Idle Idol – Lin Yutang
From Idler 13, January – February 1996
By Matt Ffytche
Lin Yutang was a Chinese philosopher of the early 20th century who became an apostle of loafing. Matt Ffytche has managed to unearth his rare writings for the comfort of you, the indolent reader.
It is perhaps the year 1927. Peking is in political turmoil, and at the University two professors have been shot. In the streets the crowds are surging like fields of sorghum on a particularly hassled day. A man in a dressing gown, smoking a pipe is standing contemplating a traditional rosewood chair in the privacy of his home. Carefully he bends down and begins to attack its legs with a saw.
It is a poignant scene. We may not know what inner turbulence lies beneath the outward composure of this man, but this small act of cultural vandalism speaks more acutely than any blustering dialogue with fate. In fact, the man is Dr Lin Yutang, and he is experimenting with a new theory of comfort: “Take any Chinese redwood furniture and saw off its legs a few inches, and it immediately becomes more comfortable; and if you saw off another few inches, then it becomes still more comfortable. The logical conclusion of this is, of course that one is most comfortable when one is lying perfectly flat on a bed.”
These words are taken from The Importance of Living, finally published in 1937 after years of extensive research. While China grappled its way onto the express train of modernity, shuttling on rails of idealism over the archaic Confucian sleepers, Lin was to be found disappearing behind the bike-sheds, arriving seemingly ahead of schedule in a utopia of one.
Born in 1895 in Changchow, Fukien province, Lin graduated from St John’s College, Shanghai, in 1916 and began a process of education that would take him to Harvard, Jena, and eventually back to a a professorship at Peking National University. It was a time when his country needed him, and leaving the university in 1926, he found a post the following year with the Hankow Revolutionary Government as secretary of the Foreign Ministry. However, after four months of deskwork he decided on a greater mission and prepared for a life of letters and conversation in his writer’s studio. After the manner of Chinese scholars, he gave his studio a name. It was the “Have-not-done studio”.
Throughout the Thirties he produced a stream of essays for little magazines. While Hankow colleagues wrangled over the importance of a united front between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party in the war against the imperialist enemy, Lin was tussling with “Do bed bugs exist in China?” and “How I Bought a Tooth-Brush”. Journalistic jetsam they may seem in hindsight, but they were laying the foundation for a major philosophical work. As he wrote of this period in his addled autobiography, Memoirs of an Octogenarian, “as an apostle of the philosophy of loafing, [Lin Yutang] claims he is the hardest working man in China outside President and Madame Chiang Kai-shek”.
Lin Yutang described his opus, The Importance of Living as an “idle philosophy born of an idle life”. At first glance it’s not in the same league as Wittgenstein or Sartre. Sentences such as, “I want to write about the philosophy of sitting in chairs because I have a reputation for lolling”, are especially lacking in rigour. But Lin’s intellectual battle was precisely waged over such questions of logic and rigour and their connotations of constraint and unhappiness. To sacrifice comfort and in the name of a higher authority was for him a moral failure – as he liked to remark, “Chinese Emperors had to sit on a throne on which I would not think of remaining for more than five minutes”.
According to Lin, Western thinking had become too rigid, compartmentalised and emptied of the sensual content of life. A completely rational society leads to the the rule of automation’s. For Lin, the essential qualities of humans included being curious, dreamy, humorous, and wayward. Education of the emotions and senses was more important than following rules. Instead, Lin favoured the model of the scamp – a person who could react freely and incalculably to external circumstances, pitting their individual liberty against the process of society. The little man eluding the clutches of the traffic warden.
Chinese literary tradition is rife with the jottings of non achievers – the cultured vagabond, the scholar recluse, the Taoist wanderer. Already in 500BC, the sage Lao Tzu recommended that one should “never be the first in the world”. The Chinese cult of the idle life sprang not from the wealthy class, but from the world of the poor and unsuccessful scholar. As Lin points out, disquisitions on the pitfalls of achievement sounded pleasing to those who had failed in the civil examinations. Thus in Chuang Tzu’s fables, “the illusive rewards of fame are pitched against the tremendous advantages of obscurity”.
Only he who is not wanted by the public can be a carefree individual, runs the Taoist adage. The Importance of Living is peopled with educated drop-outs – such as the scholar Ku Ch’ienli, known for his habit of reading Confucian classics naked in the summer; or Po Yuchien, whose inscription “The Hall of Idleness” begins: “I’m too lazy to read the Taoist classics… ” Their words mingle with philosophers, writers on courtly etiquette and flower arranging, and extracts from diaries with titles such as Reminiscences Under the Lamplight; or Six Chapters of a Floating Life.
Throughout Lin’s sources there is a unifying theme which is the spiritual understanding of the life of the body – its rhythms, enjoyments and limitations. According to Lin, the West had grossly misunderstood materialism, separating it from intellect and casting it into some primeval void. Western philosophy was no more than the mind’s chemical toilet.
