An unquantifiable transition, Lin Yutang’s coming to the US meant huge changes in the West’s perception of the East. Making numerous texts available in English for the first time, he introduced the average Westerner to a variety of aspects of the Middle Kingdom. My Country My People, The Importance of Living, The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su T’ungpo, The Wisdom of Laotse, The Wisdom of Confucius and many other books made him perhaps the greatest Chinese cultural ambassador to the West in the 20th century. Having published The Wisdom of China in 1942 as an overview of Chinese philosophy, in 1960 Lin set out to introduce Westerners to the literary and artistic mindset of China. The Importance of Understanding is the result.
Despite the difference in content, The Importance of Understanding is written in the same format as The Wisdom of China. Divided along thematic lines, the wealth of Chinese literature and culture is presented through a variety of selections. Writings of Li Bai (Li Bo), Zhuangzi, Yuang Chunglang, Wang Shichi, and several others fill the first section called “Human Life”. “Life and Death” contains writings by Shenfu, Cao Xueqin (of Dream of Red Mansions fame), Pan Ku, Tao Yuanming (perhaps China’s greatest poet), and others. I could continue listing names, but this review would become too long, so I will limit myself to the section headings: “The Seasons”, “Nature”, “Human Adjustments”, “Women”, “The Home and Daily Living”, “Art”, “Literature”, “After Tea and Wine”, “Ancient Wit”, “Fools to this World”, “Wisdom”, “Zen”, and “Epigrams and Proverbs”. At 450 pages, the book is bursting with the writings from the famous to not-so-famous minds of China to date.
Lin wielding the English language in a fashion the overwhelming majority of native speakers cannot, reading his translations and introductions is as enjoyable as it is insightful. Having an insider’s view most Westerners do not, Lin’s background knowledge, not to mention formal education on the subject, are simply unequaled for delivering material of this quality. Certainly a large number of Chinese scholars have emerged in the West in passing decades, but Lin was the lone voice, the one who had a natural touch with the English language, and certainly was one of the people most responsible for bringing Chinese culture to light in the Western eye and giving these latter day scholars an opportunity. Simply put, the book reads as strong today as it did when it was published.
In the end, The Importance of Understanding is a huge sampler of Chinese thought. Covering thousands of years of history and variety of literary forms, it would be impossible not to finish the book without a better understanding of Chinese culture. Poetry, literature, proverbs, and snippets of philosophy from a number of better and lesser known historical personages comprise the content. Thus, readers looking for in depth details and analysis of individual Chinese poets or philosophies should look elsewhere—including Lin’s own oeuvre. This collection is a light-hearted smorgasbord that is to be read at leisure, not for study. Given the obscure nature of much of the content, however, certainly something new and fresh can be found for the reader already familiar with Chinese culture and its major writings, making this collection a must have for those interested in the country’s literature and culture in general.