Tag Archives: Lin Yutang

Book: Choose Life

Choose Life

A vision of utopia shared by East and West
375 pages, ★★★★★

This book entered my reading list via a DVD called Let Harmony Redeem (和谐拯救危机). The DVD is a dialogue between Buddhist monk Ven. Master Chin Kung and renowned Buddhist Dahui Chen. This approximately 12-hour dialogue has had massive influence in Asian countries and in overseas Asian communities by revitalising traditional Chinese culture.

The DVD was modelled on a book called Choose Life. Choose Life is a dialogue between Daisaku Ikeda and the renowned British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. Their conversations cover all aspects of life and culture and are organised by theme. Like the DVD, Let Harmony Redeem, the authors reach a consensus on all the topics despite their very different cultural perspectives. The result is calming and utopian.

Topics in Choose Life range from subconscious thought process to the social role of literature; from our animal instincts to the ideal property market. Most interesting was the dialogue on the purpose of a school education. The authors agreed that the primary aim of education should be to teach children how to live, and practical benefit should be relegated to just a secondary aim. I agree completely.

Choose Life reminds me of The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang (reviewed here). These two books describe a meaningful life at large and small scales.

I recommend Choose Life particularly for non-Asians who want to explore East Asian culture in more depth (like me!) ★★★★★

Book: Hocus Pocus (Kurt Vonnegut)

Shallow Rants of a Witty Eccentric. Read 林语堂 Instead.
268 pages, ★★

I loved The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang; and Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut is it’s darker-yet-shallower (Western) sibling. These books belong together in the non-existent genre of Rambles & RantsThe Importance of Living is a rather pleasant (countryside) ramble, whereas Hocus Pocus is more of a rant.

The Editor’s Note warns us that Hocus Pocus is a collection of scribblings that the author had little intention of creating into a book. Parts of this book were even compiled from Vonnegut’s doodles on the backs of envelopes and business cards. Some of the thousands of scraps of paper that comprise the original book contain just one word each. This book is a mess, and it’s post-modernist proud of it.

Hocus Pocus is darker and less balanced than The Importance of Living. I even found Vonnegut stressful to read: he writes Hocus Pocus with moderate pessimism, and his eccentricity too often comes across as sarcasm, draining the reader. For such a scatty book, he puts too much emphasis on the Vietnam War (consider that he could have mused about anything he wanted in this post-modernist, or, “freestyle” book, but instead dwelled on negativity—and in doing so, taught us nothing). I much loved reading Lin Yutang, on the other hand, who writes with optimism, logic and beautiful balance that makes his books a great pleasure to read. See my review here. I feel that all the strong points of The Importance of Living were attempted—and failed—in Hocus Pocus.

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Vonnegut so I should probably give him more time. This is the first Vonnegut book that I’ve read. For the moment, I can only give this two stars. ★★

Book: The Importance of Living

Practical Handbook for Life. Soul Food.
471 pages, ★★★★★

The Importance of Living should be read at leisure with 耐泡 tea (any tea that rebrews well), a large pad and pens, with nothing to do and nowhere to go for two days. Get very comfortable. Put everything you need within reach.

For tea, I recommend a very fragrant, full-bodied black tea (红茶) with a strong, sour, fruity after-sweetness (回甘) such as Jinjumei (金骏眉); because it pleases your tongue, body and soul in a manner that builds after being sipped. Or try the redder, high-Qi (气) end of the Oolong spectrum, such as Big Red Robe (大红袍), which is designed to be inhaled rather than drunk. Both teas would work equally well. Reading this, coupled with the tea, feels like being hugged.

Then curl up with this book, a heavy blanket and a large, ring-bound notepad. Sip this book like you would chicken soup or a hot lemon drink when you’re ill. You’re not ill, but you’ll feel as cured and rejuvenated in two days’ time as if you were. It’s a great excuse to stay home.

However, that soup gets filling. Take breaks every so often to make sure you’re taking everything in (by “filling”, I mean that it’s full of beautiful, palatable, digestible answers and doesn’t ask the reader many questions).

The Importance of Living is a detailed and healthy definition of a good life well-lived. It’s laced with Chinese history, culture and language (with explanatory footnotes) and written with childlike amazement at every simple aspect of life. It’s a childlike re-analysis of everything you do. He philosophises about:

  • how tall your chair should be
  • how to drink tea
  • how to categorise national stereotypes
  • with whom to smoke tobacco
  • why not to care too much about money
  • the ideal school curriculum
  • and hundreds of other life-tips

It makes a delightful and reassuring read. His thoughts are peppered with supporting quotes from ancient Chinese scholars such as Mencius and Confucius, and the book’s both beautifully-written and logically-structured. On the first read, I recommend making detailed notes. See these two mind maps on my wonderfully red bed below.

Then try to familiarise yourself with The Importance of Living as you would a Bible, a reference manual or a handbook. Familiarise yourself with the book’s layout so you can look up answers to life’s questions later.

Each reader will find musings in this book relevant to his or her own life. So I was delighted to read that Confucius had described exactly how I feel about my work as an educator in Beijing:

“Confucius seemed to have felt that scholarship without thinking was more dangerous than thinking unbacked by scholarship” — Lin Yutang 林语堂

“Thinking without learning makes one flighty, but learning without thinking is a disaster” — Confucius

Lin Yutang then talks almost prophetically about the state of Chinese education today when he asks:

“Why are there school marks and diplomas, and how did it come about that the mark and the diploma have, in the student’s mind, come to take the place of the true aim of education?” — Lin Yutang 林语堂

I blogged about “following passions” and “eliminating credentialism” some time ago, so this passage on page 390 particularly moved me. Read the middle paragraph in the picture below (starting with “Confucius”). It’s exactly what I’ve been saying on WordPress…

The book is full of gems like this, but you’ll have to read it and find your own. Give this book unrestricted access to your brain. This book requires that you reflect on every minute aspect of your daily life. In terms of living books (and not just reading them), The Importance of Living would make an ideal sequel to Fight Club because it builds a highly-refined life from scratch, like a beautifully-written, logically-structured instruction manual.

This book is what the terrible Instant Turnaround could have been if it were written by a refined, cultured, spiritual (and Chinese) author; and not by a bored Western office-worker with all the imagination drained out of his corporate monkey-skull. Everyone should put aside their moneymaking trivialities for two days and read this book on the couch. ★★★★★