In China, ideas never travelled far from their corporeal environs. One of Lin’s pet theories is that the Chinese failed to develop a zoology because “a Chinese scholar cannot stare at a fish without immediately thinking of how it tastes in the mouth”. History, for Lin, is the history of the gastric tract: “A well-filled stomach radiates a spiritual happiness”. Thus philosophical arguments in The Importance of Living culminate in observations about the way scallops are served in the West, or invocations to Lady Nicotine . The most significant inventions in the history of mankind are “not the wheel but smoking, drinking and tea”.
His main principle is that the freedom to enjoy life is the ultimate spiritual good. The question of happiness – “entirely neglected by Christian thinkers” – is not to be deferred in the name of abstract rewards. What reward could be greater than a life enjoyed as it is lived? Play without reason; travel to see nothing; a “perfectly useless afternoon spent in a perfectly useless manner” – these are the kind of activities that redeem the art of living from the business of living.
Lin was tormented by the perception that, “all nature loafs, while man alone works for a living”. He felt that, through technological advance, humanity had become ensnared in an increasingly complex world. “Civilisation is largely a matter of seeking food, while progress is that development which makes food more and more difficult to get.” The simple desire to lie back and paddle ones toes in some cool water was obstructed by “rows and rows of rooves, miles of them, stretching in ugly square outlines to the distance”. Modern individuals have made their homes in cubicles of discomfort. Their walls are adorned with medallions of disappointment and calendars of wasted time.
All in all, a happy life is one that doesn’t yearn for transcendence but finds spiritual satisfaction in sensual particulars. “My soul squirms comfortably in the soil and sand and is happy”. A lung-full of fresh air in the morning; resting one’s legs on a chair while smoking a pipe; the joys of conversation on a breezy moonlit night – it is moments such as these that give meaning to living. In the natural world, so wrote Lin, “the menu is particularly endless… and the only sensible thing to do is to go and partake of the feast”.
In many ways, Lin Yutang’s “Chinese Philosophy” was doomed in the very country it chose to extol. Everyone has the leisure to enjoy some sensual moments, but many of Lin’s perfect moments were embedded in a set of social conditions which, for much of Chinese society, included mass agrarian labour, concubinage and punishing regimes of work.
The more Lin waxed about the spiritual properties of lipstick and women in chiffon, or suggested that world war could be avoided by screening Mickey Mouse pictures to international leaders, the more opportune his words seemed. Although Lin felt he shared a platform with communists – “I am quite convinced that the aim of true communism and socialism is that all people should be able to enjoy leisure” – he was perhaps mistaken to interpret this as a call to down tools and open his lunch box. His reputation of being “the most leisurely of all leisurely writers in China” was bound to implicate him in the “hated leisure class intelligentsia”, perhaps even qualifying him for leadership. However it is the nature of the scamp to elude constraints, and leaving mainland China for a cosmopolitan life in Singapore, Europe and America, he continued to wear idleness on his flowing sleeves until his death in Hong Kong in 1976.
Lin’s final advice to idlers was that “no one can be perfect, he can only aim at being a likeable, reasonable being”. Instead of striving after after the unattainable, we should learn to round our ideas and tone down the angularity of our conduct”. American post-modernists such as Richard Rorty have much in common with Lin’s call for a “Spirit of Reasonableness”; however, they are perhaps not as aware as Lin was of the historical importance of idleness. Lin predicted that people would soon find themselves with more leisure time “thrust upon them by rapidly improving methods of production”, and that they would need a philosophy to cope with this enforced idleness. “I’m not so sure that a more lazy temperament will not arise as a result of this new environment”.
We can only surmise the consequences for the American dream had The Importance of Living become the bible of the postwar generation. But until the global triumph of the workshy ethic, Lin’s vision of a transformed Manhattan must remain an idler’s fantasy: “American gentlemen will float in skirts and slippers and amble on the sidewalks of Broadway with their hands in their pockets, if not with both hands stuck in their sleeves in the Chinese fashion… Fire engines will proceed at a snail’s pace, their staff stopping on the way to gaze at, and dispute over, the number of passing wild geese in the sky.”
The thoughts of Lin Yutang
On Lying in Bed: ‘I believe the best posture is not lying flat on the bed, but being upholstered with big soft pillows at an angle of 30 degrees with either one arm or both arms placed behind the back of ones head.’
On Culture: ‘Culture, as I understand it, is essentially a product of leisure. The art of culture is therefore essentially the art of loafing.’
On Happiness: ‘If one’s bowels move one is happy, and if they don’t move, one is unhappy.’
On Progress: ‘Tomato juice must be ranked as one of the greatest Western discoveries in the 20th century.’
On Chinese Clothing: ‘ Need anyone who in his native garb practically goes about the house and outside in his pyjamas and slippers give reasons why he does not like to be encased in a system of suffocating collars, vests, belts, braces and garters?’
On War: ‘What is the use of saying ‘Peace’, Peace’ when there is no peace below the diaphragm?’
On Nationalism: ‘Loyalty to the German Vaterland is the loyalty to Pfannkuchen and Christmas Stolen.’
On Spiritual Achievement: ‘How could imagination soar on the clipped wings of a drab, non-smoking soul?’
On Wisdom: ‘The wisest man is therefore he who loafs most gracefully.’