fan) these chapters dragged.
Nothing’s perfect in this world, and Lin could do with a little editing. All the same, I was very taken by this book. In particular it’s been of great use to me in understanding my adopted home, and will be a crucial source for a writing / applied linguistics project I have planned later this year.