"Literary Life" in China, part I: Notes from Lin Yutang's classic My Country and My People

In Lin Yutang's masterful tome on his native China, My Country and My People, originally published in 1935, he has a chapter devoted solely to China's "Literary Life".  The "Literary Life" chapter is then subdivided into eleven subsections, all of which, for my money, are long enough and densely packed enough with knowledge, history and analysis to be legitimate chapters in their own right.  Below are my notes, summaries, observations, ephemera & many excerpts from the first two subsections of "The Literary Life" chapter in My Country and My People. And know at the outset here that I am a neophyte on the subject of China's literary life, and am nevertheless attempting to read and write about a country and its people despite my woefully little knowledge on the subject. In other words, if you happen to encounter this post and are an expert on China and her Literary Life, please chime in with corrections if corrections here exist needing correction.  I won't be offended.

The copy I'm reading from is Halcyon House's 1938 translation, and not the copy pictured to the left.  My copy is missing its dust jacket (I'd normally have scanned my cover image in) and cover images of my edition of My Country and My People are available only with poor resolutions online, so I settled for the next best image I could find for the book, at left.  Lastly, before we dig in here, a very helpful resource in getting as much out of My Country and My People has been Lin YuTang's Dictionary, which was brought to my attention by my friend, the British expatriate extraordinaire, the best literary critic living in Taiwan if not the Far East, for that matter, tomcatMurr, author of The Lectern -- a man cat (or is it a cat man?) who knows China better than anybody I've ever known.... Who, in fact, probably knows China better than anyone.


Subsection I: A Distinction

"The Chinese make a distinction between literature that instructs and literature that pleases, or literature that is "the vehicle of truth" and literature that is "the expression of emotion".

Expository, so-called "objective" literature -- or "the literature of ideas"* -- literature that teaches a moral platitude, or somehow improves the people's minds, even though such literature be trite and/or naive is venerated in China; while "literature of the imagination" is considered second rate.  Except in the case of Poetry.

Keep in mind this black v. white distinction, the glorification of banality & the denigration of anything fictional is generally a person's public stance in China; privately? ... Look out!  The Chinese apparently, in private, love these "little arts** ... unworthy" of "the Hall of Great Literature".  Consider, too, that this over-veneration of redundant, passed-down-for-the-past 2,500 years "instructive literature," the writings that are believed (politically mandated?) to better society's minds & morals, are motivated purely by the Chinese person's fear of being called a heretic.  The fear of heresy hung over their heads like the sword of Damocles, and the fear of heresy could only mean the fear of originality.

Lin Yutang rightly believed (yes, I'm interjecting my own opinion here) that Literature of any worth must be lyrical.  He quotes Chin Shengt'an, 17th century Lit. critic, to further define his own cornerstone thought on the subject; on what makes great literature great literature, as opposed to just ordinary writing: "What is poetry but a voice of the heart? ... The ancient people {remember, this guy is saying "ancient people" from his 17th century vantage!} were not compelled to say anything, but they suddenly said something purely of their own accord.  They spoke sometimes of events, and sometimes of their own feelings, and having finished what they had to say, they took leave and departed."

Great Literature is Inspired Lyrical writing from the Heart, in other words.  For the Chinese, then, this consists mostly of Poetry.


Subsection II: Language and Thought

Until reading this book, I never got, among many other things, the full implications of the great divide existing between the spoken & written language of Chinese -- a divide literally between a people's language and thought -- and what that divide has resulted in for the history of China's people; namely, a history of poverty and oppression.  I also didn't get also just how alien the divide between China's spoken language and written language, between her language and thought, truly is to my Western sensibilities.  It's shocking to realize that this divide was probably exploited and even enhanced by China's scholars--at least up to 1935 it was -- keeping what I'm saying in Lin Yutang's historical context.

I took four pages of notes on this subsection and am still having a tough time wrapping my head around it enough to adequately summarize, so rather than skip the chapter altogether, let me quote the passages where I think Yutang most cogently interweaves these increasingly complex concepts ("pictorial principle" vs.  "phonetic principle," for instance) together.

"...the peculiarities of Chinese thought and literature are due simply to their possession of a so-called monosyllabic language.  The fact that the Chinese spoke in syllables like ching, chong, chang was appalling in consequences.  This monosyllabism determined the character of the Chinese writing, and the character of the Chinese writing brought about the continuity of the literary heritage and therefore even influenced the conservatism of Chinese thought.  It was further responsible for the development of a literary language quite distinct from the spoken language."

And now here's the real negative consequent historical and cultural kicker:

"This, in turn, made learning difficult and necessarily the privilege of a limited class.  The limitation of literacy..."

And now, here, (if you'll pardon my abruptly cutting off Yutang), he proceeds to blow my mind in matter-of-factly stating how something that's so basic, so pervasive, so intrinsic, so taken for granted in our Western eyes -- that is, in our thoughts & their respective representative words or symbols attached directly to them, and in the language connected to them, giving form & communicability (meaning!) to them -- being absent in Chinese thought processes, has "changed the whole organization of Chinese society and ... culture, and one sometimes wonders whether the Chinese people as a whole would be so docile and so respectful to their superiors had they spoken an inflectional language and consequently used an alphabetic language."

Now, consider the Philip K. Dick-type of novelistic opportunities, the dystopic fiction that could be written about a parallel-universe-China, had its language developed only slightly differently:

"I sometimes feel that, had the Chinese managed to retain a few more final or initial consonants in their language, not only would they have shaken the authority of Confucius to its foundations, but very possibly would have long ago torn down the political structure and, with the general spread of knowledge ... have forged ahead in other lines and given the world a few more inventions like printing ... which would have likewise affected the history of human civilization on this planet (boldness mine).

What Lin Yutang writes regarding Chinese homophones and the language's multiplicity of tones and absence of consonants and this and that and the other of chapter two, and what it all means interwoven together, I'm going to leave to the experts to parse.  Yet even though subsection II of "Literary Life" has clearly been a comprehending-stretch for me, just a tad outside my comfort zone.... Listen!  For regardless of that,  Lin Yutang could write and he's well worth the challenge.  The implications of this subsection just keep striking me how sad it is and how sad it has been for the Chinese -- the results of their vast language restrictions.... But then, on the flip side, at least one of the silver linings (though in no way am I suggesting that the silver lining is equal to or worth the consequence of constant poverty and oppression) is that the Chinese have made an art out of "mincing words" and the beauty of their terse, austere, exacting poetry (and by "exacting" I mean they are masters at choosing exactly the right word for their poetry), has been an important positive consequence and contribution to their culture and to Art, resulting directly out of that divide between their speech and written language.

* Curious that the Chinese conception of "the literature of ideas" -- that which essentially corresponds to little more than, as I've understood Yutang's take on it, cultural or political propaganda, immediately makes me, in my western view, associate the phrase with "the novel of ideas" -- an exact opposite meaning!

** Examples of the beloved "lowly arts" include Chinp'inmei (Gold-Vase-Plum), which, sounds like to me, would be the equivalent of China's Fifty Shades of Grey; and P'inhua Paochien, what Yutang termed "an equally pornographic homosexual novel".


Subsection III is more up my alley, dealing in the history of China's libraries and library statistics.  I'll try and get to that post soon....