Leacock and Lin - Chinese Humour - Taipei 2017


“If we could only learn to live our life
 in harmony with the rhythm of nature.
But we will not. We want to run forever in the scorching sun.”  

Lin Yutang


Knowing that I like to study the resident sense of humour when travelling, my friend Jane Tsai said “definitely Lin Yu-tang would be the Chinese author that you are looking for” after I told her I would be going to Taipei in the fall of 2017.

“When I was growing up, he was the revered master of humour in China and Taiwan,” she said. “You should have fun exploring his work.”

Jane pointed me to two of Lin’s books: My Country My People, an attempt to address some myths “Westerners” had about the Chinese, and The Importance of Living, a book that promoted the inherent rationality of human beings. Lin wrote both in the mid-1930s as those humans swirled toward the brutal irrationality of war.

In his books, Dr. Lin tried to build a porthole to Oriental mentality and, particularly, the thinkers of the past. Though a scholar with graduate degrees from Leipzig and Harvard, Lin eschewed the label of philosopher and presented himself instead as a humble purveyor of the thoughts of Confucius, Buddha, and others. 

“I often study the joys and regrets of the ancient people,” he said. “As I lean over their writings … (I) see that they were moved exactly as ourselves.”

Lin tells his readers that respect for the learnings and wisdom of the past is a feature of daily Chinese life.  This shows in the “the premium generally placed upon old age in China” where “it is a privilege of the old people to talk, while the young must listen and hold their tongue.”

Always wrapped in an amiable case for tolerance and open-mindedness, Lin’s books pull up many ideas from the past that sparkle with a thoughtful kind of optimism and can still charm today.

“The mature Chinese is always a person who refuses to think too hard or to believe in any single idea or faith or school of philosophy whole-heartedly,” he writes. “Only an insane type of mind can erect the state into a god and make of it a fetish to swallow up the individual’s right of thinking, feeling and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the early 21st century, we might find solace in his suggestion that when a small man “casts a long shadow,” it means the sun is about to set on him and in his hope that as machines assume a bigger role in our world, we will be edging “nearer to the age of leisure, and man will be compelled to play more.”

Lin also spends a lot of time thinking about the craft of writing, and perhaps because he sought to speak to one culture from a footing in another and to give voice to ancient times today, he stressed the need to keep the perceptions of the audience in mind. He reminds us that writing and reading are acts “consisting of two sides, the author and the reader.”

But as the “scorching sun” comment above suggests, the Professor couples his lessons on writing and scholarly research with a case for finding time to just take it easy, to slow down, to live “in harmony with the rhythm of nature,” and to contemplate life with a smile.  He argued that to achieve brilliance, we need, like good wine, to sit still, let time pass, and mellow.  It occurred to me that this slowing down and taking life in a light-hearted way advice might also be useful in any quest to be a clear thinker and humorous writer.


Amused and intrigued, I wanted to know more and searched for other quotes and biographical material.  I learned that though Lin was born on the Mainland (1865) and died in Hong Kong (1976), he spent the last ten years of his life in Taiwan.  He designed and built a house on the slopes of Yangminshan mountain just north of Taipei, and his body  lies entombed in the garden behind the home. Now known as “Lin Yu-tang House,” it serves as a library, museum, and education centre open to the public.

If my trip to Taipei had not been short, work-related, and laden with meetings, I would have made plans to visit Lin Yu-tang House from the outset. 

But when I arrived in Taipei, I learned that a visit to the House would mean walking several miles up winding roads from the closest subway stop. 

I couldn’t see how a visit to the place could fit into my tight four-day schedule and tried to push the idea out of my mind.

But this grew harder and harder to do that evening as I read more and more of The Importance of Living and particularly when I came upon sections that spoke directly to my interests in the Chinese sense of humour, mused on the craft of humour writing, and, to my surprise  - talked about Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock.  Under the dark clouds of his times, Lin suggests in The Importance of Living that the world’s humorists might be the key to averting war and says that Leacock, in particular, should be called upon to ensure peace.

“Send for instance, five or six of the world’s best humorists to an international conference, and give them the plenipotentiary powers of autocrats,” Lin says. “and the world will be saved.”

He puts Stephen Leacock in the chair of this imagined peace conference explaining the Canadian humorist would win the world over with a general apology for the foibles common to all of humanity, “gently reminding us that in the matter of stupidity and sheer foolishness no nation can claim itself to be the superior of others.”

Lin admired Leacock and many other Western humorists.  In their writings, he saw the means of tying man’s dreams to the physical world saying while it is important to dream, it was equally important to retain the capacity to laugh at those dreams and integrate them with the realities of life.

Lin did not immediately see a parallel in Chinese literature and even undertook to create his own, original wording to translate the notion of Western humour for the Chinese.  Yet, when describing Chinese culture and its ideal human manifestation, he cites “the happy go lucky, carefree scamp,” and his views and insights on humour and humour writing draw on Chinese philosophy as much as the literature of the West.

In reading these references, I realized that the tangled lines and box-like symbols of Chinese writing make people laugh and feel not in literal meanings but rather in the memories and images that those sounds and words evoke.  Recognizing this, Lin notes that Chinese poets and scholars always gave themselves evocative names, like – Tu Fu (“The Guest of Rivers and Lakes”) and Su Tungp’o (“The Recluse of the Eastern Hillside”) and other names with original meanings like the “Carefree Man of a Misty Lake” and “The Old Man of the Haze-Girdled Tower.”  Single Chinese words can alone compel one envisage multifaceted acts like walking out into a courtyard after a full meal, staring at the sky, and waiting for the moon to rise.  Other words can evoke nuanced images such as a man travelling the world in his imagination while lying in bed.

Knowing that the ancient Chinese poets had access to tools like these, it becomes easier to understand how their work became so powerful and enduring.

I learned as I read and loved the thinking, the style, and soft wisdom of Lin’s books.  I had to find a way to slip out of my meetings for a few hours and make a quick visit to Lin Yutang House.  With the help of a volunteer translator and a fist of New Taiwanese dollars, I arranged with a cab driver to take me up the mountain on the understanding that he would wait while I made a heated tour of the property and home.

As our cab moved through Taipei, it became clear that neither the driver nor the ambient traffic recognized the need to make this a quick trip. Clogged streets in a big Asian city shouldn’t shock, but light rain and slippery streets slowed everyone a bit on this day, and my driver kept pulling over in the midst of traffic, chatting in Mandarin and pointing out the sites.  I grinned, nodded, and gently waved to keep going.  When he stopped on an overpass and tried to get me to photograph the National Palace Museum, I grew a bit tense, glared, and shook my head.

As we moved on and climbed the mountainside, rounded the wet curves, and looked out on the city, I tried to forget my schedule and relax.  Giant, colorful flowers filled the cab, maybe there to offset smoke in the front and the sweaty tourists in the back, and I pointed my nose toward the pleasant part of the air and thought about Lin Yutang’s counsel.

Spotting his house as we approached, I pulled out my phone, checked my watch, and plotted my hasty tour of the site.  On this drizzly weekday afternoon in October, only a few others were at the site and it took a while to find someone who could sell me a ticket.

Coming back to the counter, I noticed that my cab had disappeared and wondered exactly what the helpful Chinese speaker back in Taipei had actually said to the driver.  Not sure when he would return and not wanting to run up the fare, I checked out the house as quickly as I could.  The exhibitions do not consume a lot of floorspace.  Arguably, the best part - Dr. Lin’s study - lies immediately to the right of the entrance.  With crammed bookshelves, an old desk and padded chairs, it certainly feels like a philosopher’s thinking chamber.  The other rooms hold furniture and photos, paintings and sculptures, clothing and personal items. I took pictures with my phone, finished my tour in about fifteen minutes, and again looked out front hoping to see my taxi and wondering if the staff could call another. 

The cab driver didn’t come back for another hour.  During this time, I kept going around the house again and again.  I made three tours of the rooms, checked out the café, and circled the exterior twice. Slowing down a bit more each time, I always noticed something I had missed before, and each time appreciating the experience and Lin Yutang a little more.

In his den, I noted the eclectic collection of books, most in Chinese, which I assumed were poetry or philosophy for no other reason than their aged appearance. The books in English were a mix of popular novels, history, and academic works.  I recognized manuscripts of Lin Yutang’s Chinese-English Dictionary, and this seemed to exemplify his role as a bridge between two worlds. 

In the other rooms, I realized that the paintings and calligraphy were actually works done by Lin himself, and when I saw the photos of his wife, I could feel the affection and warmth of life in this home. The glass cases that at first seem an odd, haphazard assortment actually spoke in a thematic way to that blend of thinking, doing, smiling, and relaxing expressed in his books. The variety of pipes, for example, reminded me of Lin’s funny essay on smoking and his tribute to its capacity to relax and induce reflection.

I knew that Dr. Lin had invented, built and sold a Chinese typewriter, the first workable model some suggest, and I had noticed drawings of the device when I first made my tour of the House.  The second time I paused in front of the display and absorbed that this was only one of a number of inventions and that Lin was not merely a tinkerer who built a particular tool for his own trade, but had a creative mind that dipped into many arena.

“Today human progress still consists very largely in chasing after some form or other of lice that is bothering human society,” he said in speaking generally of the process of invention.

I had checked out the courtyard with its waterfall when I first arrived, but now I noticed how it affected the entire home and how most rooms felt its calming influence. It reminded me of the home’s purposeful design as an integrated feature of the natural world.  Built in layers, it starts with the park-like mountainside property rim, followed by the outer walls around the gardens, then the main structure and its rooms, and finally the courtyard in the middle.

“This is the house, in which there is a garden, in which there is a home, in which there are trees, above which is the sky, in which is the moon,” as the Lin Yutang House publicity states.

 As I strolled around outside, I noticed the tangle of tree roots and the random rock piles that seemed to flow around the building and embrace it.  The property slopes down at the back, and the author’s tomb sits in the gardens below the rear balcony.  It gleams and stands out as a shiny badge in the midst of the green and reminds you that there is something special here even though the rest of the home feels humble, natural, and otherwise unadorned.  

Standing at Lin’s grave for the second time, instead of looking down, I turned to a break in the leafy trees that framed a view of the valley, and immediately, I thought of Lin’s claim that the poorest man on a mountainside lived a richer life than the wealthiest one in the city.  I knew he must have looked at this view when he formed those thoughts.

Coming back to the entrance, I saw my smiling cab driver waiting by the entrance.  I went over to him and signaled that I wanted a little more time.  Inside once again, I peered into the only room I had not explored, initially thinking it was an administrative office.  The narrow hall actually holds a reading room, space for lectures and research, and a modest bookstore. I bought a few copies of My Country My People and The Importance of Living as gifts for people I like, and the young guy who sold them to me offered to take my photo outside the house.

He told me to stand in the sun for better light.  I did, but it didn’t feel quite right.
Heading back to town and the blazing sun of meetings and work, I resolved to seek out the shade once in a while, slow down a bit, and align a little with the rhythm of nature, smile, and laugh more. 

“For if this earthly existence is all we have, we must try the harder to enjoy it,” said Lin, a man who often waffled on the subject of religion and blind adherence to beliefs.

Out the cab window rainwater bubbled in streams along the roadside, and I thought about Lin’s ode to “Three laughs at the Tiger Brook,” a story represented by a famous painting in Taipei’s National Palace Museum. The painting shows three religious leaders laughing with the realization they had just passed into tiger territory engrossed in conversation. Their unity in humour and the story came to represent the ideal of harmony among Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in ancient China and is an enduring symbol of the potential for peaceful co-existence and life in harmony with nature. 


This time as we went onto the highway overpass by the National Museum, I asked the driver to slow down and pull over so I could take a photo